Archive for April, 2012

Reason and Sentiment Contend: Poe’s “The Dupin Tales” and Sherlock’s “A Scandal in Belgravia”

April 30, 2012 3 comments

How oddly appropriate is the juxtaposition of my finishing Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a compilation of the American literary icon’s three trailblazing detective tales starring the enigmatic C. Auguste Dupin, a day after rewatching the premiere of the second season of BBC’s Sherlock, “A Scandal of Belgravia”. Both the Dupin stories and the smashing modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories they greatly influenced are engaged in the interrogation of the place of the rational being in a culture infused with intrusive sentiment.

The first and most important thing to be said about Poe’s Dupin stories is that, as far as detective stories go, they are manifestly unentertaining, with solutions less ingenious than bizarre and payoffs less delightful than ludicrously anti-climactic (I mean, a runaway orangutan with a straight razor? Seriously?). That is, if there is a solution offered at all, which is not the case in the middle tale, the torn-from-the-headlines The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, whose unsolved status in the real world was respected by the author in his fiction.

Like many an innovator, Poe’s first forays into a hitherto-unknown genre were soon enough surpassed by his imitators, namely his ardent admirer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the calculating London detective who became the archetype of the form. Although the respectable Victorian Conan Doyle shied away from the corporeal sensationalism of mutilated bodies and bloody violence that animated Poe’s Dupin stories and other writings beyond, the similarities between the lesser-known Paris ratiocinator and his more famous counterpart from Baker Street are otherwise legion.

Dupin and Holmes are both solitary intellectual eccentrics, whiling away their time in study and occasional idleness in the company of their stalwart, less mentally spry narrator chum. Only a juicy, confounding criminal mystery can rouse them from their state of semi-permanent reverie, affording an opportunity to crack locked-room conundrums, locate missing documents of great importance, and reason their way to the identities of the perpetrators of shocking murders. Clever criminals are eventually overcome by rational effort, and police inspectors are shown to the clownishly inept. Both detectives also have a theatrical flair for the revelation of their genius interpolating.

There are differences as well, though these mostly do not reflect well on Poe and on Dupin. Sherlock Holmes is a sort of bohemian ascetic detective, eschewing pecuniary rewards and resisting anything resembling emotional involvement in the outcomes of his cases; he is a pure instrument of moral justice, and his moral sense can even discard justice when desired. In the final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter” (which suggests major elements of no less than three Holmes adventures: “The Naval Treaty”, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”, and “A Scandal in Bohemia”), Dupin proves disappointing unmonkish in his devotion to the pure exercise of the mind, extracting a sizable chunk of the reward for the missing letter from the Police Prefect’s chequebook and undertaking the task of retrieving it in the first place to settle an old score with the pompous Minister who has taken it.

Dupin thus betrays more human and more sentimental qualities than the essentially masochistic Holmes, the pure vessel of detection, although the structure of Poe’s stories focuses on the straight mental exercise of what he called “ratiocination” with less of the populist action and dynamism displayed by Doyle’s Holmes canon. More than anything, though, Poe’s Dupin as a rational figure is redolent of the considered intellectual pace of the 19th Century, while with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle is sketching the outline of the furious and cynical motion of the 20th.

It is left to Sherlock to render the schizophrenic 21st Century through a similar vessel, and in “A Scandal in Belgravia”, it considers the contrasts between hard reason and soft sentiment directly. The narrative is adapted from the aforementioned “A Scandal in Bohemia”, a canonical favourite for Holmes fans due largely to the appearance of The Woman: Irene Adler. Adler is one of the few criminals anywhere in the canon to outwit Holmes, and Conan Doyle elegantly leaves it up to the reader whether the great detective’s evident fascination with her is of a sexual/romantic nature or merely that of a sober respect for a fellow agile mind. In the absence of any other figure approaching a love interest for Holmes elsewhere in his many adventures, Sherlockian pastiches have long assumed the former reason for the detective’s diversion at the story’s conclusion, even if that very absence in every other tale and various open declarations of borderline-misogynistic views on the part of Holmes would serve to point towards the latter.

Lovers or Nemeses?

“A Scandal in Belgravia”, which relocates the central Adler-related intrigue to Britain’s Royal Family and substitutes a camera-phone full of incriminating images and information for the scandalous photograph at the centre of the literary case, flirts cleverly and extensively with each side of the Woman Question. Sherlock’s first encounter with this modern Adler (a dominatrix to the rich and influential) sees her disrobe entirely, frustrating his go-to trick of reading a subject’s entire personality and life situation from their attire. The rest of the episode dances nimbly around the question of mutual sexual attraction; Adler programs an orgasmic moan to play on Sherlock’s mobile phone whenever she texts him (which is rather often), and the detective sinks into one of his solitary, dark moods when it appears that she’s been found dead.

But the vacillating seems to come at last to a firm conclusion at the climax (pun intended) as Sherlock cracks Adler’s phone-lock and puts an end to her scheming manipulations of the authorities (represented by his brother Mycroft) by exposing her feelings for him as real and slapping them down in the name of justice. This follows logically from a conversation the Holmes brothers have outside a morgue in which the securely, supremely rational beings deride the self-sabotaging emotion of all of those “normal” people unfortunate enough to care about each other.

But lest reason be allowed to triumph entirely over sentiment, “A Scandal in Belgravia” closes with an unmistakable revelation of Sherlock Holmes’ attachment to the femme fatale. It’s a fair choice to make, it must be granted, and none of the storytelling and character development choices made by series runners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are anything but highly considered and nuanced. But it’s equally fair for a viewer to judge a choice to be the wrong one, and I certainly judge this one to be incorrect.

When considered in reference to its position in the Holmes canon, Irene Adler is more than an anomaly, she’s an aberration. “A Scandal in Bohemia”, after all, was Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story to follow his introductory novellas A Study in Scarlet (brilliantly adapted as “A Study in Pink” for the crackerjack series premiere of Sherlock) and The Sign of Four (whose locked room mystery has a solution highly reminiscent of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). That Conan Doyle was still feeling his way around his promising literary creation was obvious, as Poe also was in the case of Dupin. Scarlet, after all, was half made up of a scathing side-story indictment of Mormons that involved the master sleuth not at all, and Holmes would never be waylaid by a woman again. It was something that the author tried out before quickly and rightly deciding that it didn’t work. That subsequent fans and creative adaptors have seized upon it as a key feature of the Holmesian whole perhaps says more about the expected narrative conventions of popular entertainment than it does about the essence Conan Doyle’s timeless creation itself. It says, among other things, that sentiment will forever undermine reason in that realm, and that the disciplined intellectual lessons of Poe as transmuted through Conan Doyle have been diluted even further in a culture of rampant emotion.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: A First Round Summation

April 28, 2012 1 comment

RandomDanglingMystery has generally maintained a relative silence about hockey matters since the Edmonton Oilers’ mathematical elimination from playoff contention became a fait accompli (which was probably sometime in January, when you really parse it). But the playoff themselves, now just commencing their second round (or conference semi-finals, to be terminologically precise), always offer multiple points of interest. The playoffs are not only notable for their drama, intrigue, and high level of play, but also for their crystallization of the professional game’s dominant themes on its largest stage.

Although the later rounds are emphasized as the surviving teams creep towards North American sport’s most iconic and tradition-soaked trophy, it’s the first round where things get especially interesting from a sporting narrative point of view. 16 teams, some of which maybe ought not even to be in the playoffs at all, are contending simultaneously, often in three or four pairs daily, and there seems to be no end to the number of discussion points offered by even a 24-hour window of games. It’s the closest that the NHL comes to the thrilling overload of the first extended weekend of NCAA basketball’s March Madness tournament. Only with much greater violence.

Just a friendly tete-a-tete. Or tete-a-verre, as it were.

This last point was especially prevalent in round one this year, hands being wrung and those same wrung-hands slapped dismissively away over the various acts of physical violence that seemed to go beyond even the pale for the practical bloodsport that is pro hockey. There was Nashville Predators Norris Trophy-nominated defenseman Shea Weber slamming Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg’s face in the glass with his hand at the end of a Predators victory, New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in the head, and, most infamously, Phoenix Coyote (and former Oilers cult hero) Raffi Torres levelling Chicago Blackhawks sniper Marian Hossa with a thunderous hit that required a stretcher to remove its victim from the ice. And these are just a few of the incidents worth mentioning.

The punishments from much-criticized NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan did not asuage the controversies; Weber got a minor fine, Hagelin a few games, Torres a guaranteed ban from the playoffs and probably for the first few weeks of next season as well. Don Cherry and his increasingly meatheaded subalterns on Hockey Night in Canada can mock critics of this sort of play as squeamish and pansified, but the violence and concussion-inviting flow of physical energy that was prevalent all season has taken on more dire proportions this playoff season, without a doubt.

As I had written about at the messy conclusion of last year’s contentious Stanley Cup Final between the champion Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, the league’s evidently mandated officiating standards for the playoffs ensures this species of edge-of-injury level of play, just as it privileged the Bruins’ smash-mouthed physical intimidation approach over the puck-possession skill game of the Canucks last spring. Neither of last year’s finalists survived the first round this time around, however, victims in both cases of a beast once believed buried but now horribly resurrected by the NHL’s laissez-faire approach to physical play in the playoffs: the smothering defensive tentacles of the dreaded neutral-zone trap.

Hossa is thinking, 'Sure, this is gonna suck, but just think: I could have been playing in Winnipeg!'

Although the defensive approach embraced by many of the teams in the second round this playoff season is perhaps not strictly similar to the much-maligned system that the millenial-era New Jersey Devils rode to three Cups, it definitely seeks to strangle offensive sorties with strict positional play in the defensive zone and strong goaltending, as well as blatant obstruction, if that is what is required to win. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun noted this trend as the Western Conference finals wrapped up with four Southern US teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) that employ varying degress of defence-first approaches emerging victorious, sending recently perennial West competitors home early (Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, and San Jose). This was not limited to the West, either; the Bruins in particular saw their scorers bunched in and limited by the brutal system of Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who has completed the makeover of a hyper-skilled roster into a limpid, freedom-limiting weighted-net ensemble (and sliced down Alex Ovechkin’s ice time drastically as a result).

Ultimately, what the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs are demonstrating most succinctly through one round of elimination contests is the contradictory and perhaps untenable position that the NHL has forged for its still-popular product (in some markets, anyway). After the lockout in 2004-05, the league came back with stricter rules concerning obstruction and encouraging scoring to restore the tarnished polish of its game. This freed up the pace of play but also lead to greater speed, bigger hits, and a concussion problem that has become endemic. With revenues now stable-to-strong in the major markets (and propping up the zombie Southern franchises through revenue sharing), the league has gradually and quietly rolled back its reforms, allowing neo-trapping to return but not much addressing the headshot problem that threatens to undermine the league in the legal arena as it has for the NFL.

All of these niggling issues were united in Torres’ hit and must have played into his ludicrously overwrought 25-game suspension. Torres was a repeat offender, and there were specific problems with the hit, of course, which was brutal in its intent, execution, and results. But here was a player on the roster of an organization that has been a demonstrable financial failure for a decade, an organization owned and operated by the league for two full seasons, supported by the profits of more successful ones, and not allowed by the league to move to a market where it might be successful, on its way to its first ever second-round playoff appearance by employing the stifling neo-trap defensive system discussed above, and he injures one of the league’s offensive stars with a borderline hit. Of course the punishment for Torres would be extreme; too many major anxieties were operative in one spotlighted event.

I don’t mean to suggest, exactly, that the Phoenix Coyotes’ ownership situation (or lack thereof) added extra games onto Raffi Torres’ suspension for a questionable on-ice hit. But on hockey’s biggest stage, the NHL must feel that it needs to protect its image above all. Who knows what other blemishes in its complexion it will feel compelled to cover up before the Cup is handed out in a month or so? Nothing to do but watch, cheer, and wait.

Categories: Sports

Film Review: Ocean’s Thirteen

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

There will be no Ocean’s Fourteen. Director Steven Soderbergh made as much clear after Bernie Mac’s passing (though you could take Mac out of any of the films in the caper trilogy and lose very little, but I digress). And looking at the still-slick but largely uninspired Thirteen, it’s difficult to see how that might be bad thing.

As with so many mainstream film trilogies, the third film in the Ocean’s series retreats to the familiar waters of the initial chapter after navigating fresher fathoms in the second chapter. Danny Ocean returns to Vegas with his gang of mismatched caricatures to exact revenge on a egomaniacal cutthroat hotel magnate (Al Pacino on casual autopilot) who swindled one of their own. Their plan resembles that of the first film and is, of course, outlandishly preposterous, but as it unfolds it also seems entirely too easy. Everything breaks their way, and when it looks like it doesn’t… well, that’s just another part of the plan that the filmmakers chose not to reveal until just now, you silly, easily-amazed moviegoer!

None of these men has flown commercial in a good decade at least.

Where the initial film (and to some extent, its first sequel) reveled in the clever twists of its caper plot as it swathed its stars in trim, retro cool, by this third attempt, the cool is all that’s left. There’s still plenty of it, but it’s all so much repetitive background colour by now. It amuses but rarely impresses. It might raise a smile, but rarely a chuckle.

The cast slide their characters on like well-worn blazers, but are mostly buried in complacency. George Clooney and Brad Pitt finish each other’s sentences, engage in plot exposition, and talk about their absent wives and how Vegas has changed. Their nostalgia for the old town of the Sands, the Desert Inn, and shaking Sinatra’s hand is a clever meta-reference to the films’ now-distant inspiration, but more than that explicitly voices the yearning for the romantic homosocial swagger of the Rat Pack that has always animated these films.

Meanwhile, Matt Damon wears a funny fake nose and has an awkward (in a bad way) seduction scene with a hyperventilating Ellen Barkin, when he’s not whining about being marginalized. Don Cheadle frets over a tunneling drill and has a brief vamping showcase in a fake afro and American flag jumpsuit. Bernie Mac is African-American, and Elliot Gould is Jewish. Andy Garcia is pure slime. Carl Reiner steals every scene he’s in with his broad, old-fashioned humour, and Casey Affleck and Scott Caan’s Malloy twins have a decently funny subplot in which they incite labour unrest at a Mexican dice factory. And of course, the sets are luscious, the editing sharp, the music slinky, the colours exquisite.

But what’s it all for? Not nearly enough entertainment, that’s for sure. This is not a bad film, but it’s the first of these expert caper flicks to feel inevitable. Ocean’s scheme is to stack the deck in his crew’s favour. Does the movie have to stack the deck is hisfavour quite so obviously?

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #8

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

TV Quickshots

The Victorians (2009; BBC)

Subtitled Their Story in Pictures and presented by BBC veteran Jeremy Paxman, The Victorians is an engaging and intermittently insightful examination of the society, culture, values, and above all the aesthetics of Victorian Britain through the rubric of art, architecture, and more quotidian forms of expression like photography, dress, and drink. Paxman, known for his abrasive current affairs programs and confrontational political interviews in Britain (he once famously asked then-Prime Minister Tony Blair if he and then-President George W. Bush prayed together), seems to relish the opportunity to unwind and slip on a cloak of pleasant affability.

Alright, honey. You win. We'll watch "The Notebook" tonight. Please get off the rug.

The host talks his audience through visions of Victorian home life, social convention, foreign empire, industry and commerce, and nature and spirituality presented in the now rather deeply unfashionable paintings of late 19th-century Britain. If Paxman cannot match the art historian’s rigour and lightning-bolt interpretive epigrams that fellow BBC grandee Simon Schama unleashes in his superb Power of Art series, then he manages to cover more ground and have a bit more fun. Paxman bounces around the British Isles, touring edifices as diverse as Scottish art museums, ornate London sewage pumping stations, Oxford’s museum monument to natural history, and the neo-medieval Cardiff Castle. He picks up some seance tricks from latter-day mesmerists, samples absinthe, gazes at century-old photographic negatives, and blushes hilariously at the sexualized delight of a lady whose period corset he helps to tighten.

More so than Paxman, however, the art of the Victorians is the four-part series’ star attraction. Highlights include the fairy paintings of Richard Dadd and the famous work of the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti and Waterhouse (dissolute hippies of their day), but the more everyday images constitute a more complete panorama of Victorian life. Days at the races, a quiet card game in the parlour, or the rippling exertions of hole-digging labourers are rendered with vivid complexity in these paintings, and Paxman points our eye to just the right spots and lets us drink in the painterly detail. The Victorian Era is so much more often understood through its literature in general and its expansive social concern novels in particular (Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, etc.) that a perspective on the cultural reality viewed through the lens of its art is refreshing and often a little surprising. The first episode, which explores how Victorian Britain grappled with the unprecedented urbanization of the era, is embedded below, and the subsequent three episode are available on YouTube as well.

“Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes” and “A Perfect Spy”: Tales of Britain’s Clandestine Elite

April 22, 2012 1 comment

Much North American contemporary sociopolitical thinking, especially on the rightward end of the spectrum, tends to pigeonhole educated elites as simultaneously out of touch and malicious, interfering with and ultimately undermining the lives of the masses whose interests they claim to be dedicated to and yet either can hardly grasp or actively disdain. Whether this conception is accurate or not (and it is so generalized as to be almost certainly not), its widespread adoption in mass culture is all the more curious if one understands large-scale political messaging as originating from those same elites, or at least buttressed and distributed by them.

Britain, however, seems a different beast altogether. Public institutions have been integrated into British society to a much greater extent than in the New World, and for a much longer time. Public service is tied into ossified notions of duty and honour, and Britain’s aristocratic remnants have been chastened into relative humility by decades of P.G. Wodehouse novels viciously lampooning the dissolute, layabout wealthy. Perhaps in our present corporatist day, the view of Britain’s elites is no kinder than that of North America’s. But a certain history of accomplishment and pride underscores the (self-)conception of Britain’s best and brightest down to today.

These undercurrents run deep in two products of Britain’s established elite that I’ve worked my way through recently: Julian Carey’s BBC documentary Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes and John le Carré’s 1986 novel A Perfect Spy. The former focuses on the Nazi message cipher-solving geniuses of the titular WWII-era headquarters of MI6’s famed Station X. A favourite subject of Britain’s contemporary intellectuals (whose own service to the nation consists of making television documentaries), Bletchley Park’s wartime collection of brilliant academics cracking enemy ciphers of fiendish complexity has become a prime example of the oft-maligned intellectual elite contributing directly to the betterment of society and the toppling of Nazi tyranny. The story, first widely disseminated by Station X, a documentary series by Britain’s Channel 4,  is an alternative to the stiff-upper-lip narratives of British endurance to the Blitz as well as to Greatest Generation military homosocial hagiography of the Band of Brothers variety. For modern creative elite types worn out by the consistent advancement of humble suffering and masculine power as the war-effort values most worthy of hallowing, Bletchley Park represents an opportunity to similarly hallow their own values of meticulous study, innovative out-of-the-box thinking, and sustained cognitive exertion.

Although such things are essentially immeasurable, conventional wisdom has it that the acitivities of Bletchley’s intelligence units shortened World War II by two to four years, and indeed may have made it winnable for the Allies in the first place. Much of the credit for this is laid upon the breaking of the code of the Enigma ciphering machine. The complex mechanically-generated code was initially broken successfully by Poland’s Cipher Bureau at the start of the war, but their methods were adapted and accomplished in greater repetition at Station X largely due to the efforts of Alan Turing, the famed mathematician, pioneering figure in computer science, and martyr to social homophobia. Turing’s mental triumph over the Enigma code has become a metaphor for the similar eventual triumph of Western democracy’s intellectual openness over the rigid ideological thought of the Nazis (even if that “openness” did not extend to sexual predilections, much to his detriment).

Code-Breakers, for its part, follows the Freakonomics-style, “everything you know is wrong” approach to this material. It focuses on two figures from the Bletchley Park circle that Carey and his documentary team consider to be forgotten or at least insufficiently feted: William Tutte, a mathematical prodigy who provided the blueprint for cracking the code of the much more complex post-Enigma cipher machine codenamed “Tunny”, and Tommy Flowers, the engineer who designed and built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, to decode Tunny messages. Due to the top-secret nature of their great wartime accomplishments, neither Tutte nor Flowers received what the documentary deems to be sufficient recognition for them. Still, both lead perfectly pleasant and successful bourgeois lives after the war, and neither was arrested for sodomy, chemically castrated, and killed by cyanide poisoning like the apparently sufficiently recognized Turing was. So they did have that much going for them, anyway.

le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, on the other hand, sets out to tell a story of Britain’s clandestine elite that is much more ambiguous and difficult. The novel follows Magnus Pym, a Cold Way master spy who vanishes days after the death of his legendary con-artist father and is immediately suspected of defection, treason and double-agency. Some of those suspicions are accurate, others not so much. But the book, like all of le Carré’s best work, is less about the revelation of secrets than the moral character and human dimension of the people who keep those secrets.

Pym is not some kind of monster, as he is accused of being at one point by a colleague who strongly suspects him of betraying intelligence secrets to a Czech agent. That is certainly the impression that le Carré attempts to put across by making Pym the unreliable narrator of his own life story. Holed up in a seaside boarding house to write his story and die, to paraphrase Pym himself, this cicadian storyteller unspools his path up to that point of no return with a mix of wit, skepticism, humour, pathos, and self-deprecation that is frightfully, delightfully British. These episodes penned by his hand are intercut with the efforts of his wife Mary, his intelligence mentor Jack Brotherhood (that’s not a codename, either; le Carré has a flair for naming that is so symbolically obvious as to be transcendent) and other figures at “the Firm” and beyond to understand and to locate him, which are evidently viewed as the same thing, ultimately.

Magnus Pym was not born of Britain’s elite nor was he raised in its genuine auspices. Although his confidence trickster father Rick constantly finagled his way towards wealth and privilege and often affected its trappings in his elaborate schemes before his ubiquitous “temporary problems of liquidity” caught up to him, Magnus is deprived of the sheltered, consistent privilege of the circles he moves in by the time he is an established Firm agent. Indeed, despite the loose family atmosphere provided for the boy by Rick and his entourage, Magnus finds human connection difficult except in the very rare case, and is haunted in particular by the untimely ends of two maternal figures: his spectral invalid mother proper and Lippsie, his father’s German Jewish paramour for a time who is an adored and more than a little sexualized ideal for the younger Pym. Partly from his con-man father and partly from the milieu of constant change and adaptation, the foundations are laid in Magnus Pym to become the titular “perfect spy”: he can vary his personality to appeal to anyone in any situation, and his conceptions of loyalty are ephemeral at best.

le Carré’s writings are often reduced to the intrigue-soaked conventions of the espionage genre that he helped to create, but what he’s doing is much more sophisticated and literary than he tends to gets credit for. Indeed, the espionage intrigue is almost secondary to the humanistic elements of the novel, the character sketches and the sharp dialogue and the persistent symbolism (Rick hauls around a large green cabinet that supposedly contains the heart of his deceptions and the lungs through which Magnus breathes the world but winds up being a sort of metaphorical MacGuffin). The sections in Magnus’ narrating voice, detailing his own growth and education as well as many of the most notable episodes of his father’s schemes, are hugely entertaining reads, dripping with delicious irony (Rick’s dedicated entourage of co-conspirators is referred to as “the court”, and their shifting headquarters is the “Reichskanzlei”, the grandiose wartime German name for the office of the Chancellor).

But as much as these chapters sprawl in their scope, they finally serve the larger project of examining the inscrutable identity of a representative member of the clandestine elite. Like Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes, A Perfect Spy considers not only the necessary dedication of the elites serving the hidden objectives of the British nation but also the attendant sacrifices and disfiguring demands of the institutions they serve and the tasks they face. If the novel does not glorify the elite representatives in question as the documentary does, perhaps that is the function of the fundamental ambiguity of the post-war world, where absolute righteousness is impossible and absolute evil a matter of ideological disagreement. Whatever their differences, however, both of these works give fascinating insight into the clandestine activities of elites that is blissfully free of anti-intellectualist fervour. We could do worse, and far too often do.

Film Review: Hamlet 2

April 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Hamlet 2 (2008; Directed by Andrew Fleming)

A vicious parodic takedown of soppy inspirational teacher dramas, of  stupidly grand Broadway musical theatre convention, and of Tucson, Arizona, Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 can be patchy and jerkily-paced but boasts its share of huge laughs as well.

Wow, '"Glee" has really let itself go lately, hasn't it?

Most notably, Hamlet 2 is perhaps the first American film that has come even close to taking full advantage of Steve Coogan’s unique comic gifts, casting him as a failed-actor-turned-high-school-drama-teacher who masterminds a demented theatrical spectacle of surrealistic proportions. It’s certainly the first film of any kind to feature, among other ridiculous things, a teenage theatre critic quoting Roland Barthes in school newspaper reviews, a Hamlet-Laertes lightsaber duel, and a climactic, show-stopping musical number entitled “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus”. We also get a fully-engaged Catherine Keener, whose funniest scene of alcohol-asssisted snappiness makes you forget how defanged she was in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as well as Elisabeth Shue, who is totally game to make fun of her stalled acting career.

The movie’s humour is biting and anarchic in its satirical outlook. Fleming’s co-writer Pam Brady worked on the South Park movie as well as Team America: World Police, and the similarities between those all-offending American satires and this one definitely show through, warts and all. Sometimes it’s a bit too biting and anarchic, however, and spins wildly out of control, shedding comic integrity as it corkscrews. This is especially the case whenever Amy Poehler gets screen time as an aggressive, venom-spitting ACLU lawyer, and when the tidal wave of jokes about Latino stereotypes recedes, leaving, well, Latino stereotypes.

But like the audience at the premiere performance of the titular play, we are encouraged to have differing reactions. That’s art, and that’s comedy: if everyone who experienced it agreed exactly on what it was, then it wouldn’t be either. You can’t entirely fault a film with the courage of its own convictions, even if its most dearly-held conviction is the mockery of those with convictions. Hamlet 2 sends up the very ground it stands on, so it shouldn’t be so surprising that its tread becomes a little unsteady.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Girl Model

April 16, 2012 4 comments

Girl Model (2011; Directed by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin)

From the snowbound boreal desolation row of Siberia to the glittering technocratic metropolis of Tokyo, this border-crossing documentary paints an unnervingly intimate portrait of the underaged modelling industry. Girl Model finds that bookers, agents, photographers, and nearly everyone else who crosses the path of the pretty, slight Russian ingenue Nadya Vall is basically exploiting her for their own gain. Even her parents are counting on her putative modelling earnings to pay for improvements to their painfully modest cabin-like abode in Novosibirsk. There is much riding on her beauty, but at 13, she cannot fully grasp how much.

From its opening sequence of pale, waif-like, bikini-clad teenage Siberian girls queuing in an auditorium for an audition of a few scant seconds in front of a talent scout to the pathos of scenes of Nadya’s struggles in Japan, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s camera pushes right up to the faces and bodies of its female subjects. The close-ups become unsettling and even intrusive, but reflect the similar unsettling, intrusive voyeurism that lurks just behind the flashbulbs of the fashion world.

Even the professional participants in this meat market of modelling minors are exposed in uncomfortably blemished detail, and hold grave doubts about its underlying immorality. The aforementioned talent scout who “discovers” Nadya in Novosibirsk, former model Ashley Arbaugh, is the main such figure in the film. The central narrative thread of the disillusionment of the innocent Nadya is interrupted by interludes with Arbaugh that become increasingly baroque in their combination of weirdness and pathetic, guilt-ridden dissembling.

Arbaugh cultivates the sympathy of the audience early on, as she is filmed on the Trans-Siberian Railway expressing profound doubts about the moral and even existential value of the industry she works in, even owning up to completely hating the whole of it when she herself was a working model. Self-filmed footage from her modelling days gets unsettlingly intimate, and suggests considerable mental distress on her part. Then the cameras follow her to her antiseptic modern manse in Connecticut, where she keeps shoeboxes full of photos of her model friends’ bodies, some of them dismembered by the frame and never quite matching properly. The corporeal dismemberment theme becomes more pronounced when she produces two baby dolls that she bought from a dollar store when she moved into the house; there used to be a third doll, but she confesses to dissecting it.

The mutilation of the human body is also invoked by one of Girl Model‘s cartoon-villain model agents, a hyper-Russian self-promoter named Tigran who manages Nadya’s ill-fated transfer to Tokyo. He presents such an outsized vision of himself as a morally-upright paladin who uplifts his naive young girls that it has clearly never occured to anyone who deals with him to call him on its obvious inaccuracy. Before speculating that he must have been a bad military type who killed many people in a past life to be allowed to do so much good in this one, Tigran reveals that he regularly brings his models to the morgue to look upon the corpses of drug addicts and other non-beautiful unfortunates, even parading them past autopsies if the need for indoctrination is dire enough. As we guffaw in disbelief, Arbaugh looks on, baffled but still admiring of Tigran’s “professionalism”. She’s buying what he’s selling, it seems.

Girl Model is content to present Arbaugh, Tigran, Nadya, and other peripheral figures in the story (there’s a swaggering Japanese agent named Messiah whose douchebaggery could likely have eclipsed all others with more screentime) in particulars if never quite in isolation. Redmon and Sabin run on-screen subtitles which hint that Nadya’s Japanese experience (waiting days for auditions and brief unpaid photo shoots before eventually being sent home in considerable debt to her various agents) is not an uncommon one, and show another model absolving all involved parties of blame for any exploitation that takes place. Indeed, the chain of agencies and individual players which pass Nadya and her image back and forth between themselves seems constructed in the interest of diluting legal responsibility as well as potential compensation for the model herself.

The sadness pours out of her eyes…

But Girl Model‘s visual intimacy substitutes indelible yet subtle emotion for detailed systematic critiques. Nadya, fair-haired and frail with the impossibly wide eyeballs of an extraterrestrial doe, suffers but never quite loses her innocent hopes for a brighter future opened up by her natural gifts. Arbaugh is her opposite, a pretty shell mourning the death of her own innocence, her eyes suffused with elegiac guilt at perpetuating a cycle of exploitation. When she raises the spectre of underaged prostitution walking hand-in-hand with underaged modelling, she’s being literal and metaphoric at the same time. In a superficial world of harsh, classifying gazes and discriminatory beauty standards, the female body is always already being sold, and all that’s left to negotiate is the extent and the specific price.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Titanic: The Certainty of Catastrophe, 100 Years Later

April 14, 2012 2 comments

Unless you either live under a rock or have a poor mind for dates combined with significant mathematical struggles, you’ve surely noticed that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic is this weekend (late on April 14th and the early morning of the 15th, to be precise). A century on, the demise of the largest ship in the world on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic and the deaths of 1,514 of its passengers is a historic tragedy that retains an allure and a resonant symbolism that many much more important occurrences do not. Even as the event has passed beyond living memory (the last survivor of the wreck, Millvina Dean, passed on in 2009), recognition of and interest in the sinking has endured and even grown. But what is the role played by the Titanic in our culture, and what can it tell us about our current condition?

I have to confess that I was once a certified Titanic nut in specific and a junior romanticist for the gilded age of transatlantic passenger liner travel in general. In my teen years in the early 1990s, when my peers were more concerned with snowmobiles, wrist shots, and clandestine social drinking, I could speak knowledgeably on the design failures of watertight compartments and enumerate consecutive holders of the Blue Riband (the unofficial honorific for the liner completing the Atlantic crossing in record time).

My fascination was above all a historic one, grounded in books like Walter Lord’s legendarily sober chronicle of the Titanic disaster A Night to Remember and A&E’s definitive documentary on the subject, Titanic: Death of a Dream and The Legend Lives On. My passion was focused on the detective-type minutiae and details, but the tragic human scope of the event was never far away. I recall a particular moment while perusing a list of the ship’s passengers at the end of Lord’s book. The final name was italicized, indicating the passenger had perished. The simple impact of that, the realization that this was one human life like any other abruptly ended and hundreds more were ended with it, was indelible. Childish things began to be put away.

Of course, the ‘90s also brought James Cameron’s mega-hit blockbuster Titanic film, which exploded the history-buff Titanic cult into a demographic-flattening mass cultural phenomenon. It’s a telling truth about this film’s primacy in the pop culture manifestations of the Titanic disaster that its re-release this year with 3D enhancement has been the most reported commemorative episode of the sinking’s 100th anniversary.

The film’s record success, however, served to mostly snuff out the fires of my own passion for the subject. This is not a movie review, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen Cameron’s epic to judge it fairly from memory alone (and I did enjoy it back in 1997 upon its first release). But at the time, it was obvious enough even to an awkward teen without the critical language to express it that Titanic was less about offering a sober, detailed understanding of the tragedy than visualizing and re-forming that tragedy in order to slip it into the gown of tearjerking Hollywood melodrama. That Cameron’s film builds towards a prodigious heft is undeniable even by the most cynical observer. Titanic’s final hour, in which the characters’ stilted dialogue gives way to visionary, almost wordless imagery of cinematic grandeur, is entirely defensible as pure and brilliant (if manipulative) filmmaking. As both prim civilization and impressive engineering are bent and broken by the inevitability of rising water, Cameron achieves a measure of populist art at its most irresistible.

Still, the film represented the mainstreaming of the Titanic subculture and its reduction to a soft-focus romantic sea opera for housewives and teenage girls alike. Furthermore, its overmatching spectacle was rarely sombre and hardly respectful of mortality’s grim ubiquity in the proceedings. By the final stages of the sinking sequence, when a cart-wheeling computer-generated body plunges from the upthrust stern and clangs with dull metallic emptiness off one of the immense exposed propellers, it’s clear as day that Cameron’s interest lies not in empathetic elegy but in meticulously-staged exhibition.

If Titanic the film galvanized a place for Titanic the sunken ship in our millennial culture, the symbolism of the tragedy has been galvanized into self-parody. As much as I love A&E’s seminal Titanic documentary, its greatest fault (besides the ingratiating narration by David McCallum) is its reliance on the laziest conceptions of the event’s wider significance. The idea, espoused by that documentary as well as many a popular historian of the event, that the loss of the Titanic represented either an “end of innocence” or a day of reckoning for the hubris of industrial civilization is simply a laughable concept. The technologically-driven progress and wealth of the so-called Gilded Age would, just over two years later, segue into the mass mechanized slaughter of the First World War, a social cataclysm on a scale which makes the sinking of a mere ocean liner seem quaint in comparison. Nor would either the Titanic’s ignominious end or the wars that followed it check the inexorable advance of the economic growth, technological innovation, and class disparity, those intertwined strands would form the tragedy’s unique DNA.

This last point may hint at what a distant, century-old nautical disaster can suggest about contemporary society and culture. The particular conditions which were operative when the Titanic struck an iceberg and slipped beneath the North Atlantic in 1912 may not strictly apply to the world of 2012, despite the efforts of certain incompetent Italian cruise ship captains to make them new again. But the Titanic does tell us something about the inescapability of large-scale tragedies in a human society riven by artificial socioeconomic divisions and animated by the avaricious momentum of the mega-wealthy. Our society, after all, shares the symptomatic profile of the society that spawned the Titanic, as perhaps all human market-driven societies do, in the final analysis. It is neither innocence nor hubris that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic warns us against, therefore. It marks instead the certainty of catastrophes of our own making, both inadvertent and purposeful.

Film Review: 50/50

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

50/50 (2011; Directed by Jonathan Levine)

If 50/50 is out to prove anything, it’s that cancer can be funny. Painful, difficult, challenging, emotionally draining, and a strain not only to the patient but to all those around them as well, of course. But hey – it can also be funny!

But it’s not very funny, at least not in this milquetoast, naturalistic film on the subject. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and written by cancer survivor Will Reiser, 50/50 follows the low-key, likable Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a public radio news producer from Seattle (which is so obviously actually Vancouver) who is diagnosed with a rare sort of spinal cancer whose name he cannot pronounce. We see Adam internalize his physical pain and emotional loathing as he struggles to relate to the people around him through the heavy filter of his illness. Unwilling to connect meaningfully with his intrusive, smothering mother (Anjelica Huston) and unable to connect at all with the Alzheimer’s-stricken shell of his father (Serge Houde), Adam also can’t feel his way around his increasingly distant failed-artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his young, adorable, but professional awkward therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick). It falls largely to his longtime buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen playing Seth Rogen) to comfort him as only he knows how: with beer, weed, and pussy (as well as some amusing lad-criticism of contemporary art).

I know it's extreme, but our R.E.M. tribute band is going to be so much more awesome now!

50/50 is a movie with a wandering, sympathetic heart, but its approach to the inescapable seriousness of cancer does not build towards cathartic laughter nearly as often as promised. The title references Adam’s survival chances, and the spectre of mortality is hardly shied away from. But Gordon-Levitt is the centre of things, and my, does he hold. Wasted in empty supporting roles in action blockbusters like G.I. Joe and Inception for the past couple of years, it’s easy to forget what a controlled but natural performer Gordon-Levitt is. Adam is a mix of self-deprecation, sensitivity, and steely conviction, and he’s hardly a saint. But we’re on his side, and not merely because the plot inevitably demands that we must be. Gordon-Levitt is so good here that his effort looks effortless, even as his pain is hardly painless.

The film around this impeccable performance is rife with distracting problems, mind you. The romantic-bromantic parallellogram between Adam, Kyle, Rachael and Katherine presents a multiplicity of glaring issues. The negative characterization of the self-absorbed Rachael’s betrayal and manipulation of the stricken Adam is contrasted sharply to Kyle’s halting but heartfelt frat boy bonding. That Kyle exposes her for what she is and drives her away from his friend strengthens the impression so common to boys-own American comedies of recent vintage; namely, that women cannot be trusted and male society is the most rewarding relationship vector available. Adam’s bonding with two other male cancer patients (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) over chemotherapy reinforces the supposed supremacy of homosociality.

The blossoming heterosexual relationship between Adam and therapist Katherine, meanwhile, is presented as a healthy alternative to the one he just ended with Rachael, but is rife with obvious professional ethical breaches. Kendrick, whose performance is sprinkled with neurotic little gestures that make her seem more human than she perhaps ought to be, does at least display some awareness that important boundaries are being crossed in Katherine’s attempted treatment of Adam. But they are crossed nonetheless, and add to the general impression of a movie that feels just slightly off.

Perhaps a purported comedy about a young man contracting cancer cannot help but feel off, cannot avoid a certain disequilibrium of tone and content. And maybe there is an excellent, funny, emotionally galvanizing film to be wrung out of this essential contradiction, but 50/50 is unfortunately not it. And would it have killed Levine to break up his earnest ’90s indie rock soundtrack with a bit of Stephen Stills? Too literal a choice for some tastes, I suppose, but the absence can be lamented nonetheless.

Categories: Film, Reviews

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter #2

April 10, 2012 4 comments

And so follows the second edition of my Twitter recommendations on a sleepy Tuesday evening. Post #1 on the subject is here, my own Twitter feed can be tracked here, and my latest suggestions are:


Much of the first decade and a half of internet mass geek culture was – and still is, in certain quarters – dominated by the Star Wars generation, who unleashed an online flood of Flash videos, fan sites and caustic responses to the Lucas of George’s prequel trilogy. Now that the kids who grew up on the original trilogy have begun to go to middle-aged seed and the subculture has been thoroughly mainstreamed by Hollywood-approved Star Wars nerds like Seth McFarlane and JJ Abrams (to say nothing of Lucas’ own avaricious artistic perfidy), perhaps the way is paved for a younger cadre of geeks to elevate their childhood sci-fi obsessions to viral status. My vote for the inheritors of this dubious mantle are Star Trek fans, emblodened by the tangential success of the aforementioned Abrams’ film reboot of the series to champion a mostly discarded television relic of the late 1980s and early 1990s: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The referential insider humour of @TNG_S8 represents this potential movement at its purest. The name of the Twitter feed itself is an inside joke: there were only seven seasons of Next Generation, and this feed purports to offer brief episode synopses of “lost” episodes of a continued series. Fans of the show will easily catch the lampooning of the predictable turns of the plot in these summaries. Odd phenomena threaten the Enterprise, characters are easily trapped everywhere, and literary pretentions abound. The show’s characters are reduced to stereotypes that fit pretty snugly, really. Klingon Lieutenant Worf is forever truculent and violent, while Captain Kirk proxy Commander Riker gets in fights and romances the space ladies.

The real stars of @TNG_S8 are Lieutenant Commanders Geordi LaForge and Data, however, whose friendship of scientific curiosity and ingenious problem-solving from the show becomes rich fodder for parodic exagerration. Geordi and Data are reduced amusingly to questing adolescent mischief-makers with an endless litany of schemes and pursuits: they have staring contests and holodeck snowball fights, build pillow forts and hunt mice, and dare each other to lick the warp core. They are, essentially, the Goonies on a starship. Will non-TNG types get any of it? Probably not. But on the inside, it’s wonderful stuff.

Representative Tweet:


Confession: I have never read the famous Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I do, however, cohabitate with a young lady who grew up with Wilder’s kid-lit chronicles of her hardscrabble plains upbringing, and her appreciation of @HalfPintIngalls is thus surely greater than mine as a result. Still, I can appreciate ironic humour in any guise, and there are ample helpings of that on this feed.

Most of the laughs that @HalfPintIngalls offers are earned through the contrast between the vanished life of rough simplicity and plentiful hardship of Wilder’s fiction with our current cultural norm of instant gratification and superficial wish-fulfillment (her “Pioneer beauty tips” include “Avoid dysentry”, and her contribution to the #SexiestManAlive trending topic was Rutherford B. Hayes). But @HalfPintIngalls is at its best when it applies our post-modern psychological conceptions of alienation to a historical milieu which was too engulfed by the menial desperation of daily survival to offer such existential predilections any oxygen. We chuckle at how far we’ve come, and wonder if we’ve arrived anywhere at all.

Representative Tweet: