Archive for November, 2011

PopMatters Film Feature – Money, Sex, and Power: Contemporary Adaptations in John Guillermin’s King Kong

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Over the next week, PopMatters will be publishing my multi-part feature essay on the social, political, and cultural meanings of the three canonical King Kong films. Click on the title below to go to the article.

Money, Sex, and Power: Contemporary Adaptations in John Guillermin’s King Kong


Categories: Culture, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Four Lions

November 28, 2011 3 comments

Four Lions (2010; Directed by Chris Morris)

Omar and his friends want to be Islamic terrorists, but jihad, like pimping, ain’t easy. In between being bored by his jogging-enthusiast supervisor (Craig Parkinson) at an anonymous security job, raising his impressionable son, and being a good husband to his lovely wife (Preeya Kalidis), Omar (Riz Ahmed) must shepherd his four largely inept and error-prone fellow holy warriors towards a glorious, explosive martyrs’ end, preferably while taking the lives of as many kafir as possible in the process. In dramatizing their wacky (and occasionally heavy) misadventures, British film and TV provocateur Chris Morris suggests that ideological fanaticism and hilarious stupidity are far from incompatible, and indeed encourage and feed on one another.

Allahu Akbar!

Mostly set in an anodyne English suburb (evidently supposed to be in Sheffield, though it’s impossible to tell from the mix of regional accents), Four Lions approaches various issues surrounding the War on Terror with a highly British sense of unyielding satirical bravado. Indeed, the film brings the major laughs with such relentless consistency that it’s easy to miss how many very sensitive buttons it is pushing. The script, by Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, and Simon Blackwell and based on three years of exhaustive research, lampoons Islamic fundamentalism mercilessly, but it also takes the mercilessness of the ideology of suicide bombers quite seriously. These guys are idiots, but they’re motivated idiots. Idiots who kill.

But my oh my, are they idiots. There’s Waj (Kavyan Novak), Omar’s endearingly dim buddy, who thinks chickens are rabbits (Omar: “Where are their ears, then?” Waj: “That’s what I’m saying!”), suggests blowing up the Internet, and unwisely films all of their exploits on his mobile phone. He has a child’s credulity when it comes to jihadism (he characterizes the martyr’s fast track to paradise as “rubber dinghy rapids”, a phrase referencing a theme park ride which confuses the heck out of the police hostage negotiator), and Omar begins to feel that he is leading his easily-confused friend down a road he hasn’t intended to choose.

There’s also Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a developmentally-delayed man-child who buys dozens of bottles of bomb-making bleach from the same pharmacy (disguising only his voice, and poorly at that), envisions strapping explosives to crows and flying them into sex shops, and has an unfortunate run-in with a bag of combustible material, a stone meadow fence, and a sheep. There’s Hassan (Arsher Ali), a lanky Media Studies drop-out who ends up on the radar of the terror cell with an attention-grabbing stunt involving a fake suicide bomb filled with Silly String at a panel discussion, and who raps his anti-Western fatwas for their omnipresent video camera.

Finally, there’s Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blustering and belligerent white Briton convert (his Muslim name is Azzam Al-Britani) who suspects spies and undercover agents everywhere and takes to swallowing cell phone SIM cards to hide his transgressive activities from the ever-present technological surveillance of the state (that the supposedly all-seeing tracking satellites would still be able to follow it in his belly seems not to have occurred to him).  Barry’s evident ultra-conservative politics find an incendiary outlet in the fanatical siege mentality of jihadism, and his ludicrous plot to bomb a mosque in order to spark an Islamic counter-revolution suggests that those politics were once (and perhaps are still) essentially Islamophobic and anti-Semitic in nature.

Not that Omar himself is any sort of logistical mastermind, though compared to his bumbling comrades he’s practically Khalid Sheikk Mohammed. He communicates with his co-conspirators on a cutesy social networking site called Puffin Party (“His puffin won’t talk to my puffin,” he laments after an intra-cell tiff sunders the group for a time) and, while at a remote training camp in Pakistan, he points an anti-aircraft bazooka the wrong way when trying to take down a drone and accidentally blows up a meeting of al-Qaeda grandees. He also seems oddly nonplussed about abandoning his devoted wife and young child for the martyr’s paradise, even justifying his mistake in Pakistan to his boy via a convoluted but sweet-natured retelling of The Lion King in which Simba accidentally kills Mufasa and must lie about it in order to take down the villainous Scar.

This moment (invoking lions like the title, itself a reference to the heraldic emblem of England) cuts to the heart of the fundamentalist mindset: the elemental moral cause of vanquishing perceived evils is what matters most, and any dissembling or fabricating or violent conduct involved in achieving that goal is justified by the righteousness of the cause. This same general concept is summarized beautifully by Barry: “You can’t win an argument just by being right.” Morris’ response to the reckless, ignorant hate of this kind of fundamentalism is to mock it, and it’s hard to argue that it’s an unfair response.

This is not to say that Morris’ satire is focused like a tracer merely on the target of lunkheaded jihadism. Omar’s supercilious brother, a conservative, non-violent Muslim who attends a Qu’ran prayer group with others from his mosque while their hijab-ed wives drink tea in a closet, provides a mild reproach to the adherents of the faith whose means are more moderate and pacifist but still cling to outdated, draconian practices and gender roles.

A much larger target for the film’s satirical ire is the law enforcement and national security state apparatus that is responding to the threat of Islamist terror with all the indiscriminate blunt force one can expect from a massive military-bureaucratic institution. The vast shadowy government forces that Barry suspects to be so omniscient are only slightly less inept than Omar and his band of Keystone Cop-style terrorists. As Omar’s cell finalizes the plan for its parting blaze of glory (during the London Marathon, dressed in big fuzzy costumes), the police are wholly oblivious, mistakenly raiding his brother’s prayer meeting instead.

This error is small potatoes compared to the authorities’ handling of the Marathon plot. Rooftop snipers are ordered to bring down a perp in a bear suit, but take out a runner in a Chewbacca costume instead, leading to a side-splitting self-justifying exchange between the two snipers and command (“Is a Wookie a bear, Control?”). Waj’s impromptu hostage-taking in a kebab shop is also bungled badly, first by the aforementioned hostage negotiator (you know you’re watching a great film when such a small cameo role is filled by someone as awesome as Benedict Cumberbatch), who tries unsuccessfully to establish a rapport with Waj by going on about how he bets that he’s “a massive arse man”, and then by the SWAT team, who shoot the Arabic kebab cook hostage instead of Waj.

With all this in mind, it’s clear that the message of Four Lions, or one of its main messages anyway, is that human frailty (under which stupidity is very much included) is more of a constant than unswerving self-control, and that ideological rigidity proceeds much more commonly from the former than from the latter. The film also suggests that jihadism is as prone to hypocrisy and pretention as any other ideological subculture. The “lions”, with their laptops, mobiles, singalongs to “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and myriad other engagements with democratic capitalism, are much more prone to extremist violence than the more devout and backwards-looking Muslims that we meet. And, finally, it’s a film with the courage of its own convictions. Comedy or not (and it definitely is a comedy, and a historically funny one at that), there are no happy endings here. Omar wants to be remembered with a smile on his face, and so does Four Lions. But what really makes them memorable is something much more explosive than a simple smile.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Film Feature – From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Over the next week, PopMatters will be publishing my multi-part feature essay on the social, political, and cultural meanings of the three canonical King Kong films. Click on the title below to go to the article.

From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong


Categories: Culture, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Watchmen

November 25, 2011 5 comments

Watchmen (2009; Directed by Zach Snyder)


First things first: this is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, not Alan Moore’s. Bear this firmly in mind before continuing. As tightly as Snyder skews to the seminal comic by Moore and Dave Gibbons (and he often skews very tightly), this is the work of a cinematic artist with a vision all his own. And it is Snyder’s own personal vision, his deviations from Moore’s work, that makes this film, that gives it its breathtaking wonders and its nagging setbacks. There’s more of the former than the latter by a long shot, but it’s hard to ignore the missteps, ultimately.

What Snyder gets right (and he gets most of it right) is astonishing. The book’s tone of atheistic deflation and the mood of oppressive dystopian alienation is all there, unfiltered. The complicated histories of the Comedian, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are presented in their proper order, with the proper level of emotional detail. If the other characters (especially those of the previous generation) get short thrift, then Moore gave it to them first; Snyder gives us enough information to infer more if we choose, but it’s only what we need. The intricate plot is preserved in all its complexity, and proves out the cinematic language of Moore’s (and Gibbons’) comic storytelling even as it feels much stranger and less conventional than your usual film narrative. And, more than anything, the look and style of Watchmen is all there, epic and dingy, dark and glowing, never anything but deeply powerful. Fans of the comic will spot dozens, even hundreds, of images ripped straight from the pages of the original.

The cast does what’s asked of them, and there’s nary a bad performance. Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre veers close to bad territory, but it’s more the fault of Moore than the actress, who looks the part well enough. He made Laurie into a sexualized object, passed between strong men and forever in the shadow of her parents, a woman with no real life or identity of her own. You can argue that it’s a perfectly fair (if distinctly unprogressive) characterization, but as the main female character, her dependence rings louder than it otherwise would (and this is to saying nothing of her mother, who falls in love with the man who tried to rape her, a choive which can’t make Moore too popular with feminists or anyone else with much of a conscience). Meanwhile, Patrick Wilson makes a decent Dan Dreiburg, and Matthew Goode doesn’t turn Adrian Veidt into a smug Eurotrash villain as I feared he might. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets at the buried wistfulness behind the Comedian’s smirking nihilism, and Billy Crudup’s voice for Dr. Manhattan is supernaturally resigned (although his scenes as pre-accident Jon Osterman are far better, even a little heartbreaking). But, as most reviewers note, it’s Jackie Earle Haley’s devastating turn as Rorschach that steals the picture. He plays his final scene with a different tone than in the comic, but it’s nonetheless every bit as wrenching.

But, as I wrote earlier, what makes and sometimes nearly breaks this adaptation is the adaptations. Snyder deploys some remarkable imagery that the comic never gives us. His opening credit montage of slo-mo tableaus of the history of masked adventurers is remarkable, recasting V-Day and the Kennedy Assassination and other seminal events with key twists and telling the stories of the previous generation of heroes with broad strokes. The use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a mite obvious, and I would have preferred “Desolation Row”, which is later turned into a gaudy punk punch-up by My Chemical Romance over the end credits (“Times” is a bit short for the sequence and has to recycle some verses and harmonica breaks, so “Desolation” might have been a better time-match as well). But it’s still an excellent sequence that sets the stage perfectly. On the other end of things, the amazing shot that follows Rorschach’s end is transcendent and note-perfect and gains points for being Snyder’s own creation rather than that of Moore and Gibbons.

We are no less badass for being sociopolitical metaphors.

And the larger changes wrought by Snyder and the writers aren’t so bad either. Hollis Mason’s fate is excised, as is most of his story, and that’s fine by me; the murder of the original Nite Owl always bugged me, coming across as an unnecessary underlining of the brutality of human nature and society in a work that had more than enough of them without the empty killing of a kindly old man. Rorschach’s treatment of a child-killer gives the character a bit more of an active role in his final turn to absolutism, and the comic’s specific turn of events in the scene in question was famously stolen by Saw anyway, so savvy film-goers who didn’t know the book would cry foul.

And, of course, there’s the replacement of the transdimensional squid with devices that replicate Dr. Manhattan’s powers in Veidt’s climactic act of destruction, which I think makes sense from a few perspectives. Without the Black Freighter comic and the extra scenes needed to set up the squid, it would have dropped in out of nowhere, a bugnuts insane idea that worked in the comic (was one of the most indelible images of the comic) but never would have flown onscreen (any attempt to replicate Gibbons’ graphic panels onscreen wouldn’t have gotten by the censors anyhow; that much gore at once is unfathomable, even in an R-rated flick as hard as this). More than anything, though, it’s a 9/11-influenced change, though not in any cop-out kind of way (check the WTC towers looming behind Veidt in his first appearance, if you want those echoes to resonate). Simply put, 9/11 and its political aftermath made Veidt’s masterplan seem quaint; we know that a cataclysmic and deadly attack on New York City will not lead the whole world to lay down its arms and join hands in peaceful brotherhood. And one can hardly argue with making the disaster bigger and more wide-reaching, really.

The Spandex Fanciers Club petered out a bit by the '50s...

Still, there are some Snyder originals that don’t knock it out of the park. Though I remain a fan of his style for action-sequences and think they are even more effective here than in 300, he adds one or two that aren’t necessary, and the blasting rock-guitar background can get a bit goofy. And really, he’s much sharper with the sex and the gore and the violence and only skims the surface of the deep wells of moral philosophy running underneath the story; those issues are there, sort of, but their full import is not teased out. Furthermore, we get next to nothing about the Hooded Justice, the mysterious figure who began the whole masked hero thing in this universe. The New Frontiersman is also not set up at all, leading to a few scratched heads when the film ends with Rorschach’s journal in their office. The sex scene is not too good and Leonard Cohen seems a poor choice for booty-grinding. Nixon is turned into a much larger demagogue than he was in the book (if that’s possible, and it’s not really the point). And don’t even get me started on Manhattan’s wang!

These are minor quibbles, but little things add up. Despite the wondrous and potent vision Snyder provides us with, Watchmen doesn’t quite have all of its gears in synch. It’s spectacular and entertaining and mostly as profound as the source material, but there are tiny slips and minute cracks in the facade, when one looks closely enough. The film is very, very good and holds up and even deepens on subsequent viewings, but there are too many smallish nagging downsides to it that keeps it from full masterpiece status in my mind.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

The Occupy Movement and the Authoritarian Impulse

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Tents Before Parks!

Although I feel like I’ve said my piece about Occupy Wall Street and its various international affiliate movements, the developments in the response of the authorities to the movement’s civil disobedience over the past couple of weeks probably do demand a brief word or two. The eviction of Occupiers from their home bases in Zuccotti Park in New York City and St. James Park in Toronto grabbed headlines, partly because these displacements were the only fresh progression in the Occupy story for some time and partly due to the perhaps overeager aggression of the evicting police forces in New York. The whiff of official oppression has animated the ideologically amorphous, Adbusters-shepherded movement from the start, and overt displays of authoritah are oxygen to its fire of sociopolitical outrage.

The impact of these events was much surpassed, however, by the confrontation between campus police at the University of California-Davis and sit-in student protestors. And by “confrontation”, I mean the police responded to the students’ non-violent civil disobedience by pepper-spraying them cruelly and gratuitously, as this now-viral video demonstrates. Although the Occupiers’ response is heartening, the casual authoritarianism of both law enforcement and their defenders in the light-fascist right-wing media is considerably less so.

In response to the circulation of the video, James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly invokes that modern apex of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in America, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Not that the cause of the Occupy movement has access to either the eloquent tone of moral necessity nor the deep well of historical injustice that the Civil Rights marchers drew upon, but the structural deprivations that affected African-Americans for decades come from the same essential place that those protested by the Occupiers do. The self-congratulatory boomer narrative about the 1960s counterculture, that it “changed the world” and corrected many of the inequities that it struggled against, is being exposed as insufficient, if not as an outright falsehood.

Matt Taibbi says it better than I can in his trademarked, inimitable rhetorical style, but what is happening in America, and all around the world, is that a smallish elite (partly made up of many of those same self-congratulating boomers) accustomed to exponential growth and the attendant benefits to their personal wealth and influence are facing a distinct lack of base-level economic expansion. With few new jobs and limited economic opportunities for more and more people near the base of the income pyramid, those at its summit have refused to relinquish the rising profit margins that have characterized the past couple of decades. These augmented takings have to come from somewhere, and increasingly they are coming from the dwindling share of the middle and lower class. Those lower classes resist this system of distribution with civil disobedience, and the authorities (forever the thralls of money and power) respond with appropriately overheated force.

This is perhaps not a new phenomenon, and the elites may tell us it is not a phenomenon at all, or at least that they deserve their ever-greater share and the rest of us deserve less than we have. But it is redolent of a perspective that is beginning to define the politics of our time (be they Tea Party conservative or Occupy Wall Street liberal), namely that democratic liberties are intrinsically tied to (and largely reliant upon) the vagaries of income distribution. Rights mean only so much, we are told, without a certain fairness of economic opportunity. Economics underlies all social relations, and progress is delineated by class struggle. With such ideas percolating around the cultural mainstream, it always surprises me that Marxist analysis is not undergoing more of a resurgence, since everyone seems to agree, in general terms, with Marx’s thoughts on social relations (if not, of course, on his proposed policy solutions, which have ever been found wanting). The key takeaway is that oppression comes in many forms, and these forms can be densely interrelated and unpredictable. All most of us can do is await and react as best we can.

Film Review: The Guard (2011)

November 20, 2011 2 comments

The Guard (2011; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)

Note: the kid did not steal sweets. You'll be surprised.

It was an unpleasant surprise that I wasn’t more entertained or impressed by The Guard. By all initial appearances an anarchic and subversive crime comedy with shite-piles of local Irish colour and a film-owning tour-de-force performance from my favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, this is not nearly the movie it sets out to be, ought to be, and was widely received as (highest-grossing Irish indie film ever, it is). It powers ahead with devil-may-care sparkle for a handful of moments, but then squanders its momentum with conventional forays into stock character cliches and predictable subplots for twice as long.

The writer/director credit holds some clues to the film’s tone of mild disappointments. John Michael McDonagh is the (evidently less talented) brother of Martin McDonagh, acclaimed iconoclastic Irish playwright and the writer/director of the fantastic international hit In Bruges, which took the foul-mouthed wit of the criminal classes and plunked it in the timeless medieval streets of the charming Belgian tourist city. Both The Guard and In Bruges feature shootouts, sex, and druggy shenanigans in idyllic locales, as well as loads of offensive humour and Brendan Gleeson being generally awesome (although he’s outshone by Colin Farrell in the latter).

But despite the similarities, the comparison does no favours to John Michael and his less-balanced film. Or, perhaps, The Guard is more balanced, and that’s the problem. It deals out its off-colour hilarity in controlled doses between dramatic beats, sympathetic character development, and narrative advancement, where In Bruges blurred it all together, and sprung its chaotic sensibility on us with little warning and often with a bit of misdirection. There is some nicely Irish foul-tempered jokery here (“I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture!”), but nothing ultimately measuring up to the other McDonagh’s inspired tangential bawdry (I’m thinking particularly of a certain outlandishly offensive Farrell line about an overweight, mentally-deficient African-American girl on a teeter-totter, for one).

These coppers dress far too nicely, no?

It perhaps isn’t fair to damn The Guard with contrasts to a better film simply due to some shared themes and the fraternal association of the films’ auteurs (although Martin McDonagh did exec produce his bro’s less entertaining flick, too). This film has its high points as well, from the dedicated West Irishness of its settings to its undeniably sharp wit. Though Don Cheadle can be plenty of fun camping it up (his Basher was always one of the best things about the Ocean’s movies), he does nicely as Gleeson’s by-the-book FBI agent foil. Mark Strong radiates danger and levity equally as the most notable of a philosophical trio of drug smugglers, and Pat Shortt has an amusing scene as a gone-to-seed IRA member in a Texas tuxedo.

But when the movie occasionally sings, it’s Gleeson who is the choirmaster. McDonagh’s script does try too hard with its star’s character, Sergeant Jerry Boyle, simultaneously making him sympathetic with fluffy subplots with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and a police colleague’s grieving sort-of widow (Katarina Cas) and playing up his rogue side with his slick bachelor pad, rampant drinking and recreational drug use, and patronizing of escorts. But Gleeson delights in the incongruity of casting a puffy, jocular Irishman in the smooth hero cop role, thumbing his nose at everyone even when he doesn’t have to and relishing the bacchanalian appeal of lines like “I am all out of jizzum!” He redeems the winking knowingness of it all with the sheer force of his personality. Gleeson is bigger than The Guard and drags the film over its rough spots into a sanctuary of rough aesthetic respectability, and a good job it is, too. Pity that the overall product wasn’t stronger, or Gleeson could have made it something fairly special.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Film Review – The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

November 18, 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 Heir Apparent: Largo Winch


Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Synecdoche, New York (2008; Directed by Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is sometimes interminable, sometimes tendentious, and very occasionally inspired. It also smugly undermines its own strengths with self-reflexive mental gymnastics to such an extent that when it winds towards its climax and we’re asked to invest emotionally at last, we’re not really sure if Kaufman even really wants us to, or if he’ll roll his eyes and mock us as easily-manipulated rubes if we do.

This is the central reason why Kaufman stands as American indie film’s reigning Wanker-in-Chief: his scripts deconstruct the very tenets and assumptions upon which modern film narrative and signification are based. This is often quite impressive as an intellectual exercise, but doesn’t always make for a crackerjack viewing experience. Still, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it seemed that Kaufman had found a way to reconcile hermeneutic cleverness with emotional heft; for once, the great magician’s tricks told us more about ourselves than they did about the magician himself.

In full charge of his own script for the first time, however, Kaufman finds himself somewhat at a loss at what to do with the camera. His previous screenplay efforts have benefitted from the ability to lean on talented visualists like Spike Jonze and especially Michel Gondry in adapting them. Left to his own devices, Kaufman has little visual flair and even less facility for pacing. The first hour of Synecdoche, New York is flat, drab, and endless, adrift in formless critiques of marriage, therapy, the theatre, and medical practices. That it’s watchable at all is a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman and (particularly) Samantha Morton; Kaufman retains his fine ear for dialogue and actors of the calibre of these two should well be able to make his words sing as they do.

One of these is my grocery list. I must find it before I starve to death.

The film coheres a little bit in its last half, as Hoffman’s aging theatre director constructs and manages his enormous theatrical piece in a life-sized simulacrum of New York City and faces down the loneliness of his life and the inevitable deflation of his own mortality (or, more accurately, doesn’t). Still, as mentioned, Kaufman’s film twists its knife in so many film conventions that it feels like a cop-out for it to fall back on stating so baldly that it’s simply about life and death and that we should feel empathy for other people and then it’ll all work out, more or less. Or maybe it’s a cop-out to read it as only signifying that.

But really, it’s all so hard to tell with Kaufman. My ultimate issue with his oeuvre is not that he demands a lot of interpretive effort from his audience but that there’s also a smug undercurrent to his work that seems to intimate that interpretation is pointless. For all his Mobius strips and philosophical calisthenics, Kaufman is ultimately a sentimental anarchist at heart. His centres cannot hold, if they are there at all. Viewers are meant to gaze with wonder at his elaborate silver-screen Rube Goldberg devices, but what are we gaining out of the experience besides this vague, formless sense of wonder? Maybe something, maybe nothing. But I’ve got the distinct impression that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t much care either way.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Impotent Hate of the Westboro Baptist Church

November 15, 2011 Leave a comment

God Hates British Documentarians

BBC documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux’s view inside of the Westboro Baptist Church, The Most Hated Family in America, provides an interesting perspective on the inner workings of religiously-motivated hate. The fanatical followers of Kansas-based fire-and-brimstone preacher Fred Phelps are infamous for picketing street corners, funerals, and any other locations where they might receive the slightest bit of public attention for their very simple message: America is utterly doomed to damnation because of its rampant sinfulness, in particular its tolerance of homosexuality. Their bluntly hateful placards (“God Hates Fags” is the most well-recognized, and is also the domain of one of their websites) are a familiar pop cultural image, and disdain for the group’s toxic views is one of the few things that binds disparate Americans of all creeds and political affiliations together (what other group has been condemned by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan?).

But Theroux’s sort-of exposé, in which his outward meekness allows him to challenge the beliefs of the various members he speaks with and draw them out more so than a confrontational approach would allow, does teach us a few things about the cult (although, as we’re shown, there are important ways in which that term does not quite apply).

First, and perhaps most unsurprising, Phelps’ followers (and the patriarch himself) are rigid in their dogmatic views to the point of incoherence, a rigidness that is underscored, it must be said, by profound and willful ignorance. Any Christian splinter group that gazes into the Bible and sees only a vengeful, condemning God is ignoring great swaths of more generous scripture, to say nothing of scooping out the two passing strictures that can be interpreted as prohibiting homosexual acts from the morass of restrictive Hebrew law that is Leviticus (hence the parodic slogans of the WBC’s critics mentioning the similar biblical bans on innocuous foodstuffs such as shrimp and figs). But the defenses against Theroux’s doubting question favoured by not only the WBCers but by Phelps himself privilege a blustering claim to expertise and authority that it is painfully clear none of them possess. With the absolute certainty of faith comes the attendant arrogance of righteousness, and the Westboros’ righteousness, in addition to being virulently hateful, is thin and unsubstantiated.

Secondly, Phelps’ apocalyptic vision of the irredeemable fate of America, a land afflicted with such deep-seated moral decay that the only acceptable response for the righteous of his flock is to excoriated it concerning its certain damnation, is fundamentally undermined by the WBC’s uncritical participation in the country’s all-encompassing consumer culture. Theroux takes us inside the multi-house Westboro compound in suburban Topeka, and the houses are full of the same sort of consumer products that you would find in any other abode in any other subdivision in America. It is also revealed that, far from “dropping out” of the system that they find so utterly evil, many of the Westboro members actually hold down mainstream jobs in order to fund Phelps’ endless campaign of hate speech. Many are lawyers, understanding and interpreting the laws of the very country that they consider to be hopelessly infected by Satan (and often using it to sue substantial damages out of those who challenge them).

The WBC can perhaps be somewhat forgiven for refusing to relinquish the comforts afforded them by first-world democratic capitalism, although a true absolutist dedicated to their ideology would surely choose a Mennonite-like anachronistic existence in a separated community. But the blind spot displayed by Phelps and his creed towards capitalist culture is not only their own, but a key feature (and failing) of the wider conservative culture war of which they are the most fringe set of berserkers. American cultural conservatives see a society of runaway depravity, but twist themselves in knots to place the blame at the feet of anyone but the beknighted corporations that dictate the discourse of cultural exchange. The sort of clueless hypocrisy that underlies this tendency was beautifully illustrated by the virulent statement released by Margie Phelps (daughter of Fred) after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, lambasting his turning from God’s teachings. The statement, of course, was sent from Margie’s iPhone.  That the unimaginative WBC cannot reach much beyond this episteme is perhaps not shocking, but neither is it to their credit.


The third, and perhaps most interesting, element to note in The Most Hated Family in America is the way that it shows how Phelps’ bizarre ministry is driven by his own bizarre charisma. An odd, angry, cranky old patriarch who refused to answer even the most basic of Theroux’s questions, Phelps’ sermons and statements are deplorable, but undeniable magnetic in their implausible ugliness. They are also often unintentionally very funny, in particular the Sunday sermon Theroux’s crew films wherein Phelps cries out at the unbelievers, “You’re gonna eat your babies!” and repeats his trademarked phrase “split Hell wide open” like a professional wrestler spouting a favoured catchphrase for the pleasure of the rubes. The man’s views are hideous beyond measure, of course (though I do agree with his assessment that Joseph Smith “wangled” Mormonism as a get-rich-quick scheme), and he runs a veritable cult that is lacking the fundamental millenarian dedication to even remove itself from the society it finds so very wanting. It’s also not wholly unfair to speculate aloud that his fulminating homophobia and wild accusations of pedophilia are simply a very loud and public act of projection; he wouldn’t be the first cult leader to use his position of absolute power within a limited community to commit such depravity, that’s for sure.

But for all of Phelps’ copious hate, the reach of his arm is short, and he and his church are more clowns than crusaders. This is the strongest impression that comes through in Theroux’s documentary, of a group that is vicious and dogmatic, but also rendered impotent by the comical overindulgence of their prejudices. Westboro Baptist Church wins popular attention that is out of proportion to the size of their congregation or the persuasiveness of their message because they are entertaining in their nastiness. They are the raging id of conservative American evangelism, the delirious exception that disproves the rule. And for that reason, they will continue to picket our hearts and minds until they peter out entirely.

Film Review: Micmacs à tire-larigot

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009; Directed Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Note: A truncated version of this review appeared on PopMatters’ list of Best Independent/International Films of 2010 on January 3, 2011.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest hyper-Gallic opus of overwhelming whimsy is bursting with visual invention but seems to have no central animating principle or meaning. Like the various contraptions and schemes that drive its screwball plot, Micmacs is an exquisite Rube Goldberg device of a movie that impresses with its elaboration but not with its signification.

This property is listed for what? Man, Parkdale is getting expensive...

This is unfortunate, because the advantages inherent to Micmacs should lead us to expect more. Following the wonderful, elegiac A Very Long Engagement and the duly-anointed film classic Amelie, Jeunet could be said to be at or near his peak as a filmmaker, and he certainly delivers his share of memorable and witty imagery, as always. He’s also got a likable lead (Dany Boon, a sort of French Adam Sandler with oodles more talent) and a rogue’s gallery of amusing comic actors in support (including previous Jeunet faves Yolande Moreau and Dominique Pinon). It’s all frightfully light and clever, but basically never congeals into anything more substantial, as his previous two masterstrokes had an impressive habit of doing.

Plot-wise, Boon is Bazil, a down-on-his-luck gent who chooses to blame his lot in life on two arms-dealing corporations and their suave chief executives: one, run by an aristocratic collector of the body bits of historical figures (Andre Dussollier), made the landmine that killed his father in North Africa, while the other, led by a more modern exec (Nicolas Marie) who compares himself to French poets, made a bullet that became lodged in his brain, costing him his dream job in a video store, threatening his life at any given moment, and leading him into a transient downward spiral. Finding himself homeless and living from day-to-day (these scenes have a Chaplinesque sad humour to them, with Boon as a decent enough proxy for the Tramp), he is adopted by a typically Jeunetian “family” of junkyard misfits who possess various abilities that will come in handy in Bazil’s plan to exact revenge on cartoon-villainish arms dealers.

Inside your average call center operation.

For all its amusements and bursts of visual wit, however, there’s something vaguely middling about the final product of Jeunet’s feverish Gallic mind here. The narrative center is a big part of the problem; Jeunet’s touch as an auteur is entirely too light and generous to properly execute the vicious strokes of a revenge plot. Micmacs is certainly a comedy, but Jeunet evades the dark humour of his earlier work like the plague where it might have done some good and fit the contours of the narrative conventions of the revenge genre a little better. Like many a caper movie, there’s also never much doubt about the outcome of the payback scheme, and rarely a lick of tension that it might not get pulled off. The critique of defense contractors is also slightly facile and emotional, with none of the sharpness of a film on the subject like, say, Lord of War. It’s also no help that the romance subplot is weak, perfunctory, and all wrong. After Jeunet’s last two films, whose love stories were such multifaceted delights that drove the proceedings, Bazil’s back-and-forth with the contortionist is just sort of lame.

If there’s an image that typifies the talented Jeunet’s slight misfire with Micmacs, it’s the recurring meta-joke of the various billboards advertising the movie that appear in the movie. Mildly amusing enough on its own, it’s the sort of overly-clever, self-referential visual gag that Jeunet throws himself into with relish in this film at the expense of the more engaging elements and sneaking outlines of profundity that he’s managed in the past. It’s par for the course in a film of meticulous clockwork construction that concludes its complex machinations by ringing a metaphorical tiny little bell. In Micmacs, all is a joke to Jeunet, and the punchline says less about ourselves than it does about the all-clever Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Categories: Film, Reviews