Archive for August, 2012

Arkells at the CNE: A Joyous Elegy for Summer

August 30, 2012 1 comment

The prevailing theme of Arkells’ Wednesday night show at the Canadian National Exhibition’s bandshell proved to be the end of the summer, an appropriate match for the Hamilton, Ontario band’s lighters-aloft (or smartphones-with-lighter-apps-aloft) rock songs about campfire romances (“Kiss Cam”), roadtrips along provincial highways (“Where U Goin”) and even sun-soaked South American dictators (“The Ballad of Hugo Chavez”). Enthusiastic frontman Max Kerman, resplendent in his neo-classic-rocker uniform of sweat-soaked leather jacket and vintage-looking Star Wars t-shirt, bantered extensively with the youngish crowd on the passing of seasons. He asked them if they’d quit their summer jobs yet, if they’d purchased their school supplies, and how many were returning to high school or to college. It was enough to make the rare post-university-age attendees going to work the next morning feel a bit out of place, but he did stick admirably to the point.


Beyond summertime’s imminent demise for another sun-cycle (marked particularly by a mid-song crooning of Carly Rae Jepsen summer pop anthem “Call Me Maybe” prefaced by Kerman’s hope that the ubiquitous song will be put to bed for good), the point being stuck to by Arkells on this night was a laudable commitment to the old-fashioned collective experience of popular rock and roll. If the prominence of this sort of experience (in the rock genre at least) has declined amongst the youth of the current generation in the U.S., it has endured in the UK and especially in Canada, which a rock-centric cultural imperialist might well interpret as sure evidence of the superior development of those cultures when compared to the American one.

The reigning Juno winners for national Group of the Year cling tightly to the merits of the collective experience, and their leader Kerman openly encouraged the audience to participate in it. With his understated 1950s-rockabilly-style hairdo bobbing with the beat, he led the crowd in mass singalongs (“Agent Zero”), give-and-take chants (the “punching in / punching out” dichotomy from the labour anthem “Oh, The Boss is Coming!”), and rhythmic handclaps all around. There was even a boppy cover of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”, the vocals shared between Kerman and electro-pop artist Lights, during the encore. Whatever one might think of collective experience strived for in concerts (and it’s not everyone’s bag, for certain), it’s hard t0 argue that Arkells don’t accomplish it as well as any working band in the country today.

But there is a finer balance to the band’s affect. They straddle the opposing footholds of wider audience appeal and intelligent, indie-derived specificity very athletically, a balancing act most reminiscent of an obvious Arkells influence, the Tragically Hip (who get a witty namecheck in the opening couplet of “Kiss Cam”, referencing their music’s ubiquity at Ontarian outdoor parties). Kerman has little of Gord Downie’s literary particularity, but both songwriters often focus on political and cultural ideas as well as on the intimate complications of personal relations. Kerman keys on subjects of interest to the 20-something male progressive, comparing himself to iconic 1960s rock stars (“John Lennon”, which closed the encore), celebrating rebels and outlaws (the aforementioned “Chavez”, evident US Army leaker Bradley Manning tribute “Whistleblower”), and narrativizing the thorny class identity schisms inherent to leftist social action (“No Champagne Socialist”, which did not make an appearance in the setlist, sadly). These themes deepen and broaden Arkells’ music, which is deceptively simple in its anthemic proportions that conceal complexly interwoven rock arrangements.

But in the flattened-out mass engagement arena of live concerts, Arkells sacrifice some measure of these distinctions for the comforting embrace of the collective rock experience. Even if something is lost in the live process, this is not an inherently bad thing, exactly; Arkells put on a stronger rock show than most, and it’s no stretch to imagine their appeal growing in symbiotic harmony with the scope of their art. My 30-year-old self was impressed and entertained by them last night, even if my 20-year-old self would have been even more so. But then bidding each summer a bittersweet farewell is trait of the young, and their sensibilities are no longer entirely my own. But an impassioned elegy for the warmest season is still worth appreciating, no matter one’s age, and Arkells provided that well enough.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Boxer

August 27, 2012 Leave a comment

The Boxer (1997; Directed by Jim Sheridan)

For all its grim, late-Troubles-era sociopolitical realism, Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer fights to a stalemate. Perhaps it reflected the protracted stand-off in Northern Ireland at the time (which was nonetheless close to resolving itself, or coming as close to doing so as it ever could), but the film is as trapped and impotent as the circumstances it portrays.

Day-Lewis’ Danny Flynn is the simple, plain-spoken avatar of this inability to progress, both a living metaphor of years and generations of lost hopes and squandered opportunities and the fundamental embodiment of this ungainly traction. Day-Lewis and his romantic lead Emily Watson both manage some moments of searing intensity and occasionally penetrate the stiff membrane of their characters’ volatile world, but mostly they’re swept up in the flashy plot with its melodramatic twists, prisoners of the generic conventions more so than of the endemic social reality.

Sheridan has shot mid-’90s Belfast in drab concrete tones, the only brief stabs of colour provided by blood and flags. The boxing scenes play off as such scenes usually do in films, nothing less or more: sweating abdominals, the soft brutality of gloved blows, the white noise of the hooting rabble in the background. Neither Rocky nor Raging Bull closed their boxing match sequences with the assassination of a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, mind you. But that’s a distinction of context rather than of degree.

There’s certainly an attempt being made by Sheridan, Day-Lewis and their collaborators to convey a sort of utilitarian, working-class eloquence, but the result is constipated and pent-up and any pathos is fleeting. The Boxer is a film too invested in the effort to be important to bother being anything else for too long, which is unfortunate considering the talent involved.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price

August 24, 2012 1 comment

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price (2005; Directed by Robert Greenwald)

Eventually, you had to figure that the left-wing anti-corporate documentary genre was going to produce a film as genuinely weakly made, poorly argued and naively knee-jerk in its political notions as conservative opponents of the genre have long accused its products of being. That film, sadly, is this film.

Robert Greenwald lays out Wal-Mart’s myriad abuses with an effectiveness that is no less impressive for its one-sidedness, but then those abuses are hardly up for debate. Anyone who’s done even a bare minimum of research into the subject knows about Wal-Mart’s union-busting, their shabby payment and treatment of employees, their disregard for environmental and safety laws, the destructive effect their stores have on small businesses, the borderline slave-labour employed in their foreign plants, and much more. There’s plenty of evidence to show that Wal-Mart does lots of nasty things to turn a profit, but Greenwald’s film steadfastly refuses to trace the systemic vileness of these tactics beyond the profit motive of one solitary (if enormous) company.

Because the problems with Wal-Mart are merely microcosmic of the problems with American capitalism, problems that are increasingly coming home to roost in a time of economic crisis. Wal-Mart employs cheap overseas labour, but so do many other corporations. They pay low wages and employ illegal immigrant labour, but so do many other corporations. They are flippant about safety and the environment, but so are many other corporations. They ruthlessly game the system, but so do many other corporations. Their union-breaking tactics are more singular, but reflect a widespread American distrust of and distaste for organized labour that has been frothed up by the right for decades (and has a grain of truth or two to it, though perhaps not the grains that conservatives have inflated into historic sins).

The most succinct example of Greenwald’s failure of insight as a documentarian comes in the exploration of Wal-Mart’s failure to provide health coverage for their employees. This lack of concern is decried and several victims of the policy are trotted out to arouse our sympathy, but the larger point is missed entirely. Why should it be up to an employer to provide complete, necessary health coverage to most of their employees? As a Canadian, the alternative of universal health care seems obvious, and would efficiently remove the onus from corporations, who must factor employee health coverage into their profit margins and will thus always find it a tempting element to cut back in order to make it into the black (or ever further into the black, as is often the case). The entire American auto industry was at risk largely because of the benefits the car companies owe to their employees. With a working, fair system of socialized medicine in place (something similar but more far-reaching than the Affordable Care Act constantly maligned by conservatives), this is not an issue for Wal-Mart or for any other company.

Beyond its narrow lack of vision and glib willingness to blame every foible of Wal-Mart on pure, evil greed rather than on the crushing competitive pressures of an environment of unregulated commercial expansion, the production values of The High Cost of a Low Price are ridiculously cheap. The interviews are informative enough, but patronizing captions remind us of who’s talking every time they’re on screen. Beyond this irritation, there is Greenwald’s conclusion, an eye-rolling montage of communities that resisted Wal-Mart’s expansion (although at least a few of the ones listed now have Wal-Marts in them nonetheless), accompanied by laughable scrolling text bleating, “Victory!” A 12-year-old with a deft hand at PowerPoint would be embarrassed to put his name on such a graphical creation. And Greenwald’s tactic of freezing cheery Wal-Mart ads, washing the colours out to black-and-white, and playing ominous music as he flashes stats that contradict the happy messages is both cheesy and cliched. Technical values, it needs to be said, do matter, even in documentaries. The poorer they are, the less likely are viewers to be convinced by the film’s arguments.

Conclusion: Wal-Mart is terrible. So is this film.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 2: Thoughts on Belgium

August 21, 2012 5 comments

At the close of my previous post musing on visiting Paris, I wrote of the often-unnoticed ways that the City of Lights has seen its medieval historical heritage preserved down to the present day. If this can be noticed to some extent in Paris, then it’s nigh-on impossible to avoid in the small, often-maligned country bordering France: Belgium. For all of its mercantile history and contemporary participation in modernity, the great cities of Belgium (or, rather, of its Dutch-speaking northern portion, Flanders) are haunted by a past that had left behind it both aesthetic loveliness and troubling cultural implications.

Belgium has managed to cultivate a bit of an inferiority complex in European relations that doesn’t really befit it in cultural, economic, or political terms. It boasts an artistic timeline progressing from the Flemish Primitives to Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck (though not to my taste, both major artists) to Art Nouveau to Rene Magritte’s Surrealism to… well, I dunno where it ends, Gotye? It has often been an economic and therefore political powerhouse as well, from the thriving late-medieval port cities of Ghent and Bruges to the diamond trade of Antwerp to King Leopold II’s colonial exploitation of the rubber trees of the Congo to today’s membership (and, with its Brussels headquarters, leadership) in the European Union. Still, jammed only half-comfortably between two continental powers (France and Germany) that have often coveted, fought over, and indeed conquered it, and overshadowed even by the country of origin for its linguistic majority (Holland), Belgium is rarely afforded the respect that the unique history of its region, culture, and people have earned.

The aforementioned “Big Four” Belgian cities, all of which were ports of call on my holiday, typify different and even divisive aspects of Belgium even while also accenting the similarities throughout the nation. Brussels is the bustling capital of government, national and continental, dotted with the sort of bulky Neoclassical official institutions that often threaten to swallow other great capitals like Washington D.C. and the aforementioned Paris. French, the prestige language of the country’s elite, has not relinquished its central position in Brussels despite its geographic location in Flanders and increasing progressive concessions to the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. If anything, it’s easier for a visitor speaking French as a second language to survive with only the language in Brussels than it is to do so anywhere in France. In Belgium, no matter what the historical privileged class liked to pretend, French is always a second language anyway.

Antwerp, like Brussels, is both a historic centre and a modern city. The architecture of each is that much more festooned, the famous stepped-gable peaks of Flemish architecture graced with the supplemental gilding that copious profitable commerce affords. Antwerp has long been the town of flash and bang, overflowing with glittering diamonds, an astonishing railroad station, and cutting edge fashion design. The style-over-substance feeling of the place is embodied by its most famous son, the aforementioned Rubens. With his preference for towering canvases, clumsily indistinct lines, sweeping gestures, and rippling cellulite, Rubens is an artist for Antwerp: impressive, showy, and opulent, but largely without a sense of proportion or a soul-like core.

Ghent and Bruges, on the other hand, trade lucratively on their exquisite atmosphere of late-medieval and early-modern urban preservation. Though their aesthetic pleasures are undeniable and therefore quite hard to be critical about, ultimately, both cities present their canals and churches, their wedding-cake market squares and cobblestoned side-lanes, and their profusion of historical fine art for maximum touristic consumption. Ghent manages to escape a more cynical assessment by virtue of being slightly less popular with foreigners as well as slightly more ragged and liberal as a longtime university town. Its main museum to medieval life is the none-too-rose-tinted Gravesteen, an honest-to-god castle in the centre of town that quite openly acknowledges the quotidian brutality of the Middle Ages with its torture exhibits. It also doesn’t hurt that Ghent boasts a dynamic central skyline, one of the continent’s most welcoming cores (the beautiful, homey Graslei), and the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the true historic knockouts of European art that also has a fascinating history.

Bruges, on the other hand, although undeniably romantic and beguiling, works a bit too hard to construct itself to visitors as a living museum while simultaneously capitulating to modern tastes and capitalist ambition. As pretty as the Markt square is, only a few steps down any of its connecting straats will lead you into a Body Shop or a Zara or a Pizza Hut, and the city’s amalgamated museum bureaucracy, with its standardized pricing and plexiglass booths, drains the character of many a historical landmark (it doesn’t help, either, that the queue for an attraction like the Belfry is a major timesuck). It’s hardly much of a fairytale, though still pretty fine for all that.

Ironically, the cultural product currently most associated with Bruges, Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s rough and hilarious moral-comic gangster escapade In Bruges, subtly participated in the town’s self-romanticization as much as it overtly sent it up. The Bruges in the film is a “fuckin’ fairytale”, as a couple of characters put it, although another is less complimentary, repeatedly dubbing it a “shithole”. We laugh dismissively at the latter assessment because McDonagh constructs Bruges as a romantic Belgian burg indeed, albeit one with a subtle dark side. He has sound thematic reasons to do this, invoking the town as a simultaneous Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory where the moral actions of his characters meet with the variant sentences of a fickle, unseen judge. But it’s still a bit too perfect, so much so that it isn’t perfect at all.

And this is Belgium, too: kind of perfect but really much more imperfect. “Nothing works here, and still it works,” goes a local saying, and it speaks volumes about this small but vibrant and fascinating country’s self-image. In a global order of constricting capitalized ambition with consequences both wonderful and terrible, Belgium finds a way to embrace both possibilities and still seem like a land set snugly before the time of unrestricted consumption. This is why it’s such a great place to travel, and will continue to be.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, History, Travel

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 1: Thoughts on Paris

August 19, 2012 4 comments

Returning from my first vacation jaunt to Europe for over a decade, there are a profusion of thoughts on the arts, architecture, history and still-living culture of the rich and often-tumultuous continent that have been sparked by my travels, and seem worth sharing in one form or another. I begin with the town where so many continental travellers likewise commence: Paris.

The fascinating French capital bookended the trip itinerary, and while a couple of days was hardly enough to soak in enough of one of the world’s great cities, it was enough to get a feel for the character of the place. Seemingly equal amounts of righteous blood and inked superlatives have been spilled over Paris, amounts that feel both excessive and insufficient, given the city’s bizarre power. This shall not be an essay on the benefits of central urban planning, or a treatise on how Paris’ beguiling romanticism has survived revolutions, wars, gilded ages, and the influx of corporate culture (McDonald’s across from Jardins de Luxembourg, fashion chain stores dotting the Champs-Élysées, etc.). And certainly there are elements of the French civic culture that are less than praise-worthy, in particular the harsh ethnic, cultural and economic divisions between the dwellers and workers of central, historic Paris and the sprawling banlieues on its periphery, which occasionally erupt in violent, frustrated rebellion at the obvious network of persistent inequalities (and Torontonians like to think there’s a downtown/suburbs split in their city!).

One cannot ignore how the firm wall between the 20 arrondisements agglomerated in 1860 and the wider Île-de-France region has constructed the core of the modern Paris into a tourist powerhouse. The charming, romantic destination of legend (and largely, it must be acknowledged, reality) has always been a playground for the 1% and therefore a monument to inequality. Still, the centuries-long series of massive public works, monuments, and cheap, easily-accessible cultural institutions, from former royal palaces that are now public gardens (Tuileries, Luxembourg) or national museums (Versailles, the spectacularly comprehensive art museum the Louvre) to industrial- or corporate-age developments like the Eiffel Tower site, Pompidou Centre or the skyscraper city of La Défense has extended the glories to the people in a manner befitting a country whose modern history is still very much defined by a mass uprising against the assumptions of aristocratic privilege.

But it’s worth remembering that Paris’ history goes back further than the ancien régime, and that was what much of this visit was spent confirming. The city has done a fine job preserving hints of its deeper past in key places, in particular at the Musée National du Moyen Âge at L’Hôtel Cluny, with its treasure trove of medieval art, and at the city’s oldest standing monument, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The literal centre of France (kilometre zero for all distances in the country is the star in the paving stones on the square outside the church), the inspiring Gothic bulk of Notre Dame may well embody spiritual aspirations that the thoroughly secularized republic no longer shares, even if Victor Hugo contributed to its Romanticist re-casting with his seminal novel largely set in its environs.

But the exquisite stone sculptures adorning its towering facade, the famous twisted gargoyles (actually added in the 19th century restoration), pious knights, bishops and kings, and demonic fiends tormenting sinners at the Last Judgment, speak non-verbal multitudes about the nature of official power in the Middle Ages and today. In a vivid visual illustration for a mostly non-literate society, these depictions of the terrifying fate of sinners carried a clear message from the clerical (and, by extension, secular) authorities to their afeared parishioners: do exactly what we say, or be prepared for nasty beings to put the hurt on you for eternity. It’s a deeply medieval conception of Catholic morality, predicated on punitive assumptions, and it’s reflected strongly in the modern France’s civic order in which obedience to established power in which obedience is compelled by the threat of withering social disdain and bureaucratic sarcasm more so than by clumsy state-imposed force (although the paramilitary security forces patrolling the public squares that front on Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower suggest otherwise with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety).

Similar ideas spring to mind, albeit in a divergent manner, in the other main location of travel on this trip, the oft-misunderstood but lovely nation of Belgium. Some related thoughts on these travels are to follow soon. Stay tuned.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel

Film Review: Lolita (1962)

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Lolita (1962; Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Going into this, I hardly expected Stanley Kubrick to make Vladimir Nabokov’s contentious classic more light-hearted and less creepy. But he does, and it’s not really terribly helpful, honestly.

Only the occasional snatches of narration preserve Nabokov’s erudite, charming writing style, and these brief teases leave you aching for more. It’s unfortunate, too, because there’s some fairly fine performances cluttering the film. James Mason is hilarious early on, brushing off the aggressive intrusions of Shelley Winters’ Charlotte Haze (she’s basically perfect in the role), and grows comfortably into Humbert’s lunatic obsession. Sue Lyon is likely too pretty a Lolita, but is otherwise entirely convincing as a teasing nymphet.

A large part of the problem (indeed, maybe the entirety of the problem) with the film is Peter Sellers’ involvement in it. His quivering, nervous lasciviousness matches the undercurrents of the material and does, to some extent, give voice to the compulsive passion simmering beneath Humbert’s facade of suave coolness. But Sellers, as he almost always is, is just too much; he’s far too over-the-top and excessive to be a fully-formed foil to Mason’s smoothed-over Humbert. Kubrick clearly gave him free rein (as he would in their next film together, Dr. Strangelove, where Sellers’ late flights of improvisation as the title character again blemish a sardonic masterpiece), and Sellers goes off half-cocked, to the detriment of the film. Only in the opening scene is it acceptable, and then it’s only because you know he’s to be killed any minute. Overall, a generally-average adaptation of a remarkable book that likely deserved better.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Up

August 13, 2012 2 comments

Up (2009; Directed by Peter Docter)

Like all products of the Pixar factory, Up has engaging, recognizable characters, a solid plot and well-constructed sequences, heaps of emotional generosity, and a timeless, Old Hollywood quality to its humour that puts the desperate, knowing cultural references that pervade the products of the studio’s CGI animation competitors to shame. It should also go without saying that it’s completely lovely to look at throughout, although the use of 3D adds very little beyond a bit of depth to the landscapes.

But no one ought to have the slightest doubt about the technical and narrative prowess of Pixar at this point. Quality is assured, but transcendence is more fickle. Up begins with its most transcendent section, an exquisite 20-ish minutes of silent-film-style narrative that is saturated with affection and longing, intimacy and sadness. It’s a model of what Pixar accomplishes at their best: a children’s cartoon with intelligence and maturity, a film that artfully earns the hoary old marketing standby “fun for all ages”. The opening act recalls the much more ambitious start of Pixar’s previous crossover triumph, Wall-E. Both are imaginative and heartfelt, and ultimately elegiac; Zen, almost.

But it doesn’t stay that way, and Up soon reveals itself as a mixed bag of pleasures. Once Carl Fredrickson’s house takes flight (a fairly joyful moment that would have been more so if not for the image’s centrality in the film’s marketing campaign), Up becomes a simple adventure movie. A wondrous, often entertaining adventure film, yes, but really only an adventure film. The emotional weight built up so painstakingly in the prologue doesn’t really pay off, and there’s an absence of resonant buried ideas being dealt with, as in Pixar’s best works (particularly in Brad Bird’s films for the studio). That the film’s director, Pete Docter, was also at the helm for Monsters, Inc. (Pixar’s weakest effort that doesn’t involve talking cars) should maybe have been a hint to Up‘s direction.

Still, the film is not without its charms, with the talking dogs in particular providing some much-needed hilarity at key moments (“I just met you and I love you!”). And that astounding prologue proves that Pixar is still capable of great things, even in the midst of a less-than-great film like Up. It remains rather good, but the past work of the magic factory that produced it has lead us to expect better, as well we should.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Sicko

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Sicko (2007; Directed by Michael Moore)

Michael Moore’s Sicko would seem like a film worth revisiting, what with the Democratic Party’s historical (if compromised) health care reform bill recently upheld against a challenge of unconstitutionality by the U.S. Supreme Court. The symptoms of the illness at the heart of Stateside health care Sicko diagnosed were front-and-centre for half a year at least while the Affordable Care Act was being debated, as were the rosy (and the terrible) portrayals of the systems in other Western democracies and the liberal anti-capitalist criticisms of insurance companies and the rest of the for-profit health sector. Moore’s ultimate argument that America would benefit from a bit of borrowing from foreign systems was often presented in the public debate over the legislative shaping of the bill as well. Of course, the bill that was passed and has been upheld by the Court only addresses a few of the endemic issues paralyzing U.S. health care, issues that Moore’s film gets mostly pinpoints correctly.

Still, little about Sicko comes across as terribly resonant. Michael Moore’s problems as a filmmaker are numerous, but his uncanny ability to lose many of those who ought to agree with him is his most maddening. Conservatives and capitalists are already on the outs, of course, but his shoddy (ab)use of facts and evidence and goofy musical, sound and archival footage choices only serve to alienate conscientious policy liberals.

His investigative methods rely heavily on the anecdotal, which humanizes his agit-prop but also weakens its conclusions. You don’t have to be a paleoconservative hater tossing around fat jokes to be skeptical about the value of the personal stories he focuses on, especially when he goes to Canada (where I know first-hand that many citizens are not entirely satisfied with the level of care) and finds nothing but positive stories.

Moore’s insistence on presenting every system in every country other than America as utopian and perfect, without likewise admitting their faults, is condescending to those countries and hardly likely to convince ordinary Americans to embrace such reforms. A more responsible analysis of the pros and cons of the American system, contrasted with those of the social democracies he examines, would be much more effective and harder to pigeonhole. Such an analysis would find those systems wanting but still would locate far more advantages for patients than in the U.S., and would lead to a much more hermetic thesis. But Moore is a chronic oversimplifier, and leaves his argument open to numerous broadsides as a result.

So, as usual, Moore’s film is frustrating to this liberal who largely agrees with its premises at least. It’s frustrating because he presents viewpoints and arguments in an emotionally-heated, overly inept way that allows them to be easily quibbled with, contradicted, and ultimately dismissed by those who are invested in their defeat. Despite the occasional moment of progressive rallying, Moore’s Sicko, like most of his films, makes it infinitely harder to be a liberal. I don’t think he need to be rewarded for that.

The Olympic Games and Canada’s Underdog Self-Perception

August 7, 2012 2 comments

Wenlock and Mandeville, the Olympic Dildos

Although I’ve been following the 2012 Summer Olympics in London over the past week and a half relatively closely, there hasn’t been much that’s happened yet that has sparked a particular desire to blog about the Games. There have been major sports stories, certainly. American swimmer Michael Phelps set a new mark for total career Olympic medals with 22, which is a notable achievement, even if it was assisted (inflated?) by the excessive disciplines of his sport and the strength of the well-funded US swim team (more than a third of those career medals came as a member of relay teams). Usain Bolt of Jamaica repeated as 100 metre sprint champion, Britain’s athletes have performed well (especially in cycling and athletics), and there was even a scandal to exercise the outrage muscles of the media and the casual sports-watching public (albeit in the marginal sport of badminton).

Perhaps the closest I came to weighing in on the quadrennial spectacle was after the bizarre, overwhelming, and stunningly tasteful opening ceremonies, masterminded by Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. In the end, better minds such as Roger Ebert and Simon Schama said mostly what I might have about it with both fewer and finer words, but it did strike me as a grand, animated metaphor for the endurance and eccentricity of British culture. It also had flat-out fantastic soundtrack of superb Brit music. Let us compare: the London ceremonies featured Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, the Vancouver ceremonies in 2010 trotted out Nickelback and Hedley. Who wins that one, I wonder?

Still from the perhaps ill-conceived ‘Tribute to Isengard’ portion of the program.

Most fundamentally, though, little has been written in these parts about the Olympics because, from a Canadian perspective, they have not been terribly distinguished games, as far as individual athletic performances go. With the sole Canadian gold medal thus far coming in women’s trampoline (good for Rosie McLennan and all, and it’s a fine accomplishment, but it’s trampoline), a solid swimming silver from Ryan Cochrane in the 1500 m freestyle, and most of the other medals being of the bronze variety, London 2012 has not been kind to Canada-first enthusiasts. The Canadian media has scrambled to compensate, filling their time with inspirational puff pieces on medal hopes and focusing unduly on the podium finishes quasi-Canadian swimmer Missy Franklin, an already-dominant 17-year-old who, of course, competes for the US. After the national high of the Vancouver Winter Games, one could call the current competition a bit of a disappointment, if it did not mostly conform to Canada’s status as a tertiary power in the Summer Games.

This result also conforms to the Canadian self-image as a plucky but usually unsuccessful underdog nation, forever in the shadow of our attention-grabbing, world-changing southern neighbours. Even if this image has been made increasingly out-of-date by a robust economy and sweeping demographic change, our public discourse continues to cling to it like white Americans cling to guns and religion, to borrow the formulation of a certain sitting President. Partly for this reason, the defining Canadian moment of these Games is likely to be the Canadian women’s soccer team’s memorably epic extra time loss to the U.S. in the semi-finals yesterday.

So the ball is the 49th Paralell in this analogy, yes?

It was, unquestionably, one of the greatest, most tense, most dramatic football matches I’ve ever seen, regardless of the gender of the players (anyone who labours under the misconception that the women’s game is of a lower stature than the men’s, especially at the higher levels, could no longer do so after watching that game). It had an individual performance of the highest quality from Canada’s star forward Christine Sinclair, who three times surgically dissected the U.S. defence to give Canada the lead, twice late in the second half with all-world headers. And it had a major, game-swinging controversial call from the referee that lead eventually to a late American equalizer from the penalty spot, a call that, while technically within the rules, was so far out of the norm for the circumstances that it would serve to point to either disastrous incompetence or (more likely) hidden bias.

As with most sporting controversies, one’s perspective seems to depend entirely on one’s chosen (or un-chosen) side, with the tribe one belongs to. American sports media outlets labeled the Canadian players who complained about the awful call whiners and implied that it was all another minor speedbump on the road to inevitable American hegemony anyway. Jingoistic arrogance is as ingrained in American coverage of the Olympics as NBC’s tape-delayed televising, and as unlikely to bend to increasing audience dissatisfaction with it.

But the Canadian response has been every bit as regrettable, interspersing paternalistic pride at the resilience of “our girls” with overheated “we wuz robbed” outrage. The sense of being eternally wronged, of trying hard, but being ultimately defeated by not only a more powerful opponent but by the slanted system as well, is essential to the underdog position. Canadians are well-versed in its imperatives; they tend to know precisely where to stand, often without knowing it.

Beyond all of the fuzzy nationalistic soppery of the Vancouver Games and its co-opting by corporations looking to hawk their wares, what was best about the strong showing of the Canadian team two years back and the popular celebration of the achievement was that it offered the promise of a post-underdog discourse in Canada. It represented a potential opportunity to move on from that silly set of anachronistic, diminuating self-conceptions that have plagued the country’s sense of its own worth for too long. A chance to stop pretending that we are a junior partner in the worldwide democratic capitalist feedback loop of exploitation and consumption and accept that we have a pretty key seat at that particular table.

But here we stand again, in the old footprints. Disappointment and outrage over sporting results that did not break our way is, well, the old way (and reflects our lack of experience with incompetent and/or corrupt officials in international football, which are hardly limited to the women’s game, that’s for sure). If Olympic results mean anything to larger national conceptions (and it’s clear that they do, whether they strictly ought to or not), then the mass reaction to the showing of the Canadian women’s soccer team as well as the Canadian Olympic Team as a whole in London suggests that old habits die hard, especially in the momentarily unfrozen north.

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

August 5, 2012 6 comments

The Dark Knight Rises (2012; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

It’s certain that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman epic (or so he says) is ambitious, relentless, confident, and overwhelmingly stern and self-serious. What’s not as certain is whether or not it’s any good. The Dark Knight Rises is overstuffed with good ideas, bad ideas, big ideas, and dangerous ideas, and the distinctions between them are not too keenly felt. Nolan’s film is not without emotional heft, dramatic momentum, or committed performances. Indeed, it is often pure heft, momentum, and commitment, with only the briefest interludes of weighty wit for breathing room. It also presents multiple contending and even contradictory ideologies without ever adopting any of them. Like The Dark Knight, it’s once again the comic-book-hero action-adventure as exercise in moral philosophy, but not nearly as compelling.

The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Batman has been off the Gotham City scene for all of that time, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse as well, haunting the remote wings of Wayne Manor and rarely checking in on his increasingly unprofitable corporation. But his city (now firmly, unavoidably a New York City proxy after coyly mixing various urban settings, mainly Chicago, in previous films) doesn’t much miss him, particular because its crime rate has sunk in his absence and since the city’s elite have accepted the noble lie told by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that Batman killed the virtuous DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), leading to harsh penalties for organized crime.

But this is Gotham, that metropolitan metaphor for moral decay, so things can’t stay quiet for long. The emergence on the underworld scene of the menacing, uncompromising Bane (Tom Hardy), a revolutionary terrorist and mercenary with an intimidating weight-room physique and a Darth Vader-like respitory mask, draws Batman out of the shadows and Wayne back into the boardroom. In perhaps the most labyrinthine plot of Nolan’s trilogy (the script is again by Nolan and his brother Jonathan), Wayne uncovers an elaborate plan by Bane and certain hidden associates to hold Gotham City hostage in a revolutionary, order-inverting Reign of Terror involving underground excavations, a neutron reactor transformed into a nuclear bomb, slinky high-end cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), and an intense personal grudge against the Batman. This gives Nolan the opportunity to stage multiple breakneck chases through skyscraper canyons, brutal hand-to-hand combat (including a police charge against Bane’s army and a bone-breaking dust-up or two between the hero and the villain), and large-scale set-pieces of destruction like an imploding football field (prefaced by an angelic boy singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which is either manipulative or kind of sneakily satirical).

The less said about the narrative particulars, the better, but it’s more than a little necessary to delve into those details to unpack Nolan’s ideological engagements. Bane’s assault on Gotham carries more than a hint of the socioeconomic class grievances of the Occupy Movement, from its setting at the iconic Wall Street crossroads of American finance and power to its vindictive targeting of the wealthy 1% for a tribunal judgment of death or exile (which amount to the same thing: a precarious walk across the part-frozen river ice that is the only exit from Gotham after its bridges are blown by Bane’s men).

This cartoon parody of the leftist expression of outrage at income inequality, when combined with a corporate billionaire hero who combats it through violence and fear, has lead to critical accusations of a fascistic perspective on the part of Nolan. This label only really sticks to The Dark Knight Rises if you accept that Nolan subscribes to a specific moral-philosophical perspective. If he does, he doesn’t ever really tip his hat one way or another. Bane’s a nasty enough piece of work (Hardy vanishes behind muscles and the hyper-dramatic score, the mask hiding his pillowy lips so that we’ll take him seriously as a villain), but he never seems firm in the political convictions that his acts appears to support or indeed to have any sort of ideological undercurrent to them at all, and the ultimate motivation revealed for his revolution is something much more intimate and personal. Likewise, Nolan’s film has little sympathy for the privileged being targeted for retribution, caricaturing stock traders (when one of them tells Bane there’s no money on the exchange floor, the bad guy replies pointedly, “Then why are you all here?”) and old matrons in furs alike, and even delights in Kyle’s filching of their valuables (Hathaway is a superb scene-stealer and adds some sizzle to the grandiosity on display).

Give us a kiss, then.

By the same token, the solutions offered to social ills by institutions, be they political, law enforcement, or superhero, are also firmly doubted by the Nolans. Alfred (Michael Caine) excoriates Wayne for pulling on the suit again with an apparent death wish, throwing cold water on his delusions of reclaiming his mantle as Gotham’s savior, while Gordon’s complicity in the well-meaning lies about Dent are exposed, disillusioning his young detective protégé John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, continuing his slow march to megastardom with a strong, naturalistic showing). Ultimately, the recurrent image of Nolan’s moral worldview in this film is the hellish Middle Eastern prison set deep in a pit in the desert, where the confinement is all the more torturous for the inmates due to the hopeful glimpse of sunlit freedom above them.

Nolan’s established Nietszchean vision of the Batman mythos takes on more nihilistic tones in The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s a less interesting vision because of it. The absence of the anarchic Joker bevils down the unpredictable edge that made the previous installment such a draining but rewarding experience; Bane’s evil acts are, perhaps, even greater, but somehow less chilling, less unnerving. His dark authority is defused by the fairly ludicrous voice that Hardy gives him, redolent of a mustache-twirling cartoon Brit supervillain. Hathaway’s slippery Catwoman, a deceitful but unapologetic survivor in the moral morass of Gotham, is much more interesting, undercutting the more important woman to the plot, Marion Cotillard’s comparatively bland Miranda Tate. It reflects The Dark Knight Rises as a whole, a film so convinced of its own importance and depth, so invested in its moral passion play of ideology as mass spectacle, that it sometimes neglects to function as fully-involved cinema. It rises, but not as high as might have been expected.

Categories: Film, Reviews