Archive for June, 2012

Euro 2012 and the (Constant Re-)Making of Mario Balotelli

With the final of the 2012 European Football Championship now set, footie fans the world over can take a step back before the title game between defending Euro and World championship holders Spain and surprising Italy and consider the wider trends and impacts of the tournament.

Held in Eastern Europe for the first time, the tournament in Poland and Ukraine was baptized by the fire of persistent racism and violence as well as by lacklustre showings by the host nations (neither made the knockout round, admittedly a difficult task in this most tightly-packed of international tournaments). Several offensive talents made threatening noises about becoming the event’s breakout star: Russia and CKSA Moscow attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev scored twice in his team’s opening 4-1 drubbing of the Czech Republic and added another in a draw with Poland, but his virtuosity was diminished by his side’s inability to advance from their group; Marko Mandzukic of Croatia matched both his goal total and his advancement failure; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the goal of the tournament in a win over France, but the Swedes were knocked out at the group stage as well; Portuguese gadfly superstar Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines by leading his team to the semis in style but then becoming a bystander in a penalty shootout defeat to Spain. Whenever one of European football’s outsized talents and personalities seemed poised to capture the rapt attention of the watching world, they simply fell away instead at the critical moment.

That’s a yellow card… for being intimidatingly fit.

But then, as he so often has in his short but already-notable career, Italian striker and all-around sports time-bomb Mario Balotelli stepped up and powerfully snatched the spotlight. His two commanding goals in his country’s semifinal victory against a German squad that had looked impressive (if not quite dominant) thus far in the tournament may turn out to be the signature performance of Euro 2012, whether Italy succeeds in dethroning the fading Spanish or not in the final.

But Balotelli’s ascension to prominence on the international level that is football’s grandest stage just reasserts how fascinating, contradictory, and thoroughly modern a figure he is, especially in a sport that nourishes itself so deeply on traditional culture. Super Mario, as he has been nicknamed, is a controversial figure even by the low threshold that our cannibalistic, hyper-aware contemporary culture maintains for that term. A brief perusal of the Personality and Reputation sub-heading on his Wikipedia page makes for quite an entertaining read. Even by the standards of football eccentricity, he’s quite a character, donating thousands of pounds left and right, setting off fireworks in his home, sword-fighting in restaurants with rolling pins, bombing out of major club sides, and commenting on his own complex fame with a post-goal celebratory t-shirt that quixotically read, “Why Always Me?“.

Surprisingly, the British press didn’t dust off too many old Axis jokes for this game…

There’s a Derridean theory paper or two to be penned on that iconic statement of Balotelli’s alone, mixing as it does confrontation and victimhood, confidence and doubt, overweening power and inescapable powerlessness. Super Mario, both an explosive enigma and a steely champion, is différance personified and given sublime footballing technique; his meanings are forever deferred, even as ball after ball leaves his foot and hits the back of the net like so many signifiers. Little wonder that the internet’s pre-eminent salon of sports-writing intellectualism, The Classical, ran a regular analytical feature called This Week in Mario Balotelli during the Premier League season (a season that recently ended with Balotelli setting up Manchester City teammate Sergio Aguero’s dramatic title-winning goal).

Outside of this, of course, it’s hard to understate how Mario Balotelli, a child of poverty-stricken Ghanian immigrants to Sicily who was taken into foster care by full-blooded Italians, represents a new and complicated vision of modern multiracial Europe. The racially-tinged negative reactions that dog him typify a continental order that is still heaving and breaking its ephemeral stitches much more fundamentally than a debt default or two ever could. Even in Italy, where he is surely a newly-minted national hero after his performances against the Germans, there must be some trepidation about Balotelli’s unsettling identity, and about what it means for a monolithic society and culture with a long and rich history of inward focus and shut gates. If a black man, the son of African immigrants, can become a homegrown star of calcio, then what other multicultural changes could be in store on the Italian peninsula and in Europe as a whole? For a man most famous for following a statement goal with a question worn on his chest, Mario Balotelli embodies such questions in the bright spotlight of the world’s most popular sport.

Categories: Culture, Sports

PopMatters Television Review: Wipeout – Summer Season Premiere

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Wipeout – Summer Season Premiere


Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Persepolis

June 25, 2012 1 comment

Persepolis (2007; Directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)

Visually inventive, cleverly pitched, intermittently funny and heartbreaking, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was always a graphic novel that seemed to demand a fleshed-out filmic treatment. Since Satrapi herself, with an ample assist from animator Vincent Paronnaud, provides it, questions of fidelity in adaptation are rendered moot.

Punk, not dead? Clearly she hasn’t heard Simple Plan yet.

Certainly, no other filmmaker could have aptly brought a story so personal as Satrapi’s auto-bio-graphic novel to the screen. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have looked nearly right without Satrapi’s own unique black-and-white cartoon style, dominated by strong lines and rigid geometry but occasionally bursting playfully with delightful curlicues and peculiar flourishes redolent of Persian art history.

For the most part, Satrapi’s film is witty, affecting, and hefty with political currency. The vocal minority still echoing the stubborn neoconservative drumbeat for pre-emptive war against Iran would be well-served to see it and consider well. Nonetheless, it loses itself at points in its meandering second half. Much as the second installment of the graphic novel could not match the potent sharpness of the first, the last act or two of the film adaptation slips into personal indulgence and only near the end finds its way back to the hermeneutic potency of the opening section in Iran.

But it does find its way back, to its credit. Like Satrapi herself, Persepolis is drawn away from its heritage, but eventually finds its way back to the place it belongs while simultaneously realizing that, sometimes, finding your way home is ultimately impossible.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Echoes of Hegemony: LeBron James’ Championship and Resistance to the Inevitability of Dominance

June 23, 2012 1 comment

Even if you’re not much of a NBA follower (and I mostly missed the boat this season), you’ve surely heard that the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to take the Finals and give the divisive superstar LeBron James his first league championship. Most of what I can or would say about this development would come off as a bit of a re-statement of what I wrote on the subject of the Heat’s Big Three experiment and the angles of public opinion on LeBron James last year after their Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. But it’s worth reassessing the points made there under the shifted illumination of a championship.

This trophy is taking its talents to my mantle, bitches.

As Bethlehem Shoals argues with thoughtful perceptiveness, a Heat and LeBron James title were always basically inevitable, and much of the disappointment and fan disdain for James over the past couple of years has had to do with his perceived inability or unwillingness to fulfill his potential as a dominant figure, as promised by the acres of hype that have long surrounded him. LeBron himself spoke to this with his trademarked casual bluntness, reacting to the victory with the callous-sounding phrase “It’s about damn time”. Shoals expounded on this utterance as emblematic of the King James image in general, but to me his words speak to the inevitability question again, the certainty of dominance that has always echoed behind every resonating footfall that James has made, on and off the court.

With this in mind, it should be obvious that there is an undercurrent of the alternative underdog predilection of mass culture at play as well in the resistance to LeBron’s ascent, that well-meaning but deluded idea that choosing the option that is painstakingly constructed as “other” undermines the hegemony of the dominant modes of culture rather than reinforcing them. That malevolent hegemonic power in the professional basketball sphere is represented by a powerful African-American man who did not go to college and his made his career choices with less than the level of public grace expected of one of his race and position in American society surely complicates the picture. LeBron once got in public trouble for agreeing with a similar implication, of course, but it’s as foolish to discount the influence of such prejudices as it is to attribute opposition to him entirely to them.

Will the gilded sheen of a championship finally shift perceptions of LeBron James and his ambitious power move to South Beach? It can be a cure-all for the shortfalls of professional athletes, after all (just ask Marc-Andre Fleury about that). But despite nebulous accusations of his weakness in crunch time that have long dogged him (surely laid to rest after his pivotal Game 4 Willis Reed-ing of the Thunder), however, LeBron’s ills have never been of the in-game variety. He resides on another level on the court, seemingly forever gearing down and yet still lapping the pack and even the leader’s group of his league.

But his dominance on the court leaves him out of step off of it, perhaps an understandable side-effect of his elevation to world-beating status at such a tender age (he is still only 27; he can keep this up for another half-decade at least, if not more). For this reason as much as for their unsurpassed virtuosity in the game itself, it’s rational to expect the mass resistance to LeBron James and his hegemonic Heat to continue mostly unabated. We can view LeBron with awe, we can label him with our inherent distrust of the powerful, and we can even strive to understand his ability and his decisions with a dispassionate eye. But we cannot relate to him, not really. Even if he can resemble our own errors and missteps in his public relations clumsiness off the court, he forever elevates himself above us with his performances on the court. His hegemony allows no empathy, and his inevitability, essentially, is irresistible.

Categories: Culture, Sports

PopMatters Television Review: Inside Men

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Inside Men


Categories: Reviews, Television

PopMatters Album Review: Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the album title to go to the review.

Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City


Categories: Music, Reviews

Television Review: Mad Men – Season Five

June 16, 2012 2 comments

Mad Men – Season Five (AMC; 2012)

American television’s pre-eminent zeitgeist-defining drama Mad Men returned for its fifth season this spring after a lenghty hiatus (arguably a self-imposed one, depending on where one stands on the subject of creator Matthew Weiner’s dispute with AMC over creative control and compensation). Thirteen episodes of entertainment followed that were intermittently enlightening, engrossing, hilarious, painful, ridiculous, and maddening. Critics can complain of uneveness and wish for consistent quality, but Mad Men, like any piece of entertainment that often manages to portray real life with uncomfortable accuracy, embraces the messy contradictions and emotional swings of human existence. With so many fascinating and varied characters lurching clumsily through the world of mid-1960s Manhattan, coming off as dirty-faced angels one moment and silver-lined demons the next, it cannot be surprising that the fictional frame that contains them is mixture of frustration and elation as well.

Those breasts aren’t real.

The show’s main protagonist and thematic fulcrum Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) began the season where few of Mad Men‘s more cynical devotees expected him to be at the end of Season Four: in a state of wedded bliss and sexual fulfillment with new wife Megan (Jessica Paré), his former secretary and now a junior copywriter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This supposed bliss, and Don’s uncertainty with it, was visualized by Megan’s slinky performance of French torch song “Zou Bisou Bisou” for him (and in front of a roomful of guests) at his birthday party in the premiere “A Little Kiss”. It shouldn’t be surprising to those of us who know Don better than Megan does that he wouldn’t entirely appreciate the gesture, although there’s also little doubt that Megan’s youthful devotion made for a more contented Dick Whitman.

But Don’s renewed monogamous engagement has left him unengaged at the advertising agency, leaving his one-time protégé and now leading creative workhorse Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stretched ever thinner in her effort pick up the slack, and feeling increasingly underappreciated as she does so. Even the addition of whip-smart clever young Jewish writer Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) has not helped matters much. As good as Ginsberg is, he clashes with Don frequently, partly because he is so talented that he exposes his boss’ own lack of engagement and increasing generational distance.

Don’s long-time partner-in-crime Roger Sterling (John Slattery, still a weekly delight) is also detached from the agency’s accounts that he once dominated with silvery grace, though for the opposite reason: his own second marriage to a younger former secretary (Peyton List) has disintegrated into open hostility. The personally smarmy but professionally irresistible Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has stepped in to fill the void with new acquisitions, even as he and his growing family have moved out to suburban Connecticut and he inherits Don’s restless dissatisfaction with settled domestic adulthood. Meanwhile, money man Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) struggles to keep the firm’s financial house of cards from collapsing, an effort which takes on ever more of a personal toll on the buttoned-down Brit accountant. And formidable office den-mother Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) approaches a point of reckoning in both her unhappy marriage to army doctor Greg (Samuel Page) and in her role at the agency.

Mad Men has never veered too far from its core set of themes, namely the pursuit of happiness in American life, its constructions at the entwined hands of capitalism and social convention, and the individual price of that pursuit and its inevitable failure. The show’s treatment of those themes were often startlingly direct this season, nowhere more so than when Don browbeats a Dow Chemical executive (who had casually told Draper over cocktails in an earlier episode that no major corporations wanted to work with his agency after Don’s fuck-you letter to departed mega-account Lucky Strike Cigarettes) with the certainty of his lack of happiness and the insatiable need for ever more money, prestige, market share, everything (“Commissions and Fees”).

As always, Joan is the centre of attention.

Simultaneously an ugly and an inspiring moment for Draper, the outburst in the meeting was so convincing because Don was, of course, talking about himself first and only, possibly, his prospective client second. So giddy with the melding of his professional, domestic, and sexual lives by having Megan in the office with him at the start of the season, Don’s old transient feelings of distrust and malaise were suggested to be returning in the finale episode (“The Phantom”). The first major blow was Megan’s decision halfway through the season (in the intriguing “Lady Lazarus”) to leave off copywriting at SCDP, work that she occasionally succeeded at and that made her even more desirable to her older husband, but did not feel as passionately about as acting, which she vows to pursue with renewed vigour.

With Megan out of the office environment and mostly at home while failing to find thespianic gigs, Don feels increasingly alienated from her but undergoes a professional resurgence that may turn out to be too little, too late in the face of a shifting cultural paradigm. Confronted with an ambiguously open elevator shaft and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Don is equally baffled by both, just as he fails to fathom the basis for the enthusiasm of young Rolling Stones fans while pursuing the band to cut a goofy parodic jingle for Heinz Baked Beans (“Tea Leaves”). Ironically, the bon-vivant Roger proves much more adaptable to the changing times, becoming a devotee of the enlightening powers of LSD after taking the hallucinogenic drug at a dinner party (“Far Away Places”).

But Megan’s exit from SCDP was only the prelude to two much more stunning exits from the office near the end of the season, each of which shone a harsh and revealing light on Don’s battered soul. Next out the door was Peggy (in “The Other Woman”), Don’s psychological equal and his intimate confidant in last season’s stand-out episode “The Suitcase”. Certainly she was frustrated with being taken for granted by Don, and his monstrous cad move of throwing money demeaningly in her face was the immediate stresser, no doubt. But Peggy’s acceptance of an offer from a rival agency that understood and appreciated her ability also had to be partially driven by her traditional mother’s rejection of her non-traditional decision to move in with her boyfriend Abe (in “At the Codfish Ball”). The also-traditional Don likewise reacted with initial refusal to the evidently-rehearsed announcement of departure by Peggy (in the immediate aftermath of the firm winning the much sought-after Jaguar account, no less, ascent and descent in immediate contrast). But as Draper recognized her resolution, he flipped through the stages of grief at lightning speed, from naive disbelief to resentment to sad acceptance, as he chivalricly kissed Peggy’s hand goodbye. It was a brief but powerful showcase of Hamm’s absurd range of emoting, as if another one was really needed.

Sorry, Megs. Eartha Kitt, you ain’t.

The other, more final exit from the show came in the next episode, “Commissions and Fees”, and left no opportunity for knightly virtue from Don or from anyone else. Lane Pryce, hounded by Britain’s legendarily stingy revenue authorities over back taxes owed on investment income he poured into SCDP’s coffers to keep it afloat in lean times, tried to embezzle the required amount from the company in the form of a presumptive Christmas bonus to himself. When the partners’ bonuses vanish in the face of more of the belt-tightening that necessitated his white-collar crime in the first place, Pryce’s forging of Draper’s authorizing signature becomes known to Don. While Don himself can take another man’s name for his own, he can’t allow anyone else to borrow it, and confronts Lane with his indiscretion, demanding his resignation.

Although Don thinks he’s being fairer to Lane than he could be, the course of action he forces on the proud, bent-up Brit is the worst of possible options. Despite the brief delight of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph and the winning of the Jaguar account that Lane first spotted as a potential target, there have also been larger setbacks for Pryce. He came to fisticuffs with Campbell in the office, calling the young account man “a grimy little pimp” before dropping him; a moment of wonderful wish fulfillment for the Mad Men audience, but no doubt humiliating for the proper English gentleman. He then followed this by kissing office ally and object of desire Joan, with no reciprocation, before watching her be sold off for a night of sex with a Jaguar executive in exchange for their business.

When Lane’s wife gifts him with a new Jaguar in naive enthusiasm for his success, the symbol of his failures finally pushes the man over the edge. When even his suicide attempt inside the vehicle is unsuccessful, he hangs himself against his office door, forcing Don, Roger, and Pete to cut his corpse down in a stomach-tightening sequence. Little wonder that Don begins to see apparitions of his younger brother Adam in the next episode; once again a human problem he tried to convince to disappear in a cloud of money takes him far more literally than he intended, and in a similar, noose-related way. If Lane’s death is not all on Don Draper, the red mark of the hanging rope on his ghost-brother’s throat made it clear that his guilt would not be abated.

So… Jagerbombs?

The finale also included strong hints that the glow had faded on the Draper marriage, as Don finagled his failed-actress wife into a commercial job with one of SCDP’s clients before literally walking away from a fairy-tale scene on the set of the ad. He began the season in a thrilled haze at his professional and personal lives being seemingly melded into one, but ended it in disappointment as what was a creative and romantic collaboration becomes unequal nepotism. This combination of work and sex is not what Don has imagined or idealized and perhaps reminds him too much of his previous marriage, and he slides back into the cigarette-smoke fog of a Manhattan singles bar. “Are you alone?” an attractive young girl asks him to end the season, and for Donald Draper, the answer is ultimately always “Yes.”

There’s much more to be said and noted about this fifth season than there is room to do here. There was Pete Campbell’s return to sliminess after a season or two of relative integrity, the continuing maturation of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), the weight gain and bursts of nastiness experienced by her mother Betty (January Jones), and the return of old favourite Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) as a Hare Krishna convert, which saw him being simultaneously aided and betrayed by the increasingly insufferable Harry Crane (Rich Sommer). And there was Joan Harris, who thrilled feminist viewers by dropping her nightmare of a rapist husband and then frustrated them deeply by selling her body for a partnership in a plot twist that may prove to be the most divisive in Mad Men‘s run. That nearly two-thousand words is insufficient to adequately sum up the aesthetic and hermeneutic implications of a mere television drama is as good a proof as any of the depth, breadth, and stunning variety of experience that Mad Men provides. However much longer the control-freak Weiner decides his modern masterpiece need continue, our culture will be richer for having it among us.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Fitzcarraldo

June 15, 2012 2 comments

Fitzcarraldo (1982; Directed by Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog’s second iconic jungle-bound epic (the first being the unforgettably bugnuts Aguirre, the Wrath of God) is a great film, and not merely for the astounding feat of engineering that was filmed for its climax. The famous scenes of the steamship being hauled laboriously and dramatically over the mountain ridge make for some of the finest pure cinema you will ever see, I can guarantee it. Nor is it merely great for its star Klaus Kinski’s performance as the wild-eyed, white-suited wannabe rubber baron who drives the mad venture in the first place. If acting is so often an art form defined by acts of moderation, then for Kinski that moderation is of the inherent instability that he can’t help but embody. His art is to parcel out insanity in effective doses, to release the kookiness in controlled bursts. This instinct, I think, is what made Kinski and Herzog such a dynamic match in the primes of their careers.

It might make sense to lower the cost of the ferry pass a smidgeon now…

But more than this, on a deeper level Fitzcarraldo‘s true impact derives from its talismanic expression of colonialism’s bizarre madness and excess, the inherent, unnatural eccentricity of Fitzcarraldo’s project standing in for the similar qualities of the colonial project, or rather parcelling out those qualities in an effective dose. Herzog, in accomplishing the fiendishly challenging overland portage that is the film’s claim to fame, dubbed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”. This equation of tremendous resources marshalled to dubious purposes, of overwhelming power and influence turned towards pointless pursuits, is shared by Fitzcarraldo the film product, and it is an inspired satire of European imperialism in the New World as a result.

But the film is hardly a one-sided outrage party when it comes to colonialism, either. The gnomic role of the natives who mutely assist Fitzcarraldo in the massive portage adds an element of unsettling ambiguity to the proceedings. To what extent, in both Herzog’s myth of colonialism and in the real thing itself, did the belief-systems and cultural customs of indigenous peoples enable their exploitation? Equivalently, how did those beliefs work to preserve some slice of their cultural uniqueness and essential social character?

The academic questions raised by Fitzcarraldo aside, this is an often astounding epic film, cinema at its purest and most effective. A real spectacle with a brain in its head, albeit a brain that may be a little damaged.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator (2010; Directed by Robert Redford)

A stiff, handsome historical drama with a superb cast working uniformly below their usual abilities, The Conspirator is Robert Redford’s first film as a director since 2007’s forgotten flop Lions for Lambs (Wikipedia told me it exists, as there would be no other way to tell) and his first film of any note in a full decade (this is only if you count The Legend of Bagger Vance as a notable film, which may be a stretch). It’s also a none-too-subtle political allegory of the fatal compromise of the rule of constitutional law in the United States in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror, examining one of the nation’s darkest moments – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of the Civil War – to suggest that sacred principles have been threatened before in the Land of the Free, and will be again.

The Conspirator, from a script by James D. Solomon, tells the sad and legally alarming story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). A transplanted Southerner and devout Catholic, she was the mother of John Surratt, one of Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth’s associates, and owned and ran the boarding house where the conspirators met to hatch their plot. Surratt fils was a likely co-conspirator in the plot to kill the President, as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, although they survived separate attacks (considering the former implemented the travesty of Reconstruction and the latter bought Alaska and is thus indirectly responsible for Sarah Palin, one can be forgiven for wishing that the results had been inverted). As Booth was shot dead while resisting capture and Surratt was at large for some months after that, Mary Surratt was tried by a military commission in their absence along with other conspirators, and was eventually hanged with three other men convicted by the same court.

If you tell me my beard suits me, I’ll tell you that you look smashing in black.

The film is filtered mostly through the lens of Surratt’s defense counsel Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union veteran and ambitious young lawyer. Initially forced onto the case by his mentor Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) despite believing fervently in her guilt, Aiken becomes convinced that she is being railroaded to the gallows for PR reasons by the War Department and its indomitable Secretary, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). Whether it’s about “healing” or revenge, Mary Surratt has been elected to be punished for the crimes of the South in the interest of reuniting the nation after a bloody and destructive conflict. The disillusioned Aiken mounts a spirited if futile defense, of constitutional principles at least if not entirely of the defendant herself.

Redford begins things clunkily enough, re-enacting the night of the assassination plot and its manhunt aftermath with all the verve of a Legion Night amateur theatrical. For an event so literally bloody, it’s figuratively bloodless on the screen. The Conspirator gains some interest and conviction as Surratt’s trial ramps up, but even then simmers at low heat. Aiken is a stock James McAvoy lead role, the gradually disillusioned idealist who accrues maturity and insight at the cost of the life (or at least the soul) of the person he stands up for. He cuts a fine figure in period suit and whiskers, but doesn’t have to try very hard otherwise.

Wright is more laudable, investing the historically-villified Mary Surratt with tremendous integrity and tragic nobility. Even if her wardrobe is full-on Mary, Queen of the Scots and Redford and his DP Newton Thomas Sigel bathe her in angelic sunlight in every courtroom sequence, she’s an island of calmness and truth. Kline gets the Dick Cheney role and is allowed not an inch of breathing room to be anything resembling his usual charming onscreen self. Wilkinson has a nice Southern accent. All manner of recognizable half-famous faces crop up in the supporting cast as well. Among them are a horribly out-of-place Justing Long as Aiken’s jocular war buddy (he sings a jaunty song about Gettysburg at a party, in case you ever wanted to hear that), Evan Rachel Wood as Mary’s stubborn daughter Anna, Alexis Bledel as his shallow would-be-fiance, and character actors from everything from Newsradio (Stephen Root) to The Walking Dead (Norman Reedus) to Boardwalk Empire (Shea Whigham) to The Wire (Jim True-Frost) cropping up, obviously desperate to work with the legendary Redford even in a movie this consistently middling.

But The Conspirator is not subtle at all about its real underlying agenda. In the military tribunal conviction of Surratt and the other conspirators lies the kernel of extra-legal abuses of power and the rule of law of the War on Terror, implemented by the Bush Administration but hardly abandoned by the Obama Administration that replaced it. This is Solomon and Redford’s central point, and they hammer it home with an old-fashioned moral insistence that evokes Liberal Hollywood at its most odious (there is at least next to no Lost Cause sympathy to be sussed out, at least not of the intentional variety). That the sanctified Lincoln has been accused of similar if not outstripping abuses in the pursuances of extraordinary wartime powers seems not to register. The parallels are starkly drawn, the implications never anything but clear: if one citizen’s constitutional rights are threatened, all citizen’s rights are threatened.

It’s not that this conclusion isn’t true, or that there’s something amiss with a convicted conspirator in the first assassination of an American President being chosen as historical champion of that perspective (a brave aesthetic choice that is, in a film full of uninspired ones). The Conspirator draws its dichotomies unambiguously and plants its principles into firm bedrock. In the case of the Civil War and its contentious aftermath, such moral absolutes only take us so far towards understanding the era, let alone to shedding additional light on our own. One can certainly admire The Conspirator for its forthright conviction, but that conviction blinds it to the complexities inherent in its own narrative, and it’s a weaker film for it.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Faith, Power and Dangerous Certainty: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

June 9, 2012 2 comments

Certain ideas are immediately suggested by the word “inquisition”. Forbidding ecclesiasticals in their ominous cowls, dank subterranean torture chambers, the banning of books and the burning of people at the stake, the censorship trials of great scientific minds. For those of a certain generation and/or comic predilection, a famous sketch about the Spanish Inquisition springs to mind. Those with even a mild Zionist bent would have widespread persecutions of Jews, some of it sanctioned by the Church and some not, in mind. Many concepts are associated with “inquisition”. None of them are good.

In God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy gives the Inquisition(s) a thorough going over. He finds that their better-known manifestations – the Medieval, the Spanish, and the Roman – were indeed restrictive, oppressive, and cruel, but that the Church authorities themselves washed their hands of the harsh physical consequences of their investigations. They left the actual dirty work of torturing and executing to the secular authorities of their eras, who had far more practical experience in the application of brutal violence than the vow-taking ecclesiastical shock troops of the Inquisition. As a point of fact, even the festival-like public burnings of the Iberian persecutions, the infamous auto-da-fés, were elaborate spectacles meant to establish the plausible deniability of the religious institutions; the key display of the ceremony was the handing over of the convicted heretics to the secular forces for their final punishment.

Murphy makes a clear analogy between this method and the underhanded practice of rendition employed by the American government’s covert arm with terror suspects in recent years, under which the captive of the formerly torture-averse democracy is “rendered” to a state with fewer such qualms for “enchanced interrogation”. Indeed, God’s Jury generally keeps one eye gazing over the past while the other is fixed firmly on the present. Murphy unearths many parallels to the secretive aims of the post-9/11 American security state, and not just the use and justification of torture either (the agents of the Spanish Inquisition waterboarded regularly, although their definition of “torture” seems to have ended where the Bush-Cheney regime’s began, at extreme pain and the threat of death).

Murphy, ever the good liberal (he’s the editor at large of Vanity Fair and former managing editor at the Atlantic Monthly), compares the Inquisition’s programs of low-tech surveillance and informing (mostly via denunciations and rumours from neighbours and family surrounding the accused) to the illegal wiretaps and high-tech electronic surveillance ushered in by the Patriot Act and other such anti-terror legislation. He finds parallels between the Roman Inquisition’s response to the endemic spread of Protestant ideas by censoring and outright banning books and that of arch-conservative American group like the Texas State Board of Education, which has often mandated a propagandistic right-wing view of history and society in school textbooks. The pogroms that accompanied the Spanish Inquisition in particular, targetting former Jewish but also former Muslim converts called conversos, are likened to Islamophobic campaigns in the U.S. seeking to limit the construction of mosques.  And more than anything, he laments the mindless bureaucracy that undergirds not only Inquisitions but also modern states like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the American security state, whose oppressive structures operate with an inertial momentum all their own.

God’s Jury is a fascinating if streamlined thesis on the history of freedom-smothering institutions, though it is not without its faults. For all of his witty erudition and meticulous research, Murphy does let his paternalistic liberal elitism creep in far too often, especially when namedropping the various grandees of Church, academy, government, and public life that he chums around with while composing his supposed opus on the malign power of crusading institutions. There also seems to be a bit of Catholic Church history left out in the initial stages. Murphy drops us right in the middle of the medieval persecution of the Cathars in Southern France without much of a prelude about the establishment of the structures and theological imperatives of the Church, especially when compared to the more detailed picture of the more modern Vatican that he later provides.

But God’s Jury keeps its scholarly focus along with its ideological one, an impressive intellectual feat indeed. Cullen Murphy draws out the dangers of the Unholy Trinity of faith, power and certainty with patience, thoughtfulness, and considerable supporting detail. For him, the modern world is not defined by the way that it has overcome the destructive tendencies of supersitious institutions, but by the expansion and transformations of those institutions themselves.