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Film Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007; Directed by Shekhar Kapur)

Elizabeth was a frothily energetic portrait of a beguiling, likable young woman grappling with the harsh and complicated realities of becoming a ruling monarch, but its overwrought and grandiose sequel works busily to put the hard-won humanity of Cate Blanchett’s iconic heroine on an impossible mythical pedestal. It’s a statement to Blanchett’s unique gifts that her Virgin Queen remains complex and deeply human, but the film around her rarely does her any overt favours.

We are not at all perturbed by the likelihood that Guersney can see up Our skirts.

Director Shekhar Kapur, who also helmed the widely-loved 1998 film that launched Blanchett to international stardom, lays on the visual language of the historical epic as thick as lacquer, and the unreal sheen that results often impresses. It’s an unconscionably lavish film, with its Oscar-winning costumes and massive cathedral spaces, to say nothing of the CGI recreation of the Spanish Armada. With his locations, Kapur often attempts to dwarf his characters’ history-making destinies with the stony sublimity of centuries-old architecture, shooting them from high cloisters largely obscured by flying buttresses. But he contradicts himself, flattening multi-faceted human beings into mythic archetypes at the same time as he tries to diminish their heroic qualities.

Cate’s got Elizabeth down by now, for sure. But Kapur steals away much of the sympathy the Queen earned in his first film about her by the climax of The Golden Age, where he constructs her as some Holy Angel of Albion, a mystical earth-mother single-handedly willing the sea to swallow her enemies. Clive Owen, an actor of unbending talent who needs only a hint of interest on which to build compelling romantic heroes, is reduced to a one-dimensional poetic dreamer-adventurer. His Sir Walter Raleigh is a seabound Rhett Butler with poofier pants. Geoffrey Rush’s Sir Francis Walsingham, a ruthless backroom force in Elizabeth, is here mired in a sappy subplot and bequeathed a tacked-on deathbed scene. Elizabeth’s Spanish foe, King Philip II (Jordi Mollà), is turned into a nastily Othered zealot, a stalking, Inquisitorial creep muttering about God’s will in dark palaces where everyone (inexplicably) wears black. Perhaps most successful amongst the supporting cast is Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots, who never really says anything of consequence but vibrates with a mix of self-righteousness, wounded pride, and prim privilege at all times.

Of course, she also wears black, as do all around her, a stark contrast to Elizabeth’s shining court of white. However historical the opulence might be, there’s a lurking Manicheism to the colour palette that is markedly disappointing. One final comparison can thus be made between this film and its predecessor. If Elizabeth was a film of its time, a late-’90s historical-fiction fable of political intrigue and hopeful ascendancy, then The Golden Age is also a film of its time, a War on Terror allegory of stark moral absolutes set in WASPy homeland besieged by swarthy religious extremists hell-bent on destruction. And one can’t help but be disappointed by that.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

TV Quickshots #9

May 28, 2012 1 comment

TV Quickshots

You Gotta Eat Here (Food Network Canada; 2012-Present)

An initial synopsis: You Gotta Eat Here is the Canadian Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. If you’ve never seen or even heard of the Food Network staple “Triple D”, forgive a brief explication. Basically, obnoxious, fat-fingered, and astoundingly tacky American chef Guy Fieri visits two or three bodacious comfort-food establishments in the U.S. of A per 30-minute episode. He chats with customers, picks the brains and the recipes of the cooks, samples the delicious grub, and invariably spits out some stupidly-phrased nugget of praise for its excellent flavour explosion before moving onto the next joint. As I wrote some time ago about the show, it’s instant, guilty gratification at its purest and most Yankee-fied (or is that Yankee-fried? Often, it is). “Triple D” is the television programming equivalent of the high-carb, fat-packed food it profiles. I’m a fan despite this (or rather because of it) and hit up no less than three diners featured on the show on a trip to Boston last year.

I’ve hit the flavour sweet spot! Mercy!

To be perfectly frank, though, its inferior Canuck franchise makes the mouth water for the real thing. It’s not that the establishments and culinary creations featured on You Gotta Eat Here are necessarily a step down from those on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, although the Canadian restaurants are almost invariably funkier and more health-food-conscious than their southern counterparts. If Canada’s populist culinary scene is not in fact more progressively-minded and diverse than America’s, You Gotta Eat Here finds little ancedotal evidence to support it. Furthermore, the production is of similar quality and technique (quick cuts, lots of salival-flow-inducing plate close-ups, soundtrack of retro-sounding ’50s rock n’ roll) and in both cases the cooks and proprieters are on their best and most photogenic behaviour, visibly anticipating the surefire attendance bump that the show will provide to their establishments.

No, the biggest issue with You Gotta Eat Here is host John Catucci. In each episode’s introduction, he is upfront about being a comedian and not a chef, but seems not to have much more of a grasp of comedy than of cuisine. Catucci drops non-funny jokes with a wet, sucking plop, like so many unpeeled onions into a promising soup. Gastronomically-speaking, he lacks to expertise to speak about gastronomy. Reduced to observing as the food is prepared and kicking out neutral superlatives upon tasting it (everything is “awesome” or “amazing”, and sometimes both), Catucci manages the titanic accomplishment of making the viewer pine for Fieri.

As remarkably odious as the host of the American original is on the level of personality, he’s at least a trained chef who knows his food, and thus can both discuss the preparation process freely with his show’s subjects and knowledgably describe the way that flavours and ingredients function together to make an item taste good. He may drench his insights with off-putting dollops of twat sauce, but at least he has insights. Catucci merely eats the food and tells us that it’s good. All the more reason to obey the titular exhortation and try for ourselves, I suppose.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow (2007; Directed by Garth Jennings)

Garth Jennings’ smart and silly tribute to childhood imagination does for backyard filmmaking what The Sandlot did for neighbourhood baseball. Namely, Son of Rambow unmoors the creative id of youth from mere indulgent nostalgia and allows it to float free on a sea of dreams. But it’s also a sneaky allegorizing of the ups and downs of the collaborative creative process.

Oddly enough, this is pretty much how Stallone got his start, too.

The friendship and cinematic partnership of Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and Lee Carter (Will Poulter) overcomes social and familial obstacles, is run through the gauntlet of peer recognition and cliquish poseurhood, and nearly runs aground on the ever-popular rocks of “creative differences”. That it emerges intact should tell us more about the generic demands of even an indie comedy than of its particular tensile strength. Furthmore, it would seem to me that Will’s fertile visual imagination would be likely to have more of a future in animation than in the nuts-and-bolts live-action filmmaking that the practical Lee is most suited to.

The closing note, however, is one of fledgling artistic union, of melding disparate abilities and playing to each other’s strengths. This surely must be a textualizing of the director’s own creative partnership with producer Nick Goldsmith under the Hammer & Tongs imprint. Interesting that for this fictionalization of their collaboration, however, Jennings has sole credit.

What Jennings’ film does better than merely reflecting his own amateur filmmaking apprenticeship is to craft a perfectly air-tight space for the delirious creative energies of childhood to run rampant. It then cleverly uses that space to comment on how those same energies are accessed, activated, and navigated to completion in a more dissipated form by adults (or should we call them older children?). And it’s worth a mention that Son of Rambow is pretty funny and surprisingly tender without being maudlin. Not an easy balance to strike, either.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Short-Winded Elations of Men: Anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

May 24, 2012 2 comments

The first preview trailer for director Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby arrived online a couple of days ago to a divided set of reactions, united only occasionally by their knife’s edge of dismissive snark. Any adaptation of a great and beloved book is bound to attract skeptics and doubters and textual purists of various stripes, and this effect is certainly not lessened by the profile of the filmmaker in question.

Do you think the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are watching us right now? How about in the shower?

Luhrmann is known as a bold, demonstrative visualist who goes for the showstopping theatrical flourish before the subtle aesthetic touch, and much of the anxiety about his take on the material boils down to the apparent incongruity of his style  to the sophisticated, cuttingly philosophic prose favoured by Fitzgerald. Last seen shepherding a widescreen nationalist myth of his native land in the mostly-ignored Australia, Luhrmann will always be best-known for his Red Curtain Trilogy, in particular the fictional components of it which each have as many detractors as devotees: Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!  These lavish, operatic films each earned every measure of their respective eye-catching titular punctuations. Moulin Rouge! was all giddily anachronistic musical excess, joyous eagerness to entertain and enrapture oozing from its every pore until our eyes beheld naught but a surging waterfall of cinematic love. Romeo + Juliet cleverly rendered the hysteric adolescent grandeur of Shakespeare’s stealth satire of romantic cliches into a sweaty, neon-spangled California beach noir.

This film is of particular interest to this discussion of Gatsby, since it represents the previous instance of collaboration between Luhrmann and a young actor with the soft features of a classic matinee idol and the intensity of young Brando or Pacino: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio plays the inscrutable Gatsby in Luhrmann’s adaptation, and has taken winding paths back to the comfort of the gaze of Luhrmann’s lens. After James Cameron’s Titanic made him arguably the biggest star in the world for a fleeting moment, DiCaprio used his new prominence to gradually bulk up physically and exclusively choose roles demanding serious thespianic perspiration from him (an occasional breezy sojourn such as Catch Me If You Can aside). Thus, he portrayed legendary, complex American figures like Howard Hughes (The Aviator) and J. Edgar Hoover (J. Edgar) and tortured protagonists haunted by the past (The Departed, Inception, Shutter Island), the latter type of role memorably dubbed his “boiled owl” mode by Salon’s film critic Andrew O’Hehir.

Given Leo’s propensity for these types of roles, Jay Gatsby seems like an obvious next step for him, being both an enigmatic American icon and a man haunted (and hunted) by his past in one convenient literary package. The other major casting is also plausible; Carey Mulligan shouldn’t be too challenged by the role of Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire’s boyish cipherhood is a strong match for the observant wide eyes of narrator Nick Carraway. Nor is Luhrmann necessarily a poor directorial choice to helm the defining narrative of the Roaring Twenties; his trademark sumptuousness is on full display in the trailer embedded below, and the clownish tone that his films have a tendency to take on might even be a decent match for Fitzgerald’s critique of the irresponsibility of the Jazz Age’s nouveau riche.

But Luhrmann’s coming adaptation seems, from a scant few minutes of rapid-cut imagery pre-selected for our judgemental pleasure at least, much more invested in encapsulating a received popular understanding of what The Great Gatsby signifies than reflecting the implications of Fitzgerald’s text. From the mechanistic Art Deco style of the titles and teaser poster to the elaborate re-creations of Gatsby’s indulgent garden parties at his West Egg mansion, the setting seems more vital than what’s actually going on there. The burning lack of story, character, and symbolism hinted at in the trailer makes the proceedings seem to promise plentiful style but scant substance, and this is precisely the formulation that Fitzgerald intended his most famous work to criticise. That the film will be shot and released in the increasingly faddish 3D that Hollywood continues to believe will salvage their diminished brand does not help alleviate this impression.

Ultimately, only a well-made, strongly-acted, metaphorically robust Gatsby film can alleviate it. It’s a ripe time indeed for a new screen version of Gatsby, a cultural touchstone that Americans often find themselves turning to in times of economic hardship and uncertainty. The last Hollywood take, after all, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, came out in the midst of the milieu of nationwide angst and doubt that was mid-1970s America. But is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby going to hold up a black mirror to contemporary conditions in the USA? Or will it reduce Fitzgerald’s keen cautionary social chronicle to an glittering exercise in production design and visual bravado? Christmas will tell.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #3

May 22, 2012 3 comments

Returning for the third time, it’s the slightly-widely-loved Random Dangling Mystery feature that throws bizarre, jocular, and otherwise notable search hits back at site viewers in a run-on meta-posting of mind-boggling proportions. Spelling and grammatical errors, of course, very much preserved. Previous installments are from July and December 2011, making this the first such post of the last year ever, if the Mayans’ obscure astrological calculii can be believed. Which surely they can. My own calculii comes to thirteen (or fourteen, technically) terms. Down we go.

teen girls taking there close off

Simultaneously illustrating both the pedophilic undercurrents of the internet (the wider culture, really) and the importance of proper spelling and grammar, this was by far the tamest and least skin-crawling search that yielded my review of Girl Model.

russian beefcake

I hear that goes nicely with some borscht and a shot of vodka. Prijatnovo appetita!

corpulence unchecked

I cannot find any post on this site where I might have used a phrase so rhetorically wonderful as this, although the one I chose to link to does employ “blithe suburban corpulence”. So, you know, close, but no cigar.

fuck off wall e

A bit harsh, no? What did that sympathetically-eyed clunker robot ever do to you, besides feature in a cutesy dystopian animated film that analogized your comfortable North American existence as a moral, ecological, and technological disease that would render Earth an uninhabitable wasteland? The mass consequences of corpulence unchecked? Man, that phrase is my new drug. I’m hooked.

does the r in royal family have to be capatalized?

Only by un-bumpkinesque non-peasants. Now drop and grovel, maggot! A day’s not complete without some prostrate subjects.

ross langager girlfriend

It will never be revealed who exactly she is.

ross langager gay / ross langager fucking with your site stats

This is exactly who she is.

beavers and bitches in town

This sounds like the title of a very sexy Prince song.

chris nolan fascist

One mustn’t confuse implication with intention in such matters. But we can have that discussion, if you like. I have my suspicions, if you would know.

cartoon caricature of a raptor descending on a defiant mouse

It’s times like this that I wish I was a surer hand at MS Paint.

good old fashioned wholesome porn

Is there any other kind? Hold on. Don’t answer that. Rhetorical.

boston red sox b stands for bitch

I can’t fathom what post this would have lead anyone to. My Boston travel post? The Town review again? All I know for sure is that Yankees fans are a tremendously witty bunch.

romney is a weird mormon plutocrat

You said it, not me. And if he keeps leading Obama in the polls, “you” could refer to a lot of people indeed.

Film Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (2008; Directed by Ron Howard)

A couple of strong central performances save this film from both Hollywood contrivance and from Ron Howard’s reliable mediocrity. Even if David Frost and Richard Nixon are largely reduced to cartoon versions of themselves here, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella overcome the unsubtlety of both the writing (heavy-handed Serious Theatre stuff) and the direction (stultifyingly literal Ron Howard stuff), jamming whatever complexity and doubt they can into every available cinematic crevice.

Did you do any fornicating this weekend?

Langella, especially, is fantastic. While his Nixon is a sad, defeated man, nursing his myriad wounds and cursing his countless enemies, he’s still desperate for connections, for public rehabilitation. Most of all, he desires to be seen, at long last, as something more human and true than the sum of his political misdeeds. Surely, he is convinced, his suffering has ennobled him. Otherwise, what the heck was it all for?

For Sheen’s part, meanwhile, his alert eyes are doing reps constantly. His Frost never really lets the slick television presenter facade drop entirely (and this inaccurate depiction of Frost as an unserious, jetsetting moppet who suddenly learns to be a penetrating interviewer for the sake of the narrative climax is one of the film’s major weaknesses), but his pupils tell dozens of different stories at any given time. There’s more self-doubt, loathing, and principle to Frost than the breezy exterior suggests, and Sheen keenly lets us see it.

Some of the supporting actors are all right, too (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell can usually do no wrong, and don’t here), but others are completely adrift (Rebecca Hall is total window-dressing, she serves no other purpose). Kevin Bacon is also good, but then he always is; the guy’s underrated status as a fine and prolific actor became a meta-joke so long ago that it’s easy to forget how true it is. Director Howard, though, just cannot help himself when it comes to telegraphing his meanings, his emotional subtexts, and his images. His visual sense can most generously be described as workmanlike, and a little more is needed to enliven what is, essentially, yet another filmed stage play. There is just too much ponderous, disingenuous fluff in play in Frost/Nixon to make it anything remotely special. But it’s only a disappointment if you ever expected more of Opie, and I can’t really do that at this point.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Anonymous

May 17, 2012 1 comment

Anonymous (2011; Directed by Roland Emmerich)

In the short history of this blog, my consideration of the Shakespearean authorship question in light of the release of Roland Emmerich’s big screen fictionalization of the Oxfordian theory has been the single most viewed post by a ratio of 2-to-1 to the next nearest contender. It’s entirely possible that online surfers coasted this way in search of a decent review of Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like The Sun, but the search terms suggest otherwise. It’s some perspective on Emmerich’s movie they were after, and since I had not actually seen it at the time, I can’t help but feel that they came away disappointed.

anonymous-movie-poster-01Although I had next to no expectations of Anonymous resembling a worthwhile film experience in any way, as the page hits climbed, I felt ever more compelled – nay, obliged – to grant it a viewing, if only to complete the critical circle. Could it really be as execrably bad and as flagrantly historically nonsensical as those sniffing academics authorities judged it? Could it actually live up to the tremendous Badfilm potential of an Elizabethan period literary drama from the co-director of Independence Day and the Godzilla rehash? Mustn’t I ultimately formulate my own considered readings of it, having derived so much web traffic with an invocation without an interpretation?

Having at last scratched the proverbial itch, I can say that as cinema, Anonymous is hardly worth the analysis I came to imagine it my solemn blogging duty to provide. This movie is almost incontrovertibly awful, not merely fundamentally ill-conceived but consistently poorly-executed as well. Emmerich and his team have no earthly idea what exactly they want this mock-historical mess to be, and horribly disfigure not only Elizabethan and Jacobean history but the Shakespearean canon as well in the search of an animating purpose. Simon Schama dubbed Anonymous “inadvertently comic”, but that feels far too generous; to say that this film achieves anything inadvertently implies that it might also have a chance to do something advertently. It had not a hope in hell of that; its only laudable qualities are arrived at accidentally.

If you’ve ever wanted to see William Shakespeare portrayed as an illiterate, uneloquent, avaricious fraud, Robert Cecil as a malevolent hunchback, and Queen Elizabeth I giving a BJ to her own bastard son, then Anonymous is certainly the period drama for you. Stripping the Oxfordian theory of its leaps of scholarly imagination and the Shakespearean canon of its percolating wit and revolutionary invention, Emmerich’s film (from the script of John Orloff, who has also done a Frontline episode on the authorship question) is a murky and depressing picture both in visual and metaphoric terms.

Anonymous imagines that the true author of Shakespeare’s work was an English lord, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans with far more soulfulness than this pulpy material deserves). Oxford feeds his secretly-composed plays to the public at first through the conduit of the young Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), who sees to it that they are performed in the Rose Theatre (and later the freshly-built Globe), first anonymously and then under the name of a publicity-starved actor (Rafe Spall) who finagles his way into his immortal role. The obvious political valences of the plays, combined with the apparent class bias against the theatre among the aristocracy, provide what measure of explanation is required for Oxford’s desire for anonymity. Nonetheless, the performances eventually run afoul of the Cecils, father Sir William (David Thewlis) and son Sir Robert (Edward Hogg), the Queen’s closest advisors and Machiavellian power dealers who have a complicated and mostly antagonistic relation to Oxford. When a production of Richard III coincides a bit too closely with the coup/revolt of the 2nd Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), matters come to a particular climax and precipitate what amounts to literary history’s greatest secret.

My, what a long… manuscript you have there.

The film’s plot is mostly a quasi-historical peg upon which to hang a litany of trashy pulp elements (affairs! murder! betrayal! incest!) to keep the bored rubes engaged, like proletarian clowns in Shakespeare’s (de Vere’s?) histories. Although Emmerich and Orloff evidently conceive of Anonymous as an iconoclastic potboiler celebrating tragic creativity and challenging epistemological orthodoxy, it ends up making The Tudors seem like a sober-minded documentary program in comparison. The overspiced stew of frothy intrigue and empty referentiality leaves even the willing doubter of the Stratfordian status quo with an unpleasant aftertaste. Instead of rendering a stance of scholarly rebellion into a rousing historical drama, Anonymous discredits the already-tenuous Oxfordian theory with its very ineptitude. At least Oliver Stone’s fever-dream Kennedy assassination conspiracies made for a cracking film experience; Emmerich’s confounding mash-up of Elizabethan politics, literature, and culture is limp and poorly.

His cast, generally of second-rate British thespianic quality, is not of much help, but there’s little that even a superior ensemble could do with such material. Aside from Ifans and the usually-reliable Thewlis (who mostly vanishes behind old-age-makeup, croaking utterances, and a wizardly beard like a Puritan Dumbledore), Vanessa Redgrave is likely the biggest name here, and she is trapped in an ugly version of Elizabeth in her twilight years as a dilapidated, hysterical drag queen (Miss Havisham is a Playboy Bunny in comparison). Redgrave gives the nonsense the old college try, but even an actress of her talents cannot escape the cage of such retrograde character writing (to make the incest angle even more unsettling, the younger Elizabeth is played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson). The bruised, suffering idealist Jonson, meanwhile, is a role that would seem to demand the particular talents of James McAvoy, but Armesto comes across as little more than his non-union Mexican equivalent.

I take it this was not after a performance of “Two Noble Kinsmen”.

Improbably (though perhaps not), it’s Spall who is the film’s most enjoyable presence despite being placed in its most thankless role. By necessity in a fictionalized treatise on the righteousness of the Oxfordian theory, the historical Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon must be characterized as a philistinic patsy incapable of aesthetic transcendence, if not an inebriated, murderous cheat. An undercurrent of snobbish elitism is not required to be convinced that de Vere wrote “Shakespeare”, but it certainly seems to wash the dish down more easily, and tends to be the accompanying aperitif of choice for its proponents. Such is the case in Anonymous, and the education-driven social mobility that the Stratford Shakespeare represents (and was entirely common at the time, as Schama discusses) is directly targeted for mockery. In the film, Shakespeare extorts enough money from the vulnerable Oxford to act the gentleman, and even to acquire a family coat of arms, complete with a Latin motto he cannot pronounce (“non sanz droict”) and whose bitter irony he is too dim-witted to appreciate (it translates as “not without right”).

But in the midst of so many scowling, power-playing aristos with dark designs and hidden traumas, the joie de vivre of Spall’s simple actor is a breath of fresh air. His Shakespeare may be a greedy, unlearned bumpkin, but at least he’s happy. Ifans’ de Vere suffers ever so nobly for his art, deriving little pleasure and much self-doubt from its success and characterizing his writing process as the only way for him to keep the demons of madness at bay. But Spall, in a limited comic-caricature way, summons the Bard of pure elation and populist engagement rather than the tragic, isolated genius in his tomb-like mansion that Ifans is burdened with.

For all of its copious, crippling flaws, Anonymous is at its best and purest when its pulp assumptions meet those of Shakespeare’s work in contemporary performance. If Anonymous has practically none of Shakespeare in Love‘s wit, it does manage to appreciate the Bard’s output as a mass cultural medium in its original incarnation on a more basic level than the self-aware 1999 Best Picture winner did. That this appreciation itself undermines the film’s historical-conspiracy thesis makes its iteration that much more interesting. When the fradulent playwright Shakespeare bows for his adoring audience after another theatrical triumph and then literally crowd-surfs on their supporting hands, it is therefore at once a laughable image and a profound one. That de Vere (and by extension, Emmerich and Orloff) sneers from above at this plebeian display encapsulates the disdain towards popular taste and mass culture felt by both Anonymous and the Oxfordian ideology. Among its many crimes against taste, cinema, art, and history, this film’s most egregious one is to lose track of the core humanity of the Shakespearean canon. That this quality shines through nonetheless testifies to its sublime endurance.

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

Obama and Romney, Gay Marriage and Bullying: Image Construction in the Presidential Election

May 15, 2012 2 comments

The nature of the coming choice of Presidential candidates for Americans in this fall’s election was starkly exposed this past week in one specific social-issue way at least. Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, recently officially commencing his re-election campaign, committed the first major public act of that campaign, officially announcing his personal support for same-sex marriages. Following almost immediately on the heels of this announcement on ABC was a story in the Washington Post about a youthful Mitt Romney leading a veritable bully mob in pinning down and forcibly cutting the hair of a schoolmate who was rumoured to be homosexual but was certainly at least non-conformist.

Then why does he have a hula hoop above his skull? Are hula hoops “gay”?

Political reportage and punditry is an art based largely in exaggeration of presumed effects and endless over-analysis of anticipated consequences, so both of these stories ran rampant in the media imagination. Still, they dovetailed nicely with the hardening forms of both candidates in the generalized public view. Whatever Obama’s motives for the announcement, and whether or not his timing was precipitated by Vice-President Joe Biden’s expressed comfort level with gay marriage, the deliberation with which he came to the decision of backing the gay civil rights lobby’s most predominant current fight against discrimination fits with his established habits of caution, careful consideration, and honest shifts in perspective. It also demonstrated his fondness for incremental half-measures in the change department, couched as it was in a federalist respect for the rights of states to decide the issue on their own, at least for the moment.

On another level, the decision to support same-sex marriage was possibly not really the President’s, ultimately. Coming immediately after another regressive referendum banning gay marriage passing in swing state North Carolina, Obama perhaps felt compelled to make a stand on the subject that he has often waffled on in the past. In terms of the reactive liberalism of the Democratic Party, something opposed so fervently and illogically by firm social conservatives had to be adopted as a core value for tolerant progressives.

The Romney story, meanwhile, slots in nicely with a strong media narrative being erected around the Mormons Republican former Massachusetts Governor. Namely, this image is that of the callous, out-of-touch plutocrat, eager to carry the water of the ruling class in exchange for a seat at their table, up to and including discrimination of vulnerable minorities. Of a piece with campaign-trail reports of awkward interactions and statements, his professional history as a mass lay-off artist for Bain Capital, and that never-to-die classic story of Romney transporting his dog on the roof of the family car for 12 hours during a trip, this purported eyewitness evidence of Romney’s “gay-bashing” years ago adds fuel to the raging fire of doubt about Romney’s ability to empathize with rank-and-file Americans in a time of great uncertainty about the strength of the economy and direction of the country in general.

That uncertainty should, by all tenets of established political wisdom, benefit the challenger Romney over the incumbent Obama, whose first term has been hamstrung by a tentative economic recovery and constant stiff resistance from a Republican Party that considers him some species of monstrous socialist Antichrist (or at least pretends to in order to appeal to the zealots in their own ranks who do believe as much). But the President and his party will no doubt continue to emphasize Romney’s alterity to the mainstream of American experience just as surely as Romney and his party will emphasize Obama’s own perceived alterity, each in their own way. There appears to be no other reliable way to become President of the United States except to argue, in as many ways as is feasible and in a few other non-feasible ways just to be thorough, that your opponent cannot conceivably become President. The American voter and the interested foreign observer alike have many more months of just this sort of thing to lookg forward before all is said and done in November.

Film Review: Jarhead

May 13, 2012 1 comment

Jarhead (2005; Directed by Sam Mendes)

Beautifully shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins and perfectly well-acted by its young male cast, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead is still curiously inert. That is, of course, its point: that war can be far more boring than breathless media coverage and rah-rah Hollywood epics make it seem. Still, one might wish that the resulting exemplification of that state of boredom was, well, less boring.

And you thought your Chevy Tahoe was wasteful!

Mendes’ film, adapting the memoir of the same name by Gulf War Marine veteran Anthony Swofford, offers a unique thesis on why war sucks: it sucks because most of the time, those who fight it don’t get to shoot or be shot at. War is hell not due to an excess of death and destruction, but due to a lack thereof. This thesis is enfolded by a movie that is often darkly comic, occasionally poignant, and sharply literate about the masculine self-constructions inherent to the U.S. Marine Corps.

It also casts a keen eye back to the collective armed forces memory of Vietnam and the effect that the country’s failed war had on the American militaristic psyche. At one point, Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) hears a Doors tune blasting over the desert and bemoans the fact that it’s a “Vietnam” song and that Gulf War soldiers don’t have their own anthems. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” fits the bill well enough when the war ends in the film, although its applicability to a war that was largely about reasserting American power in the Middle East is ambiguous at best.

Doubts aside, however, Swoff and the rest of his unit are still insanely juiced by the command-sanctioned screenings of Vietnam War films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, even though those films hardly present that previous war as a glorious endeavor indicative of American masculine prowess. Indeed, the former’s iconic “Flight of the Valkyries” helicopter attack feels like it’s cherry-picked to be shown to the Marines in isolation from the rest of the film, not as an anticipation of the action they are likely to face but as a substitute to the action they are likely to miss out on.

So, as slight as Jarhead is as a document of the atrocities of war (the scenes that recognize this are largely perfunctory), it’s much sharper as a psychological chronicle of the American militaristic mindset and its self-justifying feedback loop of chauvinistic hubris. And, yes, it’s a bit slow at times, but then so is life, and so is war. Welcome to the Suck.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“Brilliant Orange”: A Sociological Philosophy of Dutch Soccer

May 12, 2012 2 comments

Part of the reason that I felt underwhelmed by Alex Bellos’ Futebol when I finished it several weeks ago was that despite the kaleidoscopic and detailed portrait that it painted of Brazilian football culture, it wasn’t really too concerned with the nuts and bolts of football itself. Although my post on the book didn’t present this thought in so many words, perhaps Bellos’ lack of interest in the tactics and organization of the game in Futebol was meant to reflect the Brazilian footballing ideology and its privileging of virtuosic individuality over strategic acumen. The game in Brazil is a medium for exuberant self-expression, a conduit for pure, unfiltered personality.

Alternately, David Winner presents the game as a conduit for a unique set of cultural expressions in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. Although the Dutch are sometimes referred to as “the Brazilians of Europe” for their famously beautiful and attacking Total Football system of the 1970s, Winner digs into the recent history, culture, art, architecture, and mindset of the country and finds it more structured and regimented in its version of freedom than the freewheeling artistry of the Samba Boys. Classic Dutch football was aesthetically pleasing as well, but it was also inherently systematic, and Winner understands Dutch society as one that achieves weird beauty through  the construction and application of systems.

The puzzle of Dutch football that is gradually assembled for the reader is full of seeming contradictions that are actually interrelated causes and effects. Thus, we are presented with the stunning successes of collective action in the Netherlands, from its large-scale land reclamations, dykes, and canals to the multi-purpose design of Amsterdam’s admired Schiphol Airport to the unpredictable, position-swapping spatial awareness of the three-time European Cup-winning Ajax teams of the early 1970s.

But Winner also delves into the often rose-tinted realm of mid-century Dutch history and finds the collective majority failing its once-predominant minority, Amsterdam’s Jewish population, in the face of the cutthroat efficiency of the Nazi machine, a failure reflected by the defeat of Johan Cruyff and the great 1974 World Cup finalist Dutch national team by the ruthlessly effective West German squad of Beckenbauer and Müller. In Winner’s view, Holland’s widely-recognized social liberality likewise conceals an underlying rigidness of ambition and lack of resolve to overmaster that costs its national team in one major competition after another, a lack of steel revealed in everything from self-destructive internal conflicts to philosophical-tactical disagreements to an apparently psychological inability to excel at decisive penalty shootouts.

As typifies the Dutch game, Brilliant Orange presents a much more strategically rigorous perspective on the sport than Futebol, digressing into involved disserations on the relative advantages of the 1970s Dutch 4-3-3 formation when compared with the classic English 4-4-2 and other such football-intellectual questions. Any observer who attempts a more academic trajectory to football risks slipping into overwrought self-parody, as exemplified by a Monty Python sketch that ridiculed (contemporaneously with those great Ajax teams of Cryuff’s) the intellectualization of what is a deceptively simple game. One could rightly describe the elegant on-field conductor Cruyff, and indeed the entire Dutch Total Football system erected around him and sustained by his visionary status, as “thrusting and bursting with aggressive Kantian positivism” with only partial intent to lampoon.

Winner mostly pulls off the trick of balancing the intellectual elements with the game’s core essence, though. In particular, his earlier chapters finding the multi-functional commonality between the Dutch style of football and the Dutch style of architectural design are excellent reads, as well as the accounts of the general iconoclastic and world-weary social revolution in Holland that was reflected by the concurrent revolution on the nation’s football pitches. Once Winner ventures away from the Golden (or should it be Orange?) Generation of footballers in the 1970s, however, his method becomes strained. Most of the later chapters are essentially about how the looming shadows of Cruyff, Neeskens, Johnny Rep and their fellows have made it difficult for subsequent generations of Dutch footballers to establish new milestones.

The Master in his studio.

The irony is that these chapters themselves cannot live up to the promise of their predecessors dealing with the Total Football era. Winner’s interview with Rep, for example, is bafflingly rendered in transcript format, a choice which only serves to amplify the unfortunate realization that the deadly striker has little of interest to say. A subsequent chapter contrasting Schiphol’s stunning mid-’90s re-development with Louis Van Gaal’s pre-Bosman ruling Ajax team of the same era also falls short, as Winner’s points of comparison become badly strained and distracting typos abound (Futebol had a similar problem; cultural football books must not attract the most astute of copy editors).

Although Brilliant Orange largely manages to render the Dutch cultural philosophy of football in an engaging and appropriate form, like Bellos’ Futebol, its conclusions have been undermined more than a little by post-publishing developments. Winner’s second-to-last chapter (they are not numbered sequentially but jumbled liberally, like the positions and/or kit numbers of Total Football participants) is an evident later-edition addition from around 2008, considering as it does the developments in Dutch club and national-team football since the book was first published in 2000. It finds the quality and level of continental competitiveness of Dutch club sides waning along with the utility of the fluid style of the classic era. Given this predicted trajectory, I wonder what Winner might make of Holland’s third World Cup Final appearance in 2010, where a tight-marking, brutal-tackling Dutch team nearly gutted their way to penalties against eventual champions Spain, a precise-passing, possession-first team of great skill and technique, much like the Dutch squads of Cruyff’s era and influenced greatly by Cruyff’s own legacy as a player and a coach at Barcelona? Well, he would make this of it, actually; pretty much what might be expected.

Ultimately, the concept subcribed to by both Bellos and Winner, namely that the type of football played in specific parts of the world expresses something fundamental and innate about the character of the people who dwell thereabouts, has begun to feel quaint in a time of globalization and corporate branding in the sport. The challenge facing Dutch football is the same that faces all football cultures, and perhaps all cultures period: preserving the web of practices, beliefs, traditions, and prejudices that informs their particular milieu from the bulldozers of hegemonic corporate homogeneity.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews, Sports