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Film Review: Clueless

March 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Clueless (1995; Directed by Amy Heckerling)

Amy Heckerling is not only a rarity in one way – she’s a successful female director in Hollywood – but in another, much larger way: she’s defined two separate eras of American youth culture on comedic film. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the 1980s high school flick (not made by John Hughes), partly because it balances a mature perspective on the trials and tribulations of high-schoolers with an enlightened lack of condescension. And, of course, it’s pretty funny, although Cameron Crowe’s script certainly didn’t hurt that aspect.

BFFs 4 EVR!

But Clueless, for all of its focus on the superficial Los Angeleno gloss of its hyperbolic characters, is a smarter film and a more subtly cutting-edge one. Even by the decade’s halfway point marked by neatly this film, the 1990s were a floating free-formation without cultural definition. Grunge burned out instead of fading away, hip hop was not yet ascendant, fashions were lost in the wilderness, and cell phones were hardly ubiquitous features of the nation’s youth. By the end of the decade, most of the young people in North America looked, sounded and acted like one of more of the characters in this breezy little teen comedy.

Clueless didn’t create the ’90s, of course. That would be giving the film a bit too much credit. But it certainly crystallized the surface tensions of the culture into a shiny pink gem, sparkling with the dominant concerns of the day: class, consumerism, litigation snowballs, gender roles, social status, cliques, political activism, sexual mores, and so on. When future generations seek to understand the 1990s, this movie is a time capsule which will prove invaluable for consultation purposes.

That Clueless manages to be a statement on its time while adapting a classic novel written almost two hundred years before is a statement to the prodigious agility of Heckerling’s script. It easily transposes Jane Austen’s plot of matchmaking gone wrong and love eventually gone right to a modern setting. But Heckerling also crafts effortlessly witty dialogue, which flows off the tongues of her talented young cast like snatches of catchy pop music. And unlike its well-loved contemporary 10 Things I Hate About You, with its archly self-satisfied Bard references, Clueless doesn’t ram its clever literary undercurrent down your throat. It prefers to let the referentiality unfold with unhurried amusement.

Heckerling’s direction can leave a little to be desired, to be sure, although her transformation of an accidental turn onto a freeway into a horror film sequence is a solid genre joke. But when her camera-wrangling stumbles, the nimbleness of the screenplay saves her every time. Add to this the appeal of referring to the characters by the names of their counterparts from Emma (Paul Rudd smiles shyly: “Oh, Mr. Knightley!”), and you’ve got a delicious confectionary pleasure that leaves you surprisingly full afterwards.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Television Review – Whitechapel Season Three Premiere

March 28, 2012 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.

Whitechapel – Season Three Premiere

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Meursault Meets Dubya: Social Sentiment in Albert Camus’ The Outsider

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

The thought that continually springs to mind while reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider (L’Étranger) is how odd it is to imagine George W. Bush reading it, which is precisely what it was claimed that he did when he was President. A popular quip at the time was that of course Bush would readily identify with a man who felt no remorse at killing an Arab. Har har, indeed. Jesting aside, though, the philosophical view advanced by Camus in his classic short novel is so completely alterior to what Bush’s Presidency and public life in general reveal about his views that it seems particularly strange that it was on his reading list.

If Dubya was searching for some useful insight into historical relations between the democratic West and the Muslim world amongst The Outsider’s pages, he would have come away sorely disappointed. Although it is set in French-occupied Algeria, The Outsider is resolutely apolitical. Indeed, the culture soon to explode into a legendarily nasty internal conflict comes across as idyllic and well-functioning, even if it is couched in hypocrisy and dishonesty. Camus, in this book at least, shows little interest in society’s ideological imperatives, however, excepting the way that those imperatives operate on the freedom of conduct of the individual. Though it may not be political in the sense of reflecting public policy and partisan ideology, The Outsider is political more of a core sense, relating to the position of the individual towards the collective.

Camus sees that position as an essentially untenable one. His narrator-protagonist Meursault commits cold-blooded murder but is famously punished by the authorities more for his refusal to indulge social expectations of grief, regret and solemn sentiment not only in relation to his crime but to the proximal death of his mother. It is not emotion he lacks so much as sentiment, that socially-sanctioned set of quasi-emotional performances that are understood as essential markers of important human milestones.

Meursault is often described as being emotionally detached, but he is not isolated from feelings, precisely. He is only isolated from negative sentiment, from the sadness and anger and shame that he is expected to feel, and to express himself as feeling, when faced with the events that he is. He is perfectly capable of happiness, joy, and the more pleasurable impulses, but their sunken opposites are foreign to him. He does not become enraged but annoyed, doesn’t get sad but uncomfortable. He is no robot, no pitiless monster, but a pure sensualist. When Meursault says at his trial that he shot the Arab on the beach because the sun was hot, he is laughed at. But from his perspective, choices and actions do not have moral underpinnings and are nothing more than reactions to influential external stimuli.

This is the main point of The Outsider, and Camus sums it up in an analogical thesis statement at the conclusion of Meursault’s mother’s funeral in the first section of the book. A local nurse accompanying his mother’s funeral procession along a scorching desert road says to Meursault, “’If you go too slowly, you risk getting sun-stroke. But if you go too fast, you perspire and then in the church you catch a chill.’” On a basic level, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” statement, some faint philosophical nihilism from Camus, whose narrator affirms the nurse’s words: “There was no way out.” But when those words are recalled after his trial, they take on a more resonant meaning for Meursault and therefore for the reader. They focus on the relentless demands of existence which leave us helpless to control even the basic flow of our own lives.

But Meursault responds to these forces not with despair but with a pursuit of happiness that dispenses with the emotional reactions that he finds most burdensome. His delights in life are fundamentally unmoored from social custom, and therefore they are delights that cannot be experienced within the set boundaries of his social milieu. This is what makes him an “outsider”, a more thematically apt translation of Camus’ French title than the more literal and commonly-employed “stranger” (although L’Étranger contains a suggestion of both).

Camus can do, but Sartre is smartre!

As was pointed out at the time, both the anti-religious spittle that ends The Outsider and the general existential relativism that imbues the rest of the novel would seem poor matches for the worldview of America’s born-again, morally-certain Decider. Its intellectual pedigree also seems at odds with the resolutely unintellectual image that Dubya cultivated so judiciously, although it would be foolish to believe that this pose genuinely reflected the reality of the man rather than the projected desires of the American right wing whose support he relied upon.

The key distinction, though, is that Meursault’s philosophy is basically a sort of pragmatic idealism rather than the eternal Manichean unshakeability of the religious-cum-neo-conservative starkness of Bushism. If anything, Meursault has more in common with Dubya’s successor, Barack Obama, although the current President has a much keener sense of anticipated social convention than Camus’ literary anti-hero. Perhaps this is the real point of intersection between Meursault and George W. Bush, however; the 43rd President showed little or no regard for other people’s expectations of him or of his conduct. Just ask Andrea Merkel’s shoulders about that.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Politics

The Killing of Trayvon Martin and the Cancer of Social Prejudice

March 24, 2012 2 comments

The latest tragic and outrage-stoking episode in the long, troubled history of race relations in the United States is the February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old African-American teen Trayvon Martin by mixed-race Hispanic George Zimmerman in a gated community of Sanford, Florida. If you’re unfamiliar with the contours of the case, the well-cited Wikipedia article on it does a solid job of condensing the important points.

But to summarize briefly: Martin, a high-schooler with good grades and no criminal record, was visiting his father at the latter’s fiance’s home in the gated community of Twin Lakes in Sanford (he was on suspension from school for unclear reasons). Martin went out during a break in the NBA All-Star Game he was watching to buy some candy and an iced tea from 7-Eleven, and on the way back noticed that he was being followed. This was Zimmerman, who had called 911 and was reporting Martin’s “suspicious” behaviour. What happened next is not entirely clear, pieced together as it is from the 911 call, testimony from Zimmerman, Martin’s girlfriend (who was on the phone with him at the time), and witnesses, with the usual contradictions and puzzles of evidence very much in play. There was a confrontation of some kind, with Zimmerman claiming he was jumped by Martin but various other evidence making that claim seem dubious (including a firm request from the 911 operator to Zimmerman not to pursue Martin). At any rate, since this is America, Zimmerman was obviously armed, and shot Martin dead.

The reason that it took a couple of weeks for the story to filter to the national media, let alone to explode into an issue that demands a wonderfully measured comment from the country’s first black President, is that Zimmerman was not only not prosecuted or charged with a crime for his act, he was not even arrested. Florida has a stunningly vague “stand your ground” provision in its self-defense legislation which allows for anyone who feels reasonably threatened with harm to use any force necessary to defend themselves, up to and including deadly force. For this reason at least, and arguably for more troubling reasons as well, Sanford police took Zimmerman’s self-absolving account at face value and did not follow up on any charges.

Martin’s death has become a major issue because, like so many stories of its type, it crystallizes so many active anxieties bubbling just below and even above the surface of current American life. As an almost definitely unjustified killing of a young African-American male in a Southern state who was in the “wrong” place acting in the “wrong” way that lead to no immediately legal consequence for the perpetrator, the echoes of segregation-era racial violence in the incident are extremely strong (Andrew Potter doesn’t mince words and calls it a flat-out “lynching” on Twitter). The ghosts of Emmett Till and many others haunt the reaction of the African-American community to these sad events, and their response invokes the social activism of the Civil Rights movement.

But it is not merely an issue that evokes socially-sanctioned racial injustices of a half-century ago, but one that speaks to more contemporary conditions as well. Reactionary conservative anti-crime laws have, it seems, created circumstances in which a literal neighbourhood fascist (Zimmerman, the self-styled neighbourhood watchman, called 911 almost 50 times in the year leading up to the shooting, and had clearly-expressed ambitions of a career in law enforcement despite a history of violence) can literally get away with murder. With many of the particulars of the case still to be cleared up, it is nonetheless obvious that Zimmerman acted with unnecessary aggression (possibly Martin did, too, but there is little support for that beyond the shooter’s testimony) and maybe with racial prejudice as well (the 911 tape showed that he uttered an epithet that certainly sounds like “fucking coons” in reference to the person he is pursuing, but is couched in derisive terms no matter what he pronounces).

A tragic occurence like Martin’s death in a ideologically-divided society like America’s obviously encourages instant side-choosing, and I may be falling victim to that just as assuredly as conservative figures like Newt Gingrich and Geraldo Rivera have done with their despicable comments on the subject. But at the core of this sad turn of events are intertwined realities about how American society is organized and how racial prejudice has twisted itself around the very heart of that society like a serpent. The development of gated communities, those insular suburban developments predicated on the exclusion of a disreputable element that is always already coded as racially (or at least economically) different, makes such mistaken jumps to deadly conclusions practically inevitable, especially with firearm regulations as permissive as they are in much of the country. A strain in popular culture that valourizes law enforcement and exaggerates the threat of criminal activity beyond any reasonable measure also bears some responsibility.

But it’s the imperceptible intermingling of these factors that makes Trayvon Martin’s death not only tragic but also tragically unsurprising. Though it may matter in nuts-and-bolts legal terms whether or not George Zimmerman uttered a racial slur before shooting an unarmed black youth dead, the precision of his language is unnecessary in establishing the hardened core of prejudice of the case. The social forces that led to this shooting are founded on discriminatory assumptions about race, class, and respectability that are ever-present in the fabric of American life, all the more so because they are so openly disavowed.

Systemic and philosophical shifts more radical than those of the Civil Rights era are required to dislodge this animating cancer from the cells of the American organism. Will the Trayvon Martin case be an important element of the eventual vaccine? Perhaps, but more concerted public effort will be needed for any such productive changes to come to pass. For now, it will suffice to consider it to be a dark reminder of a discriminatory disease.

Film Review: Léon: The Professional

March 21, 2012 1 comment

Léon: The Professional (1994; Directed by Luc Besson)

A slick and intermittently soulful action flick that repeats a lot of assassin-film conventions while also creating a few new ones. Director Luc Besson shoots his action with plenty of cocksure virtuosity and bravura, and his actors do an admirable job fleshing out the caricatured figures they’re asked to play.

I will show you how to clean a gun with a Q-Tip, THEN we can watch The Little Mermaid.

Jean Reno’s soft-spoken protagonist is the prototypical Zen assassin, drinking milk, exercising, tending to his plant, and occasionally venturing out to murder people for money. His simple sensitivity is supposed to excuse the moral horror of his profession; it would surely be much more difficult to identify with a hitman who wasn’t a monk-like ascetic with a proscribed moral code. The fact that we do identify with Léon is a credit to Reno’s performance but also to the topsy-turvy moral universe Besson gleefully creates.

On the opposite end of Besson’s inverted moral spectrum stands Gary Oldman’s corrupt DEA agent Stanfield, a pill-popping psychopath who revels in systematic cruelty. To call Oldman’s performance eccentric is a euphemism; to say he chews the scenery is a massive understatement. Stan is an entertaining villain in his batshit insanity, but he really represents what Besson sees as a corrupt government system that refuses to hold itself to account for its actions. Léon has a firm moral clarity that the official forces (which the unhinged Oldman represents) lack, a stark philosophical mandate that stands in sharp opposition to the contextless ambiguity of “the Man”. Stan seems to have unlimited power and capabilities, but Léon trumps him because he knows where he stands.

Between these two men, hardened in their specific stances, stands Natalie Portman’s Mathilda, a child with a difference. A darkly-nurtured Lolita figure, Mathilda has experience beyond her age; she’s seen too much to be a twelve-year-old but can’t overcome her body’s childish reality. She’s the obvious result of Besson’s amoral NYC underbelly, like Lord of the Flies smack dab in the middle of civilization. A role like this could slide into caricature easily, but the rookie Portman gives Mathilda astounding balance. She slips from innocent vivacity to jaded maturity with eerie ease. It’s an amazing child performance, largely because Portman approaches Mathilda as only half a child.

Her relationship with the stoic Léon has creepy undertones that Besson is canny enough to turn into overtones: he doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable suggestions the situation presents, but doesn’t give way under their awkward weight, either. Presenting the underaged waif as the sexual aggressor destabilizes our assumptions; Besson is relentlessly Continental in his abiding desire to the screw with American social mores (although many of the more challenging scenes were excised for the American release, undermining this effort). But, ultimately, nothing really happens, preserving this element as a questioning one rather than allowing it to become disturbing obscenity.

An interesting bit of action and suspense, then, with a more skewed moral compass than most American genre entries and some involving performances. This is hardly effusive praise, but considering the low standards of many action flicks in this regard, it’s notable, at the very least.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Football and the Brazilian Way of Life: A View of the Entire Pitch

March 20, 2012 3 comments

As sociology, Alex Bellos’ Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life is a little scant. The book purports to analyse Brazilian culture and society through the refractory prism of its famously widespread obsession with football (soccer, to we clueless North Americans), but tends to rely on high-flown notions of “national characteristics” and pat observations on income disparity and urbanization. As sporting analysis, it is more invested in superstitions and vague notions like “passion” or “heart” than the nuts and bolts of tactics and statistics, but Bellos rarely bothers much with the ins and outs of the game.

Because Futebol is, more than anything, a disparate cultural panorama sort of book. It’s about detail and colour more than it is about argumentative consistency, its character sketches aiming at larger themes and social trends in Brazil but ultimately settling on the specific eccentricities of the people being sketched rather than the cultural forces that they represent. In its aims rather than its execution, Futebol is reminiscent of Franklin Foer’s excellent How Soccer Explains the World (which Bellos’ book predates by two years). Foer’s globe-trotting chapters on the beautiful game’s shadow role in 20th century developments from ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia to Silvio Berlusconi’s corrupt corporate/political/sporting empire in Italy to the centuries-old sectarian divisions played out in the Rangers/Celtic rivalry in Glasgow do indeed seem patterned on Bellos’ cultural explorations in Brazil. But Foer does a better job of accomplishing Bellos’ goal of reading the macro from the micro, ultimately.

While I can’t recall many notable stylistic flourishes or impressive turns of phrase from How Soccer Explains the World, Foer’s overall success in opposition to Bellos’ general lack thereof is likely down to writerly ability. Bellos, who wrote Futebol while he was a correspondent for British papers The Guardian and The Observer in Rio de Janeiro, certainly observes well. He also goes to great lengths in his research, tracking down forgotten footballing heroes in remote, modest shacks, venturing into the Amazon to investigate the country’s largest amateur tournament, and braving the wrath of the professional clubs’ infamous cartolas (a term for the often-criminal controlling bosses of the pro game).

But Bellos’ generally prose falls short, and he’s in dire need of a keener editor. Aside from several glaring typos and a whopper of a factual error (he identifies the 1976 Olympic Games as being held not in Montreal but in Moscow, which hosted them in 1980), most every joke he tries to make falls painfully flat. He has the junior headline writer’s fondness for execrable puns, among them a political reference to “right-wingers and left-backs” and dubbing some fellow flame-costumed samba marchers “friendly fires”. Bellos also inserts himself into his explorations far too gladly. Journalistic objectivity is a mythic relic of an idea anyway, and would not serve much purpose in a study of a nation’s passionate engagement with a beloved sport, but a disservice is done to his perspective by his active narrator approach.

Carnival in the Terraces

It would be a bit foolish to dismiss Bellos’ contribution to a wider understanding of Brazilian culture and society through the futebol lens entirely based on some clumsy writing and editing habits, though. The details of his intertwined sketches tend towards the fascinating, and he does scratch at important features of the remarkable nation of Brazil despite the issues, if only really on the surface. Some of his ultimate arguments about Brazilian football’s late ’90s struggles, as presented through the thoughtful and educated Brazilian midfield legend Sócrates, were rendered moot by the national team’s 2002 World Cup title, which came mere months after the book was published and did much to re-establish the popular image of Brazilian football’s aesthetic flamboyance and virtuosity.

Overall, however, Bellos might just cover too much ground with Futebol. It does not manage the direct and focused honesty about Brazil’s quotidian exhilirations and contradictions that the great film City of God did, and also can’t quite pin down the fundamental vitality of the beautiful game in everyday life that Foer uncovers in his similarly-themed account. It’s engaging, occasionally absorbing, insightful once or twice, but mostly works very hard to provide a view of the entire pitch when a more focused effort would do. Futebol thus falls short in the very terms of the so-called “Brazilian way of life” as reflected through football: where it should appear elegant and effortless, it is instead laboured and drenched in work sweat.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews, Sports

PopMatters Television Review: Frozen Planet

March 18, 2012 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.

Frozen Planet

 

Categories: Reviews, Television