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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.

Film Review: Alien

June 8, 2012 3 comments

Alien (1979; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s Alien basically created the sci-fi horror genre, and perhaps we ought not be terribly grateful for that. It’s a genre that has mostly spit up regurgitated versions of his claustrophobic classic in the thirty years since its release (often in the Alien franchise itself). Still, the filmic elements of this progenitor that have been widely praised are strong, indeed. The B-movie inheritances. The oppressive, smothering mood. The naturalistic ensemble (especially Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm). The painterly depth of the shots. The sound, the sweat, the grime. The way the glacial pace lulls you into a false sense of security, and then wrenches viscerally at your fears when the movie’s pulse quickens. The exquisitely disturbing Giger designs, all part and parcel of the surfeit of suggestive psychosexual nightmare imagery that seeps from the movie’s pores. The mere presence of Harry Dean Stanton. All of this is damned good, to be certain.

Still, there are more little hiccups along the way than the film’s vast admiring hordes tend to recognize. Like a lot of late-’70s sci-fi classics, the remarkable editing work basically saves the film from the tedious, ponderous instincts of its director (many later Scott films could have benefitted from a similar treatment). The Joseph Conrad references don’t really go anywhere beyond the obvious, and seem like writerly sleight-of-hand meant to mimic literary profundity. And the iconic, freakish creature design can’t always obscure the occasional dodginess of the effects.

The more we see of the alien, the more it looks like a dude in a suit (and it looks like it just wants to give Tom Skerritt a hug when it pops up next to him in the air duct). As absurdly shocking as the chest-burster scene remains, the actual worm-larva creature that comes out of John Hurt is a mite silly. The cut from the obvious head mold of the decapitated Ash to Ian Holm’s head is also incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, a clear mistake or at least a poor attempt to cover one. The effects are mostly excellent (especially the spaceship models and the briefer shots of the alien), but those that don’t tend to add up by the end.

And, of course, Ripley goes back for the cat. There’s a killer alien on the loose, she’s trying to escape… and she goes back for the cat. Strictly bush league.

But most of the quibbles are minor, and disbelief is generally suspended in favour of absorbing discomfort and occasional, bursting fear. A classic is a classic, in the end.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Iron Giant

June 5, 2012 3 comments

The Iron Giant (1999; Directed by Brad Bird)

Brad Bird finally got his well-deserved huge success with his Pixar films, but this Cold War-era parable about technology and morality was his first great piece of feature animation work, and maybe the last great traditional 2D animated film. Adapting a Ted Hughes novel (yes, Sylvia Plath fans, that Ted Hughes) about a mountainous extraterrestrial robot who lands on earth and is befriended by a precocious and lonely boy, Bird displays his sharp visual and verbal wit and crafts a tale of its time but for all time. With fine voice performances all around, especially from Vin Diesel (yes, bad movie fans, that Vin Diesel) as the Giant and Harry Connick, Jr. as a charming junkyard Beatnik artist, Bird’s uncanny version of 1950s America encapsulates nuclear paranoia and secretive government control, and floats portentous meanings without weighing itself down.

Ultimately, The Iron Giant has much to say about America’s monomania for “national security”, especially in War on Terror era that it cannily anticipated by a few years. The parable of a sentient machine built as a weapon that learns to care for others instead of destroying them is a gentle but powerful reminder that even when faced with nebulous dangers and unapprehended threats, the good and moral shouldn’t abandon their values. Bird’s film suggests that preserving the tolerant democratic soul is a greater sign of strength than resorting to vengeful violence, and does it without a hint of self-involved didacticism. In a modern political climate in which pre-emptive war, imprisonment without trial, and even torture are apparently state actions whose righteousness and legality is up for debate, this remains a powerful and timely message. And how wonderful that it has a magnificent animated film such as this to help drive it home.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The News Media: Speaking Power’s Favoured Truth

June 3, 2012 1 comment

In a large, complex world of ample opportunity and insidious menace, the news media’s general role tends to be one of focus and simplification.  Self-produced promotional material often trumpets the press as helping to “make sense” of our often-troubling reality, and this is partly true. Media “makes sense” of events by reduction and diminishment, sorting out complexities by lopping off their branching rhizomatic potentialities and rendering them into straightforward expressions of the conventional wisdom that, above all, journalism in all of its traditional forms seeks to preserve. Leaving aside its own heroic, crusading self-constructions, the news media doesn’t so much speak truth to power as it does speak power’s favoured truths.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair contemplates how he can transition this incident into some feel-good hippie-bashing.

This predilection is often most strangely manifest in the sort of sensationalist current affairs stories that initially seem to have little to do with the capital of political, cultural, or economic power. A recent spate of such stories have burst out into the public eye this week. Commencing with the bizarre and gruesome assault in Miami in which a naked, mentally-imbalanced man was shot by police while eating the face of a homeless man followed by the macabre case of dismemberment and body part delivery in Ottawa and Montreal, the series of unsettling, unconnected events moved closer to (my) home in the last couple of days with the flooding of Toronto’s Union Station subway stop on a rainy Friday and a deadly shooting in a packed Eaton Centre mall food court on Saturday evening. While these disparate stories have little to do with each other beyond their headline-grabbing conjunction, they reveal much about the anxieties of North American capitalist society when passed through the news media filter.

There are compelling social issues underlying all of these events that are barely scratched at by press reports. The sensationalistically-dubbed “Miami cannibal” case has emerged as a woeful parable of society’s unconcern for the mentally ill and the homeless, as well as the persistence of the drug culture. The body parts incident overlaps on the subject of mental perturbation, but otherwise leading suspect Luka Rocco Magnotta seems to be a troubled, fame-seeking charlatan in a culture that mints a new such subject every few minutes. Although it’s too early to speculate on motives for the Eaton Centre shooting, the press is doing so anyway rather than asking penetrating questions about the rationality of packing such enormous crowds into the same public space. If even the liberal CBC is circling perilously around gang violence hysteria, I can’t fathom what the emerging narrative is in the fever swamps of the right-wing Sun Media.

All three of these stories have one common element underlying them, though: a steely desire for justice to be meted out on the guilty, or on those currently perceived to be guilty but not necessarily ultimately so (ask Richard Jewell about that). The knee-jerk justice streak of the public has been built up by decades of one-note press coverage of crime that often openly salivates for legal retribution in such cases; nary an eye was batted at the deadly force applied by police to “Miami cannibal” Rudy Eugene, for example, even though he was unarmed (and unable to conceal a weapon, being unclothed). That Magnotta and the Eaton Centre shooter are still at large – and the identity of the latter remains unknown to the public at least, if not to the police too – strengthens this collective wish for imminent punishment. It’s a very similar impulse to the one that led to destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to avenge 9/11, that animated America’s shameful racial hatreds towards the Japanese enemy in World War II, and that on a small-scale level have vivified the petty dislikes and local rivalries that have driven internecine social conflicts such as Europe’s inquisitions and wars of religion and other civil strife.

As long as Cinnabon escaped unscathed, we can all breathe a little easier.

The recent event that stands out in contrast to the reactions to these three is the Union Station flooding, but it is the one that is perhaps most in need of focused outrage. For all of the shock and tragedy and morbid curiosity invoked by the more violent happenings, they represent a permanent and unshakeable tendency towards dark acts in the human character. In these cases, our shock and outrage is of no avail. A few centuries ago, after all, brutal dismemberment was a legal, state-sanctioned form of punitive action; our ancestors would be amused by our queasiness.

The flooding, related as it was to an act of nature, may feel like it’s of the same category, but it’s also a key infrastructure failure in the heart of a city of tremendous wealth. Mayor Rob Ford’s appearance on the scene provided an interesting juxtaposition. As one of the pulsing hubs of a transit network that he has wilfully demonized and whose resources his administration has targetted for cuts was overwhelmed by stormwater, he stood there, ready to help. Ford and other like-minded politicians have “helped”, for sure. Their glib discarding of the social contract has made such failures not only possible but inevitable. The irrational contention that democratic citizens should not only contribute less tax money for the general betterment of society but also should not expect the dollars they do contribute to fund public services of a superior nature follows Ford wherever he goes. That our society boasts a news media that can muster frantic coverage of random instances of violence but gladly backs down when faced with long-term society-weakening political policies adopted by those in power is not to their credit, or to ours.