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Archive for November, 2011

Race and the Race: The Politics of the GOP Presidential Campaign

November 10, 2011 3 comments

Almost exactly one year out from the next American Presidential election, the contest for the nomination for the Republican Party is beginning to coalesce around a smaller and smaller cadre of top contenders. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s evident polish and policy grasp continues to put him at or near the top of the regular (if unreliable) polls, even if his relative moderation, inescapable reptilian slipperiness, and Mormon-esque eagerness to please has repeatedly sent the GOP loyalist base (which many still insist on referring to as “the Tea Party”) flocking to more rightist candidates.

What's all this about sacred underwear?

After previous Teahadist favourites proved either too limited in scope (Michele Bachmann), too marginal (Rick Santorum), too unserious and non-political (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin), or simply too dumb and mean (the floundering Texas Governor Rick Perry) to earn the sustained support of the base, the hard-conservative anti-Romney movement had begun to harden around former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and radio talk show host Herman Cain. At least, until the last week or so.

The recent avalanche of accusations of serial sexual harassment made against Cain (his response to which has been woefully inadequate even in the casually misogynist milieu of his party of choice) may have dented his wider appeal, true. But Cain’s corporate-derived confidence and facility with the sort of superficial talk-radio bromides that the Republican base considers to be sound governing philosophy should keep him in the forefront of an admittedly poor class of candidates for some time to come. Furthermore, the perception of martyrdom that is assumed in Cain’s forthright denials in reply to the accusations taps straight and deep into the siege mentality that is so central to conservative political culture.

And his running mate will be Little Caesar, thank you.

But Cain, one cannot ever forget, is African-American, and the rules of public discourse and political shaping are always already different for America’s eternal minority. Is there an element of what conservatives would derisively dub “liberal guilt” to Cain’s popularity with Republicans, I wonder? In addition to the terms of his appeal discussed above, are the GOP rank-and-file responding to the perceived racist underpinnings of the Tea Party’s ideological rhetoric (or the right wing’s long and fraught relationship with minorities of all kinds)? Are they establishing the tolerant bona fides that they always claim for themselves and pillory the progressive left for assuming a monopoly on? Are they embracing Cain as a way of offering an alternative model of black executive leadership to that offered by Barack Obama, which the right obviously finds extremely wanting? Or is this preference of some voters in such a high-profile race for the highest office in the country a true, shining example of the fabled “colour blindness”?

In the larger, horse-race-politics calculus of the race, perhaps it matters little. Romney (or “Mittens”, as he has been delightfully nicknamed in internet wonk quarters) has always seemed like the only figure who can marshal the sort of corporate and party elite support as well as appeal to an electorate wider than the primary campaign die-hards who want fences to keep out immigrants and cheer for executions like an Elizabethan English rabble. Cain’s poll numbers have already shown more staying power than the previous Tea-fed flashes in the pan, but a rapidly expanding sex scandal such as the one inflicted on Cain (inflicted, if the charges prove true, by only himself) is practically never something that is survivable in the American political theatre. The much less interesting Romney is the likely nominee, but whether he can challenge Obama’s incumbency remains to be seen.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

November 6, 2011 4 comments

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009; Directed by David Yates)

Turns out the resident director for the final act of the HP film saga just needed one movie to get his feet under him. After his clumsy-but-occasionally-inspired Order of the Phoenix (which was admittedly more clumsy than inspired in book form), David Yates goes full-on inspired with Half-Blood Prince, crafting Steve Kloves’ spare but potent script into moody, murky stunner.

I won’t even bother worrying about spoilers, or even going into detail about the cuts from 220px-harry_potter_and_the_half-blood_prince_posterbook to film. Dedicated Potheads know all about the former and will bemoan the latter to infinity and beyond. But gradually, I’ve come to appreciate the film versions on a much more deeply-felt level than Rowling’s beloved tomes. This is mainly because they shave off all the knobby, unwieldy bits of J.K.’s overwrought series and leave us instead with astounding art production, crisp cinematography, committed (if broad) performances and magical visual metaphors. You can credit/blame Alfonso Cuaron for setting the visual tone with his game-changing Prisoner of Azkaban, but Mike Newell and now Yates delved into the invigorated realm of imagery with skill and wit as well. Oddly, stripped of Rowling’s vaunted plotting intricacy (which is just so much busy detail masquerading as complexity), the films bring out the mythic scope, comic slyness, and mythic scope of her work and let them truly flower.

Yates finds a surer visual touch in Prince than he did in Phoenix, playing with depth, making subtle camera moves, filling the corners with surprising details. The design of the film, again, is brilliant; small, key elements like the bottle of Liquid Luck, Slughorn’s hourglass, or the intricate wrought-iron grace notes on Malfoy’s Vanishing Cabinet have sinuous Art Nouveau lines that stick in your mind’s eye. Kloves’ script, as I implied, keeps what we need and what we want, but many of the details that the fanatics feel were left out are indeed here, tantalizingly implied. We see Arthur Weasley’s shed full of Muggle contraptions, Wanted posters for Fenrir Greyback, and other subtle allusions to Potterverse elements. If you listen to many fans, it’s a key failure of the films to not bonk us over the head with everything, as the never-subtle Rowling does. But I think it’s a blessing.

Each Potter book (and thus, film) has different showcases for different characters, and Prince has plenty of fine stuff for the oft-forgotten Dumbledore, Snape, and Draco Malfoy. Alan Rickman’s line readings still revel in tantric delays, but you can see him revving himself up for Snape’s full-on tragic hero act in The Deathly Hallows, especially in the Unbreakable Vow scene. With Malfoy a minor figure in the final book (and final two films), long-suffering Tom Felton finally gets to humanize his rich little shit, and does so by haunting Hogwarts corridors with emo angst and roiling self-doubt. He does a fine job giving depth to what could have been a cliched turn. But Half-Blood Prince is Dumbledore’s swan song, and Michael Gambon now owns the role more deeply than the staid Richard Harris ever did. I’ve heard his final scene derided as too brisk, but I felt it was lingered over just enough. The less said about the cheesy wand tribute, the better, but it is at least an improvement over Rowling’s funeral scene.

Ronnie the F’n Bear

I suppose I should talk about the central trio, but they seem so secure in their roles at this point, there’s hardly much interest in them. I still find Ron to be a doofus, but Rupert Grint is a good young comic actor and gets laughs even when he maybe shouldn’t. Emma Watson has never really lived up to the huge promise she displayed in the early films, but she’s still got Hermione down cold (and, on occasion, I mean COLD); it’s too bad she spends basically the whole film pining for the doofus. Dan Radcliffe isn’t the master thespian he’s being pushed as, but he’s more than adequate. His slightly-stunned scenes under the influence of the Liquid Luck are pretty darned funny, and I liked his underplay of Harry’s reaction to Dumbledore’s death; he’s been through so much of this by this point, he knows that emotional histrionics are a waste.

Really, though, two performances jumped out and delighted me. Jim Broadbent gives Horace Slughorn more pathos and depth than I thought possible, playing the Potions professor as a bit of a lonely bore who desperately clings to talented youth to feel relevant and to combat old guilt. His awed description of a magical gift from Harry’s mother is a lovely, delicate moment, and his wonder is infectious. On the other side of the spectrum is young Jessie Cave as Lavender Brown, Ron’s brief snog-partner/girlfriend. Cave has spilling dirty-blond locks and a lovesick mania to her face that is deeply hilarious, and she steals nearly every scene she’s in. The comic scenes about developing hormones are set off in isolation to the more serious plot-based ones, but what makes them flow is the lampooning spirit which nonetheless takes the concerns of youth at face value. And Lavender Brown’s lunatic teen-girl explosions drive that balanced comic tone.

So, in summary: another solid adaptation that may very well be an objectively better aesthetic work than the novel it’s based on. It’s about all we’ve come to expect from recent Potter flicks, and, for my money, it outdid the series-closing two-fer that it preceded.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Beowulf (2007)

November 4, 2011 2 comments

Beowulf (2007; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Robert Zemeckis’ constant interest in technological innovation bears its juiciest fruit in more than a decade with Beowulf, a lusty, red-blooded, visually-stunning epic. Obviously influenced by Zach Snyder’s blood-smeared style-fest 300, Zemeckis makes a film that is both more impressive, more literate, and ultimately more human, despite the weird, highly-glossed detachment the motion-capture animation still imparts.

I don't really need to make the phallic joke here, do I?

As an adaptation of the venerable Old English poem, that bane of English majors everywhere, it’s perhaps not as good. Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary tie the episodic structure (with its vaguely connected battles and lengthy narrative asides about Beowulf’s past exploits) together admirably, some historical context is built in, and the sturdily elegiac tone of the poetry is largely preserved. The changes to the plot that give Beowulf (Ray Winstone) a different and closer relationship to both Grendel’s mother (a gold-clad seductress who could only be played by Angelina Jolie) and the dragon build up dramatic effect at the cost of the dilution of the poem’s thematic power, sure. But this is cinema, and the conventions are simply different than in Anglo-Saxon poetry. It should be an obvious point, but there you go.

The film’s strengths and weaknesses are exemplified in the character of Grendel (mo-capped and given strangled, guttural vocalizations by Crispin Glover, working with Zemeckis for the first time since their tiff over Glover’s sort-of appearance in the Back to the Future sequels). A monstrous personification of mankind’s sins in the poem (“the son of Cain”), Grendel is instead made into a curse on Anthony Hopkins’ Hrothgar, his cross to bear for his own sins, as the dragon later is for Beowulf. This lessens Grendel’s impact considerably, which is unfortunate because, as a visceral creation, Grendel is rather indelible, with his horrid deformities, pained screams, and desperate Gollum-esque muttering (in Old English, no less). The whole film is like that; chocked full of amazing images and good ideas, but ultimately missing the thematic boat on the first surviving piece of literature written in the English language. But it’s still pretty fun, nonetheless, which is not a word that tends to be applied to Old English epic poetry very often.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The “Anonymous” Shakespeare: Historical Accuracy and the Appeal of Conspiracy

November 1, 2011 4 comments

Upstart Crow!

Opening in limited release and to limited grosses this past weekend, German blockbuster director Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has thrust the Shakespearean authorship question into the public eye as only a big-budget movie can do with an obscure scholarly subject. Of course, what a big-budget movie also tends to do with an obscure scholarly subject is to strip it of the sober cloaks of academic rigour and clad it instead in the tacky fashions of the ostentatious dandy (call it The Da Vinci Code Effect). One cannot exactly include citations in a film, after all, and strict historical fidelity can make for unsatisfying and lacking entertainment. Accuracy must, on occasion, be subverted to the service of “truth”.

Of course, this is a film about the authorship question from the “auteur” who rendered the American Revolution as a vicious revenge fantasy (The Patriot), turned the cinema’s greatest radioactive lizard into a leaden, murky bore (Godzilla), and did more damage to the climate change issue than a phalanx of energy lobbyists working around the clock could have ever dreamed to do (The Day After Tomorrow). Even the most committed Oxfordians (whose cause Emmerich takes up with typical truculent gusto) would be foolish to be anything but leery about what Anonymous might have to add to their already threadbare case (read my own review here).

Yeah, but can you explain where ‘Titus Andronicus’ came from?

This is to say nothing of the Stratfordians whose well-established and widely-accepted position on the authorship question is being targeted directly by Emmerich’s (by most critical accounts) frothy, incoherent period epic. Despite the apparent feebleness of Anonymous’ challenge to the historical Shakespearean consensus on any sort of factual grounds (just for a sample, it features Christopher Marlowe being murdered the wrong way, in the wrong place, by the wrong person, five years too late), the consensus-keepers have seen fit to respond anyway. In addition to detailed, admittedly pedantic refutations from Bard scholars Holger Syme and James Shapiro, one of my personal favourite historians – Columbia professor and twitching, erudite BBC presenter Simon Schama – lays out his objections to not only the film but to Oxfordianism in general for Newsweek.

If Syme hammers away at the factual lapses of Anonymous with exasperated wit and Shapiro, in a LA Times piece from April, wearily explores the general mainstreaming of conspiracy theory as the film’s eau de vie, Schama’s consideration of the controversy and the film’s role in perpetuating it characteristically focuses on the social mood and character of Elizabethan England (which Emmerich has said that he intended his film to depict, above all). These elements are ever a preoccupation of Schama’s TV documentaries, in particular on A History of Britain and The American Future: A History.  While echoing the general Stratfordian party line that the Oxford theory snobbishly privileges the privileged and assumes an aristocratic monopoly on creative genius in times of surprising social mobility, Schama also laments the post-modern inability to imagine and perceive that such a fertile imagination and inclusive yet retiring perspective could reside in the person of a mere provincial glover’s son.

How coincidental that I happen to currently be reading Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like The Sun, a lively, worldly novel that artfully provides precisely the sort of vibrantly fictional argument in favour of the Stratford Shakespeare’s practical quotidian creative brilliance that Anonymous pretends to provide against it. Burgess (infamous as the author of A Clockwork Orange, but also behind the amazing, century-spanning Earthly Powers) portrays the immortal Bard as a very mortal striver, deep in poetic elbow grease, driven and inspired by unwise romantic entanglements, and jealous, judgmental and spiteful towards his contemporaries and theatrical collaborators.

The novel suggests, for its own sake and not to bite its thumb at anti-Stratfordians, that Shakespeare was “Shakespeare” through engagement with his fast-paced, wit-laced social reality, through his experiences of joy, pain, hope, and tragedy, and, of course, through sheer concerted effort. He need not be a highly-educated and sophisticated lord with access to power and experience of the wider world to write what he did, because he was simply, gloriously human, and no other requirements were necessary. Although Burgess engages in as many of his own flights of fancy as Emmerich does, they are grounded in a nuanced personal and social reality rather than in rabid conspiracy lust.

Following Schama and Burgess on this essential question of the spirit of the times, I have to come ultimately to the side of Stratfordian conventionality on the authorship question. If I sound reluctant, it’s because there is something undeniably attractive about the concept of the Oxford theory, even if the argument itself has little to offer in the way of conviction. There’s a deep-seated appeal to the thought that the condescending conventional wisdom of the elites is mistaken, that the ivory-tower academy is tying itself in hundred-year knots to perpetuate the greatest lie in literary history. Even the suggestion that cultural prestige is not properly earned is considered by some to be a blow against the established order (and what is more establishmentarian than naked Bardolatry?), and the surge of excitement that comes with that feeling is rather hard to resist.

As a consequence of a culture that preaches the ultimate importance of individual fulfillment and personal perception, the doubts, suspicions, and eventually the comically-hardened positions that characterize the anti-Stratford perspective should seem obvious. But, after all, no one can be absolutely sure, no one can prove beyond all debate who precisely wrote Shakespeare’s eminent oeuvre. And from that crucial seed of mystery can grow a great tangled forest of speculative creativity. Schama construes the Oxford theory as suggesting a failure of imagination, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. As the many amendments and confabulations of Emmerich’s Anonymous seem to suggest, believing that Shakespeare was not “Shakespeare” requires a very active imagination indeed.

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Literature