Archive for December, 2011

TV Quickshots #4

December 31, 2011 1 comment

TV Quickshots

State of Play (BBC; 2003)

Don't make me open my mouth. You'll regret it.

A fantastically intelligent and multifaceted BBC serial drama about a newspaper investigation into a tangled web of sex, money, political and corporate malfeasance, and murder, State of Play is television at its near-finest. Initially airing on the Beeb in 2003, it led to a compressed Hollywood film adaptation in 2009 (starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren) and presaged bigger gigs for some of its key principals: the thoroughly floppy James McAvoy’s swaggering supporting turn as a young freelance reporter began building his career momentum towards eventual big-screen leading-man status, and director David Yates’ masterly control of the complicated proceedings was a key point in the resume that scored him the plum gig as the resident director for the final four Harry Potter films.

Those proceedings are indeed complicated, transferring the ins and outs of detective fiction to the press as the latest surrogates of a fundamentally post-detective world. Although writer Paul Abbott and Yates never sugarcoat the labyrinthine plot elements in this way, things generally revolve around two deaths (the murder of a petty thief and the suspiciously concurrent “suicide” of a rising star MP’s junior researcher), a government energy report, and a flamboyant PR man (a very funny Marc Warren). I would hate to reveal any more plot than that, gladly leaving such lifting to Abbott’s delightful teleplay. I will say that it’s riveting entertainment, even if the climactic solution to the young researcher’s death is a definite disappointment after the fascinating and surprising five-and-a-half episode lead-up.

Superb script and spare, solid direction aside, watching a strong cast sink its thespianic teeth into this juicy cut of dramatic meat is the real pleasure of State of Play. John Simm (best known as the main man in the UK version of Life on Mars) is good enough as the lead reporter, even if his dalliance with the estranged wife of the besieged MP smacks of astoundingly poor ethical judgment. The always-reliable Kelly Macdonald (whose native Glasgow accent takes some re-acclimatizing after hearing her approximate a slight Irish lilt on Boardwalk Empire) is another stand out on the reporting team, even if she’s thrown fewer dramatic curveballs than Simm is. But the true conqueror is Bill Nighy as the newspaper’s irascible editor, spitting Abbott’s delicious witticisms out of his elongated jaw as if they taste absolutely nasty. Even amongst so many other excellent elements, Nighy can’t help but take the cake.

Mayday (Discovery Channel; 2003-Present)

Hot potato!

A very different sort of detective program is this Canadian-produced Discovery mainstay (called Air Crash Investigation in Britain and either Air Emergency or Air Disasters in the ever-literal United States). Generally explicating one aviation incident per episode on the basis of voice and data recorders, survivor and investigator testimony, and sometimes the best educated guesses of experts, Mayday takes its narrative cues from the flow of real events. The best episodes combine complex aviation jargon with a jigsaw puzzle of evidence and interpretation worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of which tends to be couched in the comically mawkish reenactments.

These corny scenes are entirely at the service of the mystère du jour, marked by shaking cameras, panicked screaming, hands reaching furtively across aisles, dropped and/or charred children’s toys, and other such melodramatic tropes. There are also sequences featuring actors portraying investigators (actors playing flight crew and passengers are usually far more attractive than their real-life counterparts, actors playing investigators far less) who utter lines of deadpan exposition that land like lead zeppelins (no need to investigate the reasons that those don’t stay airborne). “Why was the APU on?” an actor playing a NTSB agent may ask, although for the regular viewer, made virtually pilot-savvy by many episodes’ worth of Mayday’s patient exposition, the question is entirely rhetorical (“it wasn’t the APU, it was the damaged rudder, you laggard!”).

Not every episode is such a solid approximation of detective fiction, mind you. Those portraying hijackings in particular lather on the Hollywood-thriller tension, operating as they are under the mystery-defusing dearth of clues and deduction. They slip into bathos all too easily. But when Mayday skews closer to its aviation Holmes essence, it is, as I like to say, rather infotaining.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Ambition, Murder, and Irony: The Devil in the White City

December 28, 2011 3 comments

It’s probably fair to say that the bestselling success of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City was a surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Juxtaposing a faded American milestone – Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 – with the fairgoer-predating murders committed by Dr. H.H. Holmes, one of the earliest examples of a distinctly American criminal archetype, Larson’s non-fiction yarn appeals to not only the popular fascination with serial killers like Holmes but also to conceptions of American architectural daring and industrial ardor that now seem firmly anachronistic.

Although the events described in The Devil in the White City happened more than a century ago, the book also seems remarkably modern in its thematic focal points. America just before the turn of the 19th century was a country of enormous disparity in income distribution, the agitations of labour unions only beginning to puncture the bloated bubble of ownership’s wealth (their situation was a bit more dire than that of Occupy protestors). It also had a vast seedy underbelly related to the facility of the acquisition of capital by the industrious, the clever, and the unscrupulous, an underbelly into which the keen psychopath Holmes tore with gory abandon.

Holmes manipulated and mutilated not only human beings but the emerging capitalist order as well, building a tiny, concentrated fiefdom in the Chicago suburb of Englewood on a foundation of coercion, credit, and lies. Contrasting Holmes and his dim, foreboding “castle” with the glimmering “White City” in nearby Jackson Park engineered by the fair’s lead architect Daniel Burnham, Larson implies the kinship between the men and their enterprises just as he points out their considerable divergences. Burnham, after all, could use men as tools to achieve his ambitious ends just as sure-handedly as Holmes could (though the famous architect had a far healthier relationship to women than the famous killer did). That the accomplishments of the former were impressive and inspiring while those of the latter were terrifying and reprehensible is a difference of context more than of degree.

Larson’s popular history is certainly a diverting read, his language poised and his chosen details evocative and novelistic (if, on occasion, a tad non-sequiturial). But it’s a substantial read as well, not only due to the extensive scholarship that has been boiled down by Larson into a sort of historical poetry but also due to how nicely attuned it is to the many ironies embodied in the tale. That Chicago, a city whose late-19th-century wealth was largely built on the large-scale mechanized slaughter of animals in the Union Stockyards, would play host to a murderer who built his own mechanisms of human slaughter is not lost on the author.

He also contrasts the giddy high of the Exposition with deflated lows, imbuing his conclusion with a tone of downbeat sadness and tragic elegy. Larson acknowledges the later triumphs of Burnham’s career while bookending his story with the death of his friend and key fair collaborator Francis Millet on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He mentions the eventual bankruptcy of key Exposition figures like Midway boss Sol Bloom (who later landed on his feet, and in the US Congress, no less) and Buffalo Bill Cody, whose lucrative Wild West show ran adjacent to the fair but was technically separate since he couldn’t get an official commission. And the irony radar blips away insistently in the case of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed the fair’s green spaces (and Central Park, too, while we’re on the subject) but who ended up expiring in frustrated senility in an asylum whose grounds he himself had designed.

Larson aims to remind us that the surpassing optimism and ambition of the American project is always already tempered by failure and defeat, and he largely succeeds. And the chilling H.H. Holmes, an amoral grifter, compulsive charmer, and all-American monster, is his most effective conduit for this message. It is not merely morbid, Dexter-type bloodlusty popular fascination with the gore and terror of serial murder that makes the arc of the Holmes narrative so absorbing (as remarkable as the Exposition-centric chapters are, one looks forward to the next twist in the gruesome Holmes tale with grim enthrallment). The interest goes deeper than that, I believe.

Holmes is the black mirror of the emerging juggernaut of American hegemony that Burnham and his fellow elite Chicagoans (like railroad car tycoon George Pullman, wholesaler and hotelier Potter Palmer, and meatpacking giant Phillip Armour) purport to represent. Certainly he anticipates future dark civic figures like Al Capone and Richard Daley (and, as Tea Party fantasists would gladly tell you, that Kenyan-born anti-colonialist socialist demon Barack Hussein Obama), to say nothing of John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. But Holmes is not really a radical perversion of the self-creating American ideal, he is its nastily logical fulfillment. As the undercurrents of The Devil in the White City make painfully clear, the same forces that strove to erect the White City made the Devil in its midst not only possible, but inevitable.

Categories: History, Literature

Anticipating The Hobbit: Christmas in Middle Earth

December 24, 2011 3 comments

The first trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movie duology hit cinemas and the internet last week, replete with helicopter landscape shots, dwarf singing, Ian McKellen back in full-on Gandalf mode, and Martin Freeman Bilbo-ing avuncularly. It looks, sounds, and feels for all the world like an old friend: Jackson’s own mega-successful Lord of the Rings films, which defined an era in Hollywood blockbusters. And yet these two movies cannot ascend the heights of the earlier three, by their very essence.

Still sharp.

This was ever my concern about a cinematic take on The Hobbit coming after Rings, especially a full decade later. Namely, that the later adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier work would not only come across as weaker and anti-climactic, but that it would do so while snatching at the established rings (pun perhaps intended) of the earlier glories. New actors, new narrative focus, and 3D aside, The Hobbit is most certainly evoking the existing film trilogy and, more than anything, its marketable success in this trailer, and we’ve not even glimpsed half of the brief cameos by beloved LOTR characters yet.

But The Hobbit is still The Hobbit, a perfectly enjoyable but slight travelogue of a children’s tale with a rather more mildly comic tone to its plucky hero’s adventures. The Lord of the Rings took shape in Tolkien’s manuscripts while a cataclysmic war shook the foundations of civilization as he knew it, crushing his simpler and more innocent narrative of the same world under its epochal weight. In much the same way, Jackson’s sprawling film trilogy will undoubtedly dwarf (pun perhaps intended) its subsequent two-film prologue-of-sorts, obscuring The Hobbit‘s own likely merits not merely under a long shadow of numerous Oscars and a billion dollars in grosses, but also under Rings‘ greater moral seriousness and sociopolitical applicability.

By the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s eternal, essentially conservative themes and the current affairs of the first years of the new millenium, Jackson’s Rings films gained a cultural currency than they would not have otherwise had if there had not been a considerable faction in American politics and society that felt there was something to be gained by encouraging a clash-of-civilizations siege mentality in the populace in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The other fantasy phenomenon of the period, the Harry Potter books and films, belatedly came around to similar metaphors, but their qualities of modern tolerance and subcultural implication (what are Death Eaters but goths gone too far?) dulls the edge of their Manichean mentality.

Tolkien offered the genuine article in LOTR, a vision of familiarly British limited liberty challenged by the complete tyranny of an evil which is ugly, permanent, and unapologetically alien. And by alien, one always means foreign. Jackson and his team, dedicated to fundamental faithfulness to the spirit of the books if not always the precise word, cannot really be blamed for the politics that their accurately-adapted films buttressed in public discourse. They very expertly gave us what Tolkien meant to give us, in his scholarly British Catholic way: a blueprint for humble resistance to unfathomable evil, where humility belongs to white Britons and evil to almost everybody else.

This sort of ponderous gravity attracts the Academy, to say nothing of the legions of media critics who pre-condition the Academy’s decisions with their lockstep praise. The Hobbit has little to offer in this vein, however. Its villains are not ever-vigilant and ineffable like Sauron or supremely tortured and tragic like Gollum (though both appear in the book in minor roles). They are knobbly, nasty children like the trolls and goblins, sarcastic, greedy serpents like Smaug, or stern step-parents like the Mirkwood Elves. These are hardly the nightmare images that blight our dreams and confound our waking days. Best Picture? Hardly likely. Impressive takings and some respectable technical awards at Hollywood’s night of prestige distribution seems like the most that can be expected for these films. Not that a film’s worth is entirely decided by such things, but the crowning Oscar night triumph of The Return of the King looms large in its cinematic mythos.

Fortunately, PJ looks more like PJ now.

Ultimately, beyond any such considerations about The Hobbit falling short of The Lord of the Rings onscreen, it is as a continuation of the legend of these films that it is most worthy of anticipation. John Updike once called Franz Kafka “the last holy writer”, and to some extent, The Lord of the Rings could be called the last holy movie. In a movie industry so thoroughly saturated with cynical and increasingly desperate marketing-first ideology that even completely non-narrative board games are now “inspiring” expensive smash-up blockbusters, Rings evoked a handmade feeling, an old studio-system craftsmanship and passion that is not only rare but impossible to fake and even more impossible to replicate. Much of this impression was simply image marketing, of course, but the Extended DVDs that spread this message could not hide the obvious dedication, almost selflessness, that Jackson and his army of collaborators displayed in making the trilogy. That the films were so visually rich, emotional textured, and enormously entertaining and absorbing surely didn’t hurt either.

Although The Hobbit, in my view, always had less going for it than Rings did, the promise of further tales from the exquisitely detailed onscreen Middle Earth of Peter Jackson and Co. is difficult to resist indeed. Like many fanboys, I will always wonder what Guillermo Del Toro would have done with the material and lament his departure from the project; an imaginative Del Toro vision of Middle Earth would have surely evaded the trap of rehashery that will still plague Jackson. But it’s hard not to see those familiar sets and costumes and images and to hear a few snatches of what is sure to be another smashing Howard Shore epic film score and not get excited at a visceral film fan level. Part of that is this time of year, which was marked and, for me, forever refigured by the Solstice-timed release of the original trilogy, and soon of the two prequels. What a perfect time to release the trailer, after all. There’s no Christ, and therefore no Christmas, in Middle Earth, but Jackson’s films set there feel more like the season aspires to feel than the tacky, mawkish neon monstrosity that we’ve built up in this culture. For all of my doubts, this small glimpse of The Hobbit feels, once again and at last, like home.

Categories: Culture, Film

Film Review: The God Who Wasn’t There

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The God Who Wasn’t There (2005; Directed by Brian Flemming)

The God Who Wasn’t There is pretty poor both as a factual documentary and as iconoclastic anti-Christian agit-prop. Terribly, cheaply produced and edited, full of awful music and distracting graphics, absent-minded in its arguments and glibly condescending towards Christian believers, building towards a clumsy, poorly-executed “gotcha” interview that amounts to a whole lot of nothing, Brian Flemming’s inept argument for atheism does an entirely valid and even appealing intellectual viewpoint a huge disservice by making it seem creaky and easy to doubt.

Flemming’s refusal to expand his film’s critique of Christian mythology to the better-documented and more shady foundings of, say, Islam or Mormonism (each relying on the revelations of prophetic figures who were clearly on the make) hurts it badly and makes it and its director seem one-tracked and bitter. And even considering the many flaming arrows as he fires at the Christ myth, few truly hit the mark. His directs a blow or two at Biblical literalists, but reserves most of his attacks for the veracity of the story itself, something which only ultimately matters to scriptual fundamentalists anyway.

After marinating in the fanatical juices of evangelical Christianity himself, Flemming seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that basing your moral and ethical code on mythic parables isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, especially if you can freely admit that they are just myths, after all (one of his expert talking heads says as much during the end credits, slightly undermining the hour-long argument that has preceded his comments). The God Who Wasn’t There is telling us that because there is ample reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus, then Christian belief as a whole is invalid. Doubt is the kryptonite of faith, of course, but it’s hardly a sledgehammer.

Even if Flemming is, on balance, not wrong about the Jesus story and the reasons to doubt its strict accuracy, his conclusion doesn’t quite follow from his premise or even from his arguments. Atheists will need a lot more than this mess of a film to help bring them out of the fringes of Jesus-mad America’s spiritual conversation, that’s for sure.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Hitchens, Havel, and Kim Jong-il: Mixed Legacies

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Kicking the can invisible late last week after a battle with cancer, essayist, critic, rhetorician, alcohol lover, atheist and all-around magnificent bastard Christopher Hitchens leaves behind a hefty if decidedly mixed legacy of words. Although best known for his no-prisoners attacks on religion and for fearlessly criticizing swiftly-canonized public figures (Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, Jerry Falwell) right after their deaths, Hitchens also cultivated a bit of a misogynist streak, infamously declaring women comedians inherent non-funny and peppering his opinions on political women with epithets of a decidedly sexist nature (the highly maternal adjective “overweening” comes up very often in his discussions of Hillary Clinton, he called the Dixie Chicks “fat fucking slags” after they mildly criticized George W Bush, and once suggested that the ex-beauty queen Sarah Palin had more of a future in porn than she did in politics).


Hitchens’ most prominent transgression, however, had to be his overwhelming support for the Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Glenn Greenwald explores in a recent post on his blog at Salon, Hitchens’ great enthusiasm for the venture reflected that of the American pundit and political elite, and his moral certainty about the war (even long after it was clear to nearly everyone what a mistake it was) sprang from an irrationality as rigid as that of the people he repeatedly called “Islamofascists”, a passion rooted in his ruthlessly anti-clerical atheism (though Greenwald misses this as a source).

Although Hitchens could fire off a rhetorical volley like few others, his writing rarely displayed nuanced thought on par with its trenchant, often vicious, wit. Though his TV and debate appearances could be fun to observe as pure theatre, his writing influenced my own little if at all. Hitchens wielded his prodigious vocabulary like a sledgehammer, displaying an Orwellian moral dedication to directness and a related distrust of metaphor. Like his hero Orwell, Hitchens was ever on guard against the potential of the English language to mislead, to manipulate, and to alter the terms of reality. If the language is being used that way anyway, I always figured, might as well join in and employ it to the full advantage of your chosen cause.


Turning language to a chosen cause is certainly what Vaclav Havel did. The writer and first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic passed away recently as well, and though I know only a bit about him, he is the towering, representative figure of his country’s politics over the past few decades. Given the cultural history of the Czechs, it should not be too surprising that their great statesman of the end of the turbulent 20th century should be a scholar. Havel demonstrated a differing and perhaps more strictly practical approach to political and social issues than did Hitchens, but was no less stringent and ardent in his activities.

The third in last week’s fascinating troika of expiring public figures left a legacy of highly unambiguously negative effects rather unlike the mixed baggage of Hitchens and Havel. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death at 69 leaves the most closed society in the world in the lurch, even if the succession of his son Kim Jong-un has settled the question of which personality will inherit the mass cult for the moment. North Korea, like many totalitarian states, has elevated its system beyond even its Supreme Leader, and the survival of the regime is hardly in much doubt. A miraculous but unlikely Manchurian Spring uprising aside, the new boss is likely to be virtually the same as the old boss, especially since Jong-il’s forcible mass adoration was not really based on anything but the loftiest imagined qualities.


This is what made Jong-il such an amusing (if unforgivably racially stereotyped) villain in the puppet farce Team America: he was a tabula rasa of evil who could be imbued with whatever hilarious quirks imaginative satirists like Trey Parker and Matt Stone could fathom (their flamboyant version of Saddam Hussein on South Park was cut from the same cloth). Since the support network of his isolated dictatorship could not allow itself provide any personality insight to the wider world (or else believed it was under no obligation to do so), his rabble-rousing American opponents thrust their own ludicrous version of his monomania into the void. But it leaves a lingering question. What was this actual man actually like, beyond the obscuring scaffolding of propaganda that was constantly erected around him? As with many features of North Korea’s social reality, we may never really know.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: 4 Luni, 3 Saptamâni si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)

December 16, 2011 1 comment

4 Luni, 3 Saptamâni si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) (2007; Directed by Cristian Mungiu)

The 2007 Palme D’or winner at Cannes, Cristian Mungiu’s withering portrait of emotional and social devastation in Communist Romania is certainly a serious art film about a serious art subject: abortion in a morally repressive state. It unfolds in seemingly-endless long takes, the naked naturalism of its settings and performances often slipping into the unsettling and the uncomfortable (particularly at a dinner party of extreme awkwardness). You’re riveted, mostly, or at least lulled into a riveted-like state by the low clouds of despair that loom above the proceedings.

But what does Mungiu have to say about abortion, in the end? To those of us accustomed to the terms of moral certainty applied to the issue in North America (particularly by the religious right and the feminist left in America), the Eastern European view that comes out through Mungiu’s film is one of troubled ambiguity. As is the case with so many push-button political issues, Europeans have distinctly different views than North Americans largely because they have experienced extreme social responses to these issues and have had their lives directly affected (often quite adversely) by such responses. It’s easy enough to be unequivocally for or against abortion if you’ve grown up in a Texan suburb or a small town in BC, but those who lived through the aggressive natalist policy in Ceaucescu’s Romania and the crushing social pressure it lead to could hardly be so certain about it.

Instead of providing a political call-to-arms, Mungiu crafts a complicated picture. He presents the absurd difficulties facing women who want to have abortions with alacrity. The hoops that Otilia and Gabita have to jump through, the lies they have the tell, the shame and degradation and emotional scarring they have to endure; all of these things are presented clearly. But the film is hardly a pro-choice primer; it quite seriously treats the abortion as a deflating, destructive, tragic choice for these women.

The act is obviously far too heavy for naive Gabita, a flighty and frivolous young woman who is overwhelmed by its enormity and falls to dissembling, shirking responsibility and ultimately alienation in the face of it. Though the abortionist Mr. Bebe is a species of monster, one can’t help but agree with him now and then as he excoriates Gabita for not thinking her choice through quite seriously enough. Mungiu recognizes quite rightly that, regardless of the legal status or medical safety of an abortion (though the film presents with unerringly starkness that legality and medical acceptance is a much better option than its opposite), it is an act of tremendous moral weight that cannot be easily shrugged off. And it is to his credit that he gives us two heroines who are not stalwart pro-choice saints, but fragile human beings who crack more than a little under the pressure. Style aside, it’s the ambiguous substance that makes Mungiu’s film notable, if not special.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Tebow Down: Ideology, Faith, and Aesthetics in Pro Football

December 14, 2011 4 comments

With baseball in its offseason and the NBA diminishing its brand with a season-shortening lockout and a ridiculous saga involving multiple cancelled trades of one of its superstars, the attention of the American sports world has concentrated recently, with more intensity than usual, on the NFL. This concentration has fallen on one player in particular: Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose team has put together an improbable winning streak since he took over as starter part way through the season and stands in playoff position going into the weekend.

Jesus, please grant me limited concussion symptoms...

Tebow has been a famous and divisive figure since he was winning national championships in college at the University of Florida. Successful though he’s been on the football field despite his unorthodox, scrambling style, his overt expressions of Christian faith have made him a lightning rod in America’s often religion-centric culture wars. Known to bow and pray demonstratively at nearly every free moment of any given game (a practice known as “Tebowing”, which has of course spawned a gentle-enough internet meme), Tebow also credits every fortunate turn (among them fortuitous opposition mistakes) as part of the Lord’s plan, writes the numbers of biblical verses on his eye black, and made an anti-abortion ad several years ago with his mother, who chose to bear him despite expected health complications and was rewarded with a millionaire gridiron star for a son.

As mild and harmless as Tebow’s proselytizing is by the comparative standard of American evangelicalism, it comes across as obnoxiously forward in the world of pro sports, in which divine providence is often briefly, personally expressed but rarely held up as an essential component of any player’s identity, let alone employed with the sort of crusading fervor favoured by Tebow. It is a bit odd that this from of Christianity isn’t more common in the sport, considering the high level of integration between the national football culture and the rural Southern and Midwestern social conservative milieu that is the superstructure of the American Right. Perhaps this is one reason why Tebow irks liberal observers so: he is an in-your-face reminder that the country’s most celebrated and glitzy sport has been claimed so completely by their ideological opponents, to their own exclusion.

The recent oppositional takes on Tebow and his pro success in Salon typify this allocation. Just as Andrew Leonard attempts to reconstruct Tebow as a figure of potential unity, Allen Barra gives in to the cynical appeal of tribal resentments, seeing Tebow as inherently and inescapably a member of the wrong side in a never-ending and fluid battle for the nation’s battered soul. It doesn’t help the former case that Tebow is treated as a near-messianic figure by the religious right, nor that he is draped in the laurels of sports-cliché bromides about “winning” by the football press. And, in the specific instance of the Broncos’ current 7-1 run with Tebow as starter, it doesn’t take an expert on the sport (which I am certainly not) to surmise that perhaps the defense deserves more credit for the wins than the Tebow-led offense, which has topped 20 points in a game only twice in their last 8 games.

But the popular perception of America’s ultimate team sport, and the inherent nature of right-leaning American society itself, forever thrusts the quarterback into the forefront as the atypical masculine hero, a soldier, entrepreneur, and President rolled into one. Football, more than any other sport, has always had tremendous ideological potential as a discourse on progressive social justice, as a narrative of individuals of disparate talents, abilities and backgrounds subsuming individual identities and desires in order to achieve greater things as a whole. The pro game’s rise in popularity and prominence through the 1960s coincides with the erection of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society not merely through chance, I’d speculate, but through a rising collective emphasis on their shared values.

This pass went about seven feet.

But these core qualities have been co-opted, or at the very least adapted, to the self-centered individualism and authoritarian power structure favoured by American conservatives (their standard bearer in this, as always, has been Rush Limbaugh, a noted football fan who once nearly bought the St. Louis Rams). The quarterback as visionary, benevolent leader is central to this figuration, and a Christian conservative anti-abortion quarterback who wins football games can’t help but be even more prominent in this subculture.

This is part of the reason why Tebow has proven compelling: he reflects the self-definition of one faction of the American sociopolitical divide and clashes so violently with the self-definition of the other. Additionally, as much as the aesthetics and statistics of his game irk and confound football observers, there is a mystery and volatility to the ever-scrambling Tebow that offers a respite from the highly-regimented militaristic strategy and predictability of football.

This grinding inevitability of possible results is one of the main reasons why football isn’t high on my list of watchable sports. Occasional bursts of improvisational creativity aside (a running back juke here, a safety’s crushing hit there), football has little of the structural fluidity of my preferred team sports like hockey, basketball, or soccer. Football games can unfold in unforeseen ways, of course, but the fundamental structure of the game is, as mentioned, brutally socialist in nature. It is the planned economy of professional team sports, and Tebow can, in his more inspired moments, offer the promise of a limited glasnost and perestroika from a position of on-field authority. Ideological affiliations aside, this may be the best reason to believe in Tim Tebow. Just try not to follow his lead in believing too hard.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Religion, Sports

PopMatters Best Albums of 2011 Entry – Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: PopMatters is running its year-end Best Music of 2011 feature over the next week or two. I have contributed a couple of entries to these list features, which I will link to from this blog. Click on the link to go to the page with my entry, but do check out the whole list if you have time as well.

The 75 Best Albums of 2011 – #25 – Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials


Categories: Music, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #2

December 11, 2011 5 comments

Back by popular demand and specific request, I’d like to share the most amusing, interesting, and occasionally head-scratching recent search engine terms that have pointed web users in the direction of Random Dangling Mystery. The last post of this sort is from July, and can be seen here. Perhaps this will become a biennial feature. Or perhaps not. This blog aims to be nothing if not inscrutable. Let’s do fifteeen terms again. Once again, enjoy.

sociologist riot london

The new clubhouse leader for search term hits, dwarfing Amare Stoudemire’s glasses. The way it’s worded always puts me in mind of a riot conducted by mild-mannered academics with tenure, which would likely resemble a slightly wild cocktail mixer at a library.

anonymous movie historical accuracy

I engineered a bit of a purposeful SEO with this post’s title, but it’s proven popular nonetheless. Of all the film-related posts I’ve done, the most viewed is about a movie I haven’t seen and probably wouldn’t pay to watch. Go figure. One would certainly hope that the googlers had considerable doubts about said historicity, but perhaps I give them too much credit.

inception dradle

It’s called a “totem”. Meshuggah goys.

four lions waj confused face

I just took a picture of my face, and it’s deffo not my confused face.

william & catherine a royal romance flower

These little doggies are barking up the wrong tree entirely.

murderer from the ugly bones

A detailed explanation of the concept of irony is evidently in order.

the ozarks winters bum

That’s the gay porn parody, isn’t it?


Why, thank you. I think.

art bizarre sadomasochism

That’s the best description of Picasso I’ve ever heard.

retarded cartoon dinosaur

I believe the preferred term is “developmentally-delayed animated extinct prehistoric reptile”.

is steve kloves to blame

As long as there are absolutely no follow-up questions: yes. Yes, he is. Fully.

chris bosh looks like a raptor

Not anymore. Now he looks like a… Heat? A Hot? Something warm, anyway.

rob ford and raccoon

I smell a sex scandal brewing.

are there raccoons in a circus?

Not as of yet, but I wouldn’t put anything past those kooky Quebecois acrobats. “Our new spectaculaire is entitled Procyon. We shall frolick entrancingly through chimerical piles of refuse for two hours, then conclude by taking a whimsical shit on your roof! Tickets start at $150! Magnifique!”

do raccoons have biceps

They will by Procyon‘s opening night, I have been assured.

“The Red Prince” and the Downfall of Nationalist Self-Determination

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Timothy Snyder’s The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke is an ambitious if curiously-tilted history of a relatively minor figure whom the author constructs as symbolizing grander and deeper shifts in the social and political order of the continent in the twentieth century. Snyder sees Wilhelm von Habsburg as a microcosmic figure, his ideological affiliations and identity self-constructions revealing something fundamental about the changing Europe of the past century, if more through contrast than through reflection. Working from this perspective, Snyder inflates the mildly interesting life of a man of passable accomplishments into a half-remembered myth, or perhaps it’s the extraordinary times and places that Wilhelm lived in that do the inflating.

Born into the waning days of the shrinking Habsburg state that we now refer to (not entirely accurately) as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilhelm was a younger son of an archduke without a throne to inherit, and both father and son, in the soon-to-be-passé mode of their monarchy, settled on potential territories to reign over. Rebelling from his father’s (and older brothers’) state of choice (Poland), Wilhelm identified with the people and culture of Ukraine, and backed up this identification, in the long tradition in Habsburg pan-nationalist adaptation, by learning the language, wearing the clothing, commanding the military units, and adopting the interests and causes of Ukraine. If his political affiliations and the nature of his efforts underwent drastic modifications over his adult life, then Wilhelm’s main aim never did: the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, preferably with himself at its head as dynastic monarch.

As students of history will know, Ukraine did not achieve independence for more than seven decades after Wilhelm began striving for it just before the First World War. By the same token, Wilhelm never came especially close to creating a Ukrainian state or to mounting a Ukrainian throne, despite numerous plans, schemes, and plots with that aim in mind. The Red Prince, then, is an annal of failure, ending abruptly with Wilhelm’s anticlimactic capture by Stalin’s secret police and death in prison in 1948. It seeks to define an era not by focusing on the grand accomplishments of great men, as so much historical inquiry already has, but by focusing on the various misfires of a man who ought to have been great, but never really was.

Certainly Snyder’s research is impeccable, and his writing can range from sturdy to compelling to awkwardly quasi-poetic to ludicrously hagiographic (who could really possibly care that Wilhelm really, really loved his cat?). But in telling Wilhelm’s interesting enough but hardly revelatory story, he mostly skims over the much more fascinating characters who cross the Habsburg’s path, among them serial intriguers like Paulette Couyba and Trebitsch Lincoln. Additionally, although Snyder makes some mention of Otto von Habsburg, the one-time pretender to the Austro-Hungarian throne who became one of the architects of the European Union, he doesn’t seem to think that the more prominent Habsburg’s narrative arc (who did not have the best of relationships with the book’s main subject) says more about the historical trajectory of Europe than does Wilhelm’s, and that seems a little off to me.

But perhaps Snyder is on to something with his reading of Wilhelm as an atavistic figure in the history of Europe. The vaunted Community that Wilhelm’s rival Otto worked so hard to erect, only ever an economic union that was always already riven by fissures in national identity, now seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse. Although nationalism is not as destructive a force on the continent as it has been in the past, it is still undeniably strong and absolutist in terms of the self-definition of citizenship. This element of Wilhelm von Habsburg, his capacity for choosing his nation, is the one quality that Snyder finds most attractive about him (certainly more so than his assumptions of aristocratic privilege or his playboy dissolution).

Yet it is a quality that is not borne out in the EU, let alone in Wilhelm’s chosen nation, the non-EU Ukraine. A supra-national schematic that allows for economic participation in another nation does not make one a citizen of that nation. Although the pitiless racial nationalism of the Nazis has been repudiated, national belonging is still mostly assumed to be a matter of birth and inheritance. There would thus not only be some legal question to Wilhelm’s assumption of a Ukrainian identity, but a more amorphous and symbolic question as well: is nationality a simple matter of choice, or is it more determined than that?

The Red Prince does not exactly answer this question, nor should it be expected to provide a cut-and-dry solution, but Snyder’s sympathies clearly lie with the freedom of nationalist self-determination. That most European states do not seem to agree, at least on the level of public policy, is a statement on the nature of the ideological forces that endured through a messy century of war and strife and those viewpoints that have atrophied away to quaint insignificance. As elegantly as Snyder can sometimes make his case for the Habsburg conception of national identity that Wilhelm personified, there’s little question that this conception has lost its foothold on the continent. Nations are not created, they simply exist, and men who are not already a part of them cannot make themselves so. Wilhelm, Snyder, and even I may not like to accept that, but it seems to be the path that has been chosen.