Archive for September, 2012

Film Review: Swing Vote

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Swing Vote (2008; Directed by Joshua Michael Stern)

If this is the only kind of political “satire” that can get made and distributed on a mass scale in America, then the country is in more trouble than once thought.

There are certainly things that work in this stew of kid-gloves satire, overworked family drama, and laboured celebration of the Average American Dumbass. The days that Kevin Costner was Hollywood’s go-to Everyman are well behind him, but his Bud Johnson is a decent cipher for a white trash loser with no opinions on anything here. As his precocious daughter (all that needs to be known about her is that, when she grows up, she wants to be “either a veterinarian, or Chairman of the Fed”), Madeline Carroll is smartass beyond her years, but is also the heart of a movie that often substitutes sharp intellectual thrusts for swelling emotional high points. And Kelsey Grammer is the subtle surprise, giving depth, colour, and nuance to a Republican President who could have been a mere string of veiled Dubya jokes.

But any film about American politics must be judged on what it has to say about a system that all agree is way off the road but no one seems to know how to pull out of the ditch. Director Joshua Michael Stern is occasionally able to stage a decent satirical sequence: the campaign ads that bend over backwards to appeal to Bud’s vaguely expressed positions are often hilarious. Republicans for gay marriage, Democrats skewing pro-life and anti-immigration; there’s some sly fun poked at the immovable positions on issues that have come to define the American two-party system.

But what’s the larger point here, and what does it really signify? The movie’s concept – that a voting machine malfunction in rural New Mexico leads to the Presidential Election being decided by a single voter, namely Bud – is a heavy-handed fictionalization of the sliver-thin margins that characterized both of George W. Bush’s lamentable victories. The relatively empty phrase “Every vote counts” is repeated many times, a point which the film’s central conceit makes strongly enough on its own but nonetheless should be obvious enough after two real-world elections decided by a few measly counties. If anything, the film puts the onus for meaningful change on neither party, but rather on the fundamental civic duties and social responsibilities of every voter. Inform yourself and vote, Swing Vote tells us, and everything will right itself. It’s a nice, fuzzy, centre-left Hollywood message that predictably ignores large-scale systemic overhaul for a feel-good self-help personal transformation. And thus, despite its occasional sharpness, the film ends up being relatively useless, in the end.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Cultural Criticism in Context: Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class

September 25, 2012 5 comments

Considering the obvious preoccupation with analyzing the cultural assumptions of modern democratic capitalism displayed in this blog space, it’s perhaps surprising that I have not previously cracked the spine on the work of Thorstein Veblen, in particular his seminal 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Although I had some grounding in the basic outlines of his theory via references to it in the books of Andrew Potter, reading the original text itself was helpful in uniting the disparate threads of Veblen’s thoughts on consumption, competition, and class distinctions at the turn of the 20th century.

For the academically uninitiated, Veblen’s dry, verbose prose, with its voluminous vocabulary and critical theory predilection for purposeful obtuseness of expression, can be a grand slog. It’s easy to miss not only the overarching arguments but especially their particulars, to say nothing of the many subtle barbs against his bourgeois Gilded Age targets of deconstructive analysis that are embedded in that analysis. Indeed, Veblen’s portentous writing is itself a marker of what he might call the invidious comparison of the sheltered class, an act of wasteful consumption that demonstrates his own insinuation into the processes of distinction. Even if Veblen holds himself above the fray with the feigned objectivity of the critic, he cannot wholly escape the implications of his all-encompassing social theory (especially in his final chapter on “the higher education”, a realm which the Yale-schooled theorist was clearly included in).

That theory, for the unfamiliar, defies simple summation, but it must be attempted nonetheless. Veblen writes about the leisure class, generally understood as the vestigial aristocracy but ever-expanding by the late 19th century to include a significant portion of the rising middle class. This class is driven to consume commercial products and generally to behave and live in an ostentatious way, the display unconsciously establishing their relative level of wealth and comfort in comparison with that of their fellow citizens. Veblen conceives of this habit as being an instinctual social survival from earlier structures of culture, in particular what he calls the “barbarian stage” in which a prestigious hunter-warrior elite ruled over and above their tribal inferiors by virtue of their prowess with physical violence.

If the upper class of Veblen’s time does not precisely subsist on a diet of violence, their relations towards their fellow men, especially in the growing business sphere of the time, are understood as being essentially predatory in nature, and those displaying predatory traits are more likely to survive (social Darwinian ideas are key to Veblen’s views). However, the true method of distinction for this class is, as the name implies, their leisure, (ie. assumed abstention from manual labour), thus rendering the predatory instincts essentially vestigial. With this rationale in mind, a spiral of consumption ensues; the products used and displayed and the activities engaged in by the leisure class are chosen based on established canons of taste, and those canons select those objects of consumption that most clearly signal the consumer’s abstention from the menial undertakings of the working and artisan classes.

These unwritten rules apply first and foremost to the male heads of household, in a pecuniary confirmation of the imperatives of the patriarchal system. But they extend to servants, children, and particularly women, who act as vicarious actors whose unproductive consumption and conspicuous waste serves to reaffirm the class prestige of their master (Veblen would have had a few belly-laughs at The Queen of Versailles, all while thinking how little things have really changed since his day). These invidious comparisons are drawn out by Veblen in multiple aspects of the culture, from business and education to sports, politics, gambling, and even religious belief. What emerges is a point-by-point dissection of the collective psychology of contemporary leisure-class consumption, a model that is variantly applicable even in our own culturally-saturated time.

To a large extent, Veblen’s ideas have become so self-evident as to have been internalized, particularly in the anti-capitalist movements of the modern Left. A work like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (“you are not what you own”) is only the most obvious response to the phenomenon that Veblen registers in The Theory of the Leisure Class, but the effects of the system described penetrate even the most outward acts of anti-consumption resistance. Like many ideas that have become part of collective cultural knowledge, one way or another, the valences of Veblen’s theories can easily be lost in the fog of their assumed ubiquity. Even common knowledge requires occasional restatement, and it was instructive to experience that restatement via the author himself in his book.

A reading of Veblen is also rather instructive to understand his theory’s limits, as well as the discriminatory assumptions that underlie it. The extent to which the theory of the leisure class holds true in our own time can obscure the troubling truth that Veblen’s thoughts on these matters were built up from and sometimes hindered by the dominant assumptions of his historical intellectual milieu. I mentioned his social Darwinism, and though it never leads him to the darker ends of that particular belief-system (eugenics, ethnic cleansing, etc.), it colours his ideas in pernicious ways (witness the quasi-Aryan references to the inherent predilections of “the dolicho-blond race”). It is soon enough realized by the astute reader that Veblen considers entire socioeconomic classes to have been evolved into their present state, an assumption true of not only the leisure and working class but also what he calls “the delinquent class”, a body of the poor and the dissolute prone to crime and vice whose motivation are put down to genetics more than to their deprived circumstances.

Most unforgivably, Veblen constructs a theoretical framework that serves to sharply critique the patriarchal system and the marginalization and objectification of women, but then smacks down the contemporary women’s suffrage movement with a smug chauvinist stroke, implying that it can be seen as “unfeminine”. His ideas hint at potential feminist solidarity, but he himself is a prisoner of the discriminatory postulations of his culture and cannot always follow his theories to their obvious conclusions because of it. This moment is the strongest of many reminders in The Theory of the Leisure Class that no matter how much insight a given theoretical framework can offer us on the conditions of our current society and culture, they are always already products of their historical context and therefore subject to the limitations and deprivations of that context.

Categories: Culture, History, Literature

Film Review: The Ring

September 23, 2012 5 comments

The Ring (2002; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

Any hack can make a horror movie that makes you jump in your seat, but it takes a special kind of talented hack to make a movie that crawls under your skin, haunts your waking hours, and makes you doubt the essential safety of your reality. Gore Verbinski is that kind of hack, and The Ring is that kind of movie.

Extremely postmodern, littered with sly, defamiliarizing references to other classics of the genre (The Exorcist, The Shining, Psycho, various slasher flicks, etc.), The Ring is almost more of a sophisticated, enigmatic deconstruction of the psychological horror genre than the straight-ahead scary movie it was marketed and received as. If its self-reflexive qualities are less immediately apparent than those of, say, the Scream films, then that is to Verbinski’s credit. Indeed, The Ring‘s underlying critique extends beyond the freak-out parametres of the horror world, encompassing the distribution of cultural products in the age of mechanical reproduction. For all of its quixotic nightmare imagery (solitary chairs in attics, stone wells, horses going mad on ferry boats), the kernel of its terror is a videotape (already an anachronistic medium by the turn of the millennium) passed from hand to hand.

The standard method of disseminating cult films between alternative-minded friends thus becomes a potentially deadly act. Unless (and this is key) the tape is copied and passed along for another to view in a personal, viral manner, death is assured for the viewer. If the comforting logic of this ingenious trap is taken to its evident conclusion, no one is ever really in danger as long as the tape containing the images of madness is faithfully consumed and further disseminated. Unreflective consumption and re-distribution is the sole bulwark against certain doom. Resistance against the conspicuous imperatives of corporate capitalism’s popular culture industry, however, leads to a mortal threat. Our individual agency in relation to visual culture is not the advantage it is often perceived to be, but rather a hindrance; an existential one, even. Active engagement and/or interpretation will not safeguard us. The harsh ambiguity of the tape’s images constitutes an epistemic closure; there is nothing there to interpret, and no benefit to be derived from the attempt. Our sole salvation leads in inculcating others into the cultural product’s damaging contents, and therefore implicating ourselves in the viral spread of its malevolent project.

We are definitely not sending our love down that well.

That the product being distributed has no corporate provenance and no marketing infrastructure behind it does not deactivate this association. The DIY aesthetic of the Death Tape is part of what makes it dangerous. The reification of the handmade, anachronistic, non-mass-produced objects of the self-styled counter-culture is therefore equated with the sort of soul-sucking evil usually assigned to the instruments of corporate cultural production. These two spheres of production are not binaries, as they are often considered to be; they feed into each other, one is co-opted by the other, until they are ultimately no different in their essential aims.

What makes The Ring especially unsettling, however, is the porousness of its supposed boundaries. The apparent logical parametres of the tape and its spread are eerily transgressed, shifting into an inherently liminal space where the governing laws of the horror genre are tellingly absent. There are no solutions, no safe harbours, no protective barricades, no easy outs for the characters. There is no psychotic murderer to kill off, no dark cellar to steer clear of. Indeed, even the retrieval and reinterment of Samara (the malevolent, haunting little girl figure which every post-Ring horror movie must now include) does not put the threat to bed. The concept that it will, an inheritance from the Judeo-Christian tradition’s perspective on mortality, is construed instead as an exacerbation of the menace she poses, an outbreak of her visual epidemic rather than a containment of it. In the film’s destabilizing climax, the content of the tape, previously caged by television screens, trespasses frighteningly into reality. In a similar way, The Ring‘s skin-crawling imagery also transcends the fundamental disconnect of the cinema and penetrates into our own world.

So I suggest you pass it on. Or else.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

Best Worst Movie: Troll 2 and the Culture of Irony

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

I had never previously heard of the cult camp-horror classic Troll 2 before stumbling across Best Worst Movie, an independent documentary film about the strange underground phenomenon around the gloriously inept 1990 B-movie. In many ways no different than any other awful, misguided cinematic attempt that might have received the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment in the 1990s, Troll 2 and the reception to it depicted in Best Worst Movie actually turns out to be an instructive lesson in the nature and the limitations of the pervasive North American culture of irony.

If, like me, you have lived your life to this point blissfully unaware of the existence of Troll 2, allow me to indoctrinate you in its bizarre appeal. Directed by veteran Italian exploitation filmmaker Claudio Fragasso and conceived by his wife Rossella Drudi as a middle finger to her smug vegetarian friends, the film was originally titled (and is really about) Goblins. It tells the simple tale of a vacationing family that visits a town called Nilbog (the realization that the name is ‘goblin’ backwards is a hilarious plot point), the realm of malevolent vegetarian goblins who seek to turn humans into plants in order to consume them.

Shot in a small town in Utah on a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars and later re-titled by a distribution company desperate to make some money off of the disastrous project by associating it with a completely unrelated film from a few years earlier, Troll 2 is as weirdly fascinating behind the scenes as it is on its inadvertently comic filmic level. Fragasso and his Italian crew spoke little to no English, making it difficult to communicate their intentions with the cast of American amateur actors, most of whom believed they were going to be extras in the film at first, and one of whom was on leave from a mental asylum at the time. Thanks to a combination of the unseasoned performers, the poor production values (the goblins wear burlap sacks and obvious latex masks and glove-fingers), and the near-pidgin-English dialogue which Fragasso allegedly refused to allow the cast to turn into something less spectacularly awkward, Troll 2 emerged as a fantastically funny bad movie.

What happened next to Troll 2 is documented in the opening half of Best Worst Movie, directed by Michael Stephenson, who played the 10-year-old protagonist in the film. Discovered on HBO and in the depths of video stores by film nerds, Troll 2 gradually spread via word-of-mouth as an ironically-adored camp classic, its accidental comedy devoured by the ravenous young goblins of movie geekdom like so many botanized humans. By the turn of the 21st century, the film was being screened to enthusiastically-packed indie theatres across the United States, often with members of the only slightly embarrassed cast on hand to introduce it.

Dominated and really partly hosted by George Hardy, a square-jawed, outgoing Alabama dentist who played the family’s patriarch in the film, this section of Best Worst Movie is not all that insightful about the Troll 2 phenomenon, but it does provide plenty of evidence for its vitality. It’s a strong testament to a particular strain of irony prevalent in American culture, namely the celebrative re-appropriation of failed cultural products by a self-aware subculture. While the profit-motivated American cultural machine ejected Troll 2 as wasteful detritus incapable of fulfilling its purpose even as a trashy money-making diversion, self-styled counter-cultural anthropologists excavated it from the refuse pit and held it up sarcastically as a work of involuntary brilliance whose rampant badness undermines the constructive self-image of the hegemonic capitalist order. Their embrace of the film is an inherently satirical act, and sharing it with others in special screenings and themed parties establishes a circle of solidarity against the supremacy of the commercial cinema in their cultural reality.

But Stephenson’s documentary becomes especially interesting when it complicates the comforting irony of Troll 2’s underground fandom by confronting it with direct, unreflective sincerity. Several figures are encountered who do not comprehend the film as a shared joke. Most prominently, this perspective is represented by the Italian director Fragasso, who considers his film to be a misunderstood work of social commentary and subversive genius. He vehemently contradicts the cast’s mocking reminiscences of his clueless artistic tyranny, occasionally during screenings and Q&As for the film predicated entirely on its redeeming camp value. He expresses his bewilderment with the audience at one such showing, unable to fathom why they were laughing at the moments that he felt they shouldn’t laugh at.

This noticeable lack of irony is echoed when Hardy organizes a screening in his conservative Alabama hometown, attended by many of his dental patients who he recounts as watching it intently and genuinely, with none of the knowing mockery of the audiences on his screening tour. The actress who plays his wife in Troll 2, now a spacey recluse who cannot be persuaded to join even the most complete cast reunion events, also fails to meet the requisite level of ironic engagement, speaking with loopy earnestness about the movie as a realistic, character-driven drama that she was proud to participate in. After immersing itself with joyful abandon in the passionate irony of the movie’s cultish fandom, Best Worst Movie becomes ever more fraught with uncertainty about the value of that irony as it delves deeper into the peripheral arcana of the Troll 2 subculture.

But a less noticeable scene in Best Worst Movie may embody the temperament of the culture of irony around the Troll 2 subculture most succinctly, while identifying it as a geographic phenomenon. Stephenson, George Hardy, and another cast member travel to a fan expo in Birmingham, England to promote the badfilm profile of the movie, and are disappointed in the lack of knowledge or even interest in Troll 2 overseas.

One can certainly put this lack of prominence down to regional commercial factors. Troll 2’s unpromoted spread through pay cable and video shop obscurity would understandably not extend much beyond American borders. Exporting cultural products is a matter of more considerable capital, undertaken with corporate intention and not disseminated through the more underground methods that benefitted a film that its production backers would probably rather forget about.

But Troll 2’s lack of appeal in Britain could also speak to an essential difference in the nature of the culture of irony there as opposed to in America. Irony, sarcasm, and sardonic wit have a much more open and even official role in the British discourse than in the American one. The mainstream Brit media, in particular, leans hard on irony, disdaining and rolling its collective eyes at the comparative gullible sincerity of its counterparts in the former colonies. A strong sense of irony and skepticism about the nature of power seems indeed to be an inheritance in the contemporary British public character. It is perhaps a psychological necessity for a nation that has lost a worldwide empire, while an America clinging stubbornly to its fracturing cultural empire can admit less destabilizing cynicism of that sort in its wider discourse.

Therefore, a product like Troll 2, ironically feted for its underlying revelations of aesthetic ineptitude in the midst of the usually slick and masterful American entertainment industry, has less of a role to play in the national discourse of a country like Britain than it does in the American context, where it is an outlet for a sense of irony that is largely absent in the official discourse. But as the documentary about it shows, the culture of irony is not entirely pervasive. Its terms can shift, its membranes are permeable. Even a film as epically and as ironically bad as Troll 2 can be taken seriously, from certain perspectives, and it is to Best Worst Movie’s credit that it allows this truth to trickle out in the end.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Queen of Versailles

September 17, 2012 2 comments

The Queen of Versailles (2012; Directed by Lauren Greenfield)

A remarkable portrait of the heaped symbolic excrement of American capitalist excess, Lauren Greenfield’s mind-boggling documentary of a bloated, self-consuming carnival send-up of the American Dream is often hilarious, sometimes poignant, but always really kind of depressing.

Documenting the struggles of David Siegel (the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, the world’s largest privately-held timeshare company) to adapt to the shifted fiscal conditions coming after the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, this film views Siegel and his contracted business empire largely through a domestic lens. The perspective point and titular monarch is his ex-model trophy wife Jackie, a forty-something woman with breast implants, bleached-blond hair, and a botoxed face who simultaneously conforms to the stereotypical assumptions of her social position and subtly undercuts them.

Originally from a firmly lower-middle-class background in Binghampton, New York, Jackie chucked aside a secure-but-drab engineering job at IBM to chase modelling dreams in New York, become a champion beauty queen, and marry the wealthy, twice-divorced Siegel, who is three decades her senior and (in this movie at least) kind of an old-fashioned curmudgeon. Surrounded in their palatial Florida McMansion by their brood of eight largely unsupervised children (the oldest of whom, the sardonic Jonquil, is an adopted niece plucked from harsh circumstances), ethnic-minority domestic employees, and a veritable pack of fluffy, half-feral white dogs, the Siegels live a life of overwhelming conspicuous and wasteful consumption.

Their bubble is slightly punctured by the financial crisis, providing an inside view of how the American 1% have coped to the deprivations in liquid capital that has crippled so many members of the 99%. Used to private jets and chauffeured cars, Jackie must fly commercial and rent a car to visit her old friends in upstate New York (she asks an incredulous Hertz rental car counter attendant what her driver’s name is, a not-entirely-convincing bit of sheltered ignorance). She buys the family’s ludicrous number of Christmas presents at Wal-Mart (a bit of slapstick ensues as the toys are transported into their vehicle and homewards) and is forced to lay off all but a fifth of the staff in their sprawling manse, leading to a predictable deterioration of cleanliness.

David Siegel, meanwhile, struggles with larger property worries. Westgate’s flagship sales and property facility, a shimmering black-glass twin-tower complex in Las Vegas, is threatened with foreclosure, and thousands of his employees lose their jobs. More central to the documentary’s symbolic thrust, however, his enormous new 90, 000 square-foot house modelled on the French royal pleasure palace of the title sits half-completed and, eventually, listed without hope of sale on the real estate market.

The Queen of Versailles lingers on such evocative images of the ornate emulative disease that infects the contemporary American mega-rich. Greenfield flashes a litany of awkward Siegel family photos in matching outfits and monstrously tacky neo-classical painted portraits of the patriarch and his wife in Ancient Roman dress. This note of the visually grotesque extends to their everyday domestic surroundings, landscapes that resemble an evolutionary predecessor of the delusional household decay of the famed Maysles documentary Grey Gardens. As the unfinished white elephant Versailles sits as an empty shell waiting to accommodate the family and its multitudinous possessions, their current home overflows with useless piles of consumer goods, uneaten food, and barely-minded animals (Jackie is horrified to find a pet lizard dead in its terrarium, but one of her sons is surprised to learn that they even own a lizard). The white dogs, in particular, haunt scene after scene like spectral trickster demons, skipping about the ankles of the principle figures in impish mockery like extras in a Hieronymous Bosch panorama of the Apocalypse.

How could this not be a happy domestic partnership?

Greenfield fills out the picture with various peripheral characters in the Siegels’ lives. There’s their Filipino nanny, who has not seen her family back home is almost 20 years and has chosen to live in the children’s former playhouse out back rather than sleep in the madhouse that she must work in every day. We also meet their limo driver, a chastened former millionaire who is now hectored by David Siegel for payment when he borrows the family Rolls Royce to drive for weddings, and the eldest Siegel son, the company founder’s business partner, who is not close to his father at all outside of the office and pumps up his salespeople in a morning meeting by telling them that, by selling vacation timeshares to customers who cannot really afford them, they are “saving lives” like doctors or paramedics.

But David and Jackie dominate the proceedings, though rarely together. Siegel sued the filmmakers for a variety of perceived libelous depictions upon the film’s release, not least of which was making him out to be a crabby work-obsessed tyrant who married Jackie for her aesthetic value and barely loves her, let alone his multiple offspring. One of his first cost-cutting measures is to move the kids from private to public school, and the biggest marital tiff in the film is over the lights being left on in the colossal house he has put them all in. He acknowledges that he derives no strength from his marriage, takes business calls during his son’s baseball games and even on Christmas morning, sequesters himself in a home office surrounded by teetering towers of work papers rather than eat dinner with his family on his own birthday, and practically brags that he helped to rig the 2000 election to give George W. Bush the Presidency. If the man has likable qualities, they are very well-hidden either by Greenfield or by Siegel himself.

The extroverted Jackie, meanwhile, comes across as intermittently predictably clueless and surprisingly grounded. Touched by guilt at the job losses at Westgate and struck by her own need for more funds and less household crap, she opens a cavernous thrift store to sell off the profusion of unneeded goods that the Siegels own, staffing it with laid-off former employees. She gives money to her high-school bosom buddy back home to save her house from foreclosure (though the effort fails). But she also acknowledges that she shops too much, had more kids than they can now comfortably support, and can’t reach out to her crusty unemotional husband. What emerges is a portrait of a modern American woman who is not unintelligent or conceivably self-sufficient, but has chosen instead to rise higher than she otherwise could by her own efforts by virtue of hewing to the worst superficial tropes of indulgent wealth.

The Queen of Versailles is not only rich in surface detail but in multiple levels of metaphoric parable as well. For all of the wide-eyed reactions that the Siegel’s outsized affluence inspires, the story of Westgate’s struggles as told by Greenfield exemplifies the dangerous greed and disingenuousness at the core of the housing bubble in general and the real estate derivative markets in particular, and does so with mirrored complexity that outstrips the didactic demonstrations of a comprehensive documentary on the subject like Inside Job.

Westgate, a corporation whose profits were built directly on the cheap loans prevalent to the housing bubble of the 2000s and whose sales strategy was to market their timeshares at lower-middle-class income families whose means they were distinctly beyond, has trouble finding funds to support their properties and operations due to the collapse largely precipitated by the very tactics that put them on top to start with. Meanwhile, their founder and CEO’s palatial dream home is foreclosed upon and seemingly forever uncompleted as well, a victim of the very contraction that his own practices engendered as well as a monstrous symbol of the unreflective excess underlying them. Although The Queen of Versailles is not without its sympathetic and novelistic human detail, the documentary’s dominant tones are ultimately those of bathos, critical analysis, and schadenfreude.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #10

September 15, 2012 1 comment

The Private Life of a Masterpiece (BBC; 2001-2010)


Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808

The BBC’s long-running popular art history program mostly sticks to the same formula but covers its subject with admirable depth, sophistication and accessibility. The documentary series ran for a decade on the venerable British network, examining one great and famous work of art in all of its many facets per episode. It’s an admixture of art criticism, biography of its creator, analysis of technique, social and political history, chronology of the artistic provenence, and a more general examination of how these works of art penetrate the popular consciousness and tessellate creatively with prevailing mass capitalist moods (if my word choice sounds sexually suggestive, kindly observe the way that openly eroticized works like Rodin’s The Kiss and Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus are discussed in their respective episodes).

The choice of paintings hangs pretty near to widely-accepted works of artistic genius, hitting the usual Italianate (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo, various other Ninja Turtles) and Netherlandish (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Breughel) masters. There is a striking dearth of British artists or paintings tackled by the series (only American-born, British-based James McNeill Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother made the cut out of the entire Anglophone world), which is odd considering the show’s country of origin. British art may not quite have produced a work as iconic as Munch’s The Scream or Hokusai’s The Great Wave, but if Simon Schama’s Power of Art found time to delve into Turner’s The Slave Ship, surely Private Life could argue for another homegrown masterwork.

Putting aside the focus on mass appeal, the involuntary continental bias, and the sometimes counter-intuitive observations of series regular and The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, the casual or newly-minted autodidactic fine art fan could do worse for general introductions into the art history realm than The Private Life of a Masterpiece, especially with so many episodes locatable for free on YouTube.

Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Forgotten Silver

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Forgotten Silver (1995; Directed by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson)

This meticulously-crafted faux-documentary is hilarious and imaginative, and, of course, totally mischievous in that early-period Peter Jackson way. As impressive and prodigiously entertaining as his maximal-scope epics of recent years have been, any true fan of Jackson has got to miss the tone of the gleeful trickster prevalent in his early work, that giggling delight at the feeling of really getting away with something. Forgotten Silver has got that in spades while also demonstrating the superior level of technical craftsmanship that underlies his blockbusters and the film geek’s interest in the history of the medium that runs through all of his films.

Originally aired on New Zealand television, Forgotten Silver was billed as a serious documentary about an obscure domestic film pioneer, and thus irritated not a few viewers when it was revealed as a clever ruse. Purporting to tell of the exploits of Colin McKenzie (played by Thomas Robins, who would later be notable for being strangled to death by Andy Serkis’ Smeagol at the start of The Return of the King), an ambitious, innovative filmmaker who would inadvertently invent many of the touchstones of the modern cinema without anyone (even himself) realizing it, the film is a bit of a metaphor for New Zealand’s national image as a plucky, creative, self-sufficient land that is oft-overlooked down there at the ass end of the world. It’s also a self-reflexive narrativization of Jackson’s own rise from backyard DIY auteur to multi-million dollar blockbuster filmmaking mogul.

Forgotten Silver, clever and sneaky and soaked in technical film lore, is surely his most obscure film (and not all his, either, as we must credit co-director Costa Botes as well), but it’s one well worth seeking out for PJ acolytes.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #4

September 6, 2012 2 comments

It’s time for Round 4 of Random Dangling Mystery’s collection of the randomest of dangling mysteries: fourteen of the oddest recent search engine word-combos that lead the internet’s vagabond denizens to shelter briefly in this particular backstreet doorway. Previously installments can be found here, here, and also here. Current installment can be found, well, um… here.

does tatum oneal ride horses?

Probably not too much anymore. But really, who has the time? Besides Ann Romney, of course. Tons of time.

tom cruise you’re a jerk

A sneak preview of Katie Holmes’ divorce brief.

cinnabon at union station toronto location map

Just follow your nose. And your fat, fat belly.

jeremy likes fat bitches

You said it, not me. Also, I have no clue which post this might be referring to.

why is canada called the undersogs of the olympics

Must be something to with our endemic typo habit. Although perhaps “undersog” is an archaic form that has survived in, like, Kingston. Sounds pretty 18th century to me.

best deep sexy navel of the decade

I really feel for the second and third best of the decade. It’s viciously competitive at the top of the deep sexy navel pyramid.

attention grabbing southern phrases

You can never go wrong with classics like “The South will rise again!”, “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!”, and “Meet you at the McDonald’s in the Walmart.”

does four lions crctrized islam?

Not nearly as strenuously as I plan to crctrized your spelling.

is agent prentiss punky Brewster

This is my lame-ass go-to joke and you will relinquish your claims upon it forthwith.

did george lucas approve family guy

Surely someone must have, but let’s not pile all of the evils of the modern world on the Lucas of George’s doorstep alone. He was responsible for midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks, and “I don’t like sand”. That’s more than enough horror for one man to be responsible for as it is.

rob ford hilarious

To the rest of you, maybe. But some of us have to live here, you know.

odd novosibirsk subculture

You don’t want to go there. Seriously. It’s too cold for that much leather.

hullabaloo steampunk

Isn’t that a Frank Zappa album?

chris hemsworth eating pop tarts

I’d watch that. Maybe more than once, even.

Film Review: The Hunger Games

September 3, 2012 8 comments

The Hunger Games (2012; Directed by Gary Ross)

An earnest, respectable, and entirely unsubtle dystopian pastiche with a few peaks and a few valleys, the film version of Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling young adult trilogy-starter The Hunger Games collected piles of box office swag and even a favourable critical notice or two. Often compared to previous youth-centric pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter and Twilight, Collins’ creation contends with the former for sociopolitical implications and the latter for pulpy love-triangle intrigue while surpassing both in its penchant for pitiless barebones brutality (although, to be fair, it is critiquing our own society’s tolerance for violence in our cultural products in its application of this last element).

The Hunger Games

If you don’t know what The Hunger Games is about (and surely, inevitably, you must), the film is set in an alternately grim and superficial quasi-American future of centralized, propaganda-fuelled totalitarianism and extreme economic disparity and social division (or, as we may call it after this November, the Romney-Ryan Administration). Following a failed rebellion by the previous order’s outlying have-nots against its power-wielding elite of haves, a strictly-enforced system of control has been implemented with a massively popular televised competition at its centre. This is the titular Hunger Games, in which two teenaged “Tributes” from each of the twelve Districts surrounding the lustrous neo-Art Deco Capitol are chosen by lottery to strive against other such representatives in a huge fabricated arena, battling to the death until only a single winner remains.

This premise should sound familiar, being a collage of influences ranging from Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” to reality television to films like the classic noir The Most Dangerous Game, Japanese cult flick Battle Royale, and Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man to prophetic-warning sci-fi from the likes of Orwell, Huxley, and H.G. Wells to classical myth and Roman gladiatorial displays. The new-ish twist on this compound formula offered by Collins (who co-wrote the screenplay) is to make her hero(ine) in the competition a tough-as-nails, bow-slinging young woman whose ingenuity and terse survival instincts lead her towards a sort of inadvertent resistance against the manipulations of the central source of power.

This backwoods Artemis is Katniss Everdeen, given a compelling combination of suppleness and uncompromising steel by the exciting and striking young actress Jennifer Lawrence. She volunteers to be a Tribute to save her helpless younger sister (Willow Shields) from certain doom in the arena, and is whisked off to the Capitol alongside local baker’s boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), much to be consternation of her apparently platonic male friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Herein lies the kernel of a love triangle that does not really go anywhere in this movie at least, mainly due to the handsome but blank Hemsworth’s fairly minimal screen time. The polished realm of demonstrative wealth that she finds in that Capitol is certainly a long way from District 12, her rustic homeland of agrarian deprivation (filmed in North Carolina’s Appalachian region, the early scenes strongly suggest the Ozarks setting of Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone).

But what I don’t get, guys, is how the Professor gets the radio INSIDE the coconut. I mean, WTF, amirite?

Although she finds sympathetic figures there, particularly her image consultant Cinna (a highly casual Lenny Kravitz) and eventually her former-Games-winning mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, who puts major strain into damping down his casualness as the film goes on), the city is mostly portrayed as a ludicrous, decadent civilization of glittering outfits, unpredictable hairdos, and unchecked conspicuous consumption, all (by implication) paid for with the toil of the trodden-upon denizens of the outer Districts like her own. It’s an exaggerated depiction of the split between the progressive urban elite and the traditionalist rural poor that fires the fantasies of many a movement conservative, but Collins never lets her world get that specific in its implications. Mind you, the presentation of the Tributes to their audience, who ride through an arena filled with cheering multitudes in chariots, invokes the Olympics opening ceremonies, whose lockstep cultural spectacles were, after all, an innovation of the right-wing authoritarian Nazis in 1936.

Anyway, a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks shows up as Katniss’ grotesquely done-up, inveterately fake minder, but the true avatar of the movie’s tacky send-up of our own superficial mass pop culture is Caesar Flickerman (a totally delightful Stanley Tucci), the supremely unctuous television presenter of the Games. Tucci lays on the smarm as thick as drywall mud, practically licking it off his figurative trowel as if he adores the taste. He’s the bastard hate-child of American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, the BBC’s sycophantic Terry Wogan, and one of Michael Palin’s Flying Circus parodies of on-air personalities, done up like an extra from The Fifth Element. In a better-adjusted version of Hollywood, they’d give Tucci an Oscar for this.

All of this stuff is merely the pre-game show for the main event, the Hunger Games themselves, which take up the whole of the second half of the movie. Presided over by Games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, whose dandy beard is his most appealing feature) from an antiseptic, high-tech control room straight out of The Truman Show, the deadly competition unfolds in an atmospheric boreal forest surrounded by a dome-like grid that informs the players of who has died, drops malicious forest fires and packs of bloodthirsty mega-hounds on them to stimulate the attrition, and occasionally modifies the rules to suit the whims of its makers’ will to dominion.

Director Gary Ross’ mild camera-shaking cinema-verité style begins to bear fruit at last in this stretch, building some measure of realistic tension as the blood begins to flow (and there is a bit of blood, though not enough to earn a more adult rating that would diminish gate receipts, of course). The interpersonal dynamics of the Games are settled upon early and predictably. Katniss is the clever huntress, avoiding contact with the others as long as she can and snatching every opportunity she is given. Peeta survives by feigning betrayal of his District mate (he admitted in his televised interview before the Games that he had a longstanding crush on her, a manner of revelation which Katniss understandably resents a smidgeon) and then by relying entirely upon her when both that gambit and his fallback strategy of total concealment fails him. Meanwhile, the defacto villains are the “Careers”, academy-trained kids from the richer core Districts groomed for success in the Games who hunt down and slaughter their adversaries, lead by the arrogant pinhead Cato (Alexander Ludwig). This group comes across as the self-satisfied quarterback and his fawning entourage from a stock teen comedy, only, you know, expert killers.

This has not had the positive effect on tourism that the architect envisioned. Probably because of all the death.

No guesses as to how this all turns out, ultimately. But the road to the final pitched confrontation between the plucky, authentic underdogs and the subalterns of the hegemonic ideology, which takes place atop an edifice that can only be described as Frank Gehry’s RV, is not unabsorbing, if never entirely exhilarating.

Furthermore, Collins presents a very definite perspective on the nature and limits of centralized authority, a sort of Coles’ Notes of Orwell filtered through the sense of inflated, self-righteous injustice that animates all teenaged rebellion. The Games are a fully-realized and well-considered mechanism of underclass control of the sort that has been at the heart of fictional dystopia from Oceania to the Matrix to Nea So Copros in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The authoritarian state that is capable of maintaining such a totalized system of social dominion has not yet been erected, but then this one is not without its cracks in either the facade or the foundation.

Donald Sutherland appears as the cultured, white-haired President, trimming flowers in a palatial garden while giving Crane pointers on the application of power, on the magnification of fear through the judicious application of hope. Crane does his best to follow the advice, but is confounded by the politically guileless Katniss, whose fiery independent nature scorches the earth to prepare it for the seeds of revolution. When she pays simple, graceful tribute to an in-game ally (this moment is the closest Ross’ movie gets to transcendence), it sparks instant violent demonstrations in the fallen girl’s home District. If such small acts of empathy carry such explosive potential for the overthrow of the system of oppression, it’s a wonder that it’s lasted as long as it has.

Collins’ (and, by extension, Ross’) message is not terribly sophisticated, although in the context of young adult pop culture, it’s practically Proustian. The Hunger Games strongly implies that there are larger forces of restrictive control at work in society, but it is much more invested in the proximate concerns of its teenaged target audience. These concerns, namely, are the relentless, superficial glut of cultural uniformity and ruthless competitiveness of the capitalist economic order that does not spare the young and, indeed, is aimed directly at them with the dead-eye accuracy of one of Katniss’ arrows.

The antidote offered up to this smothering (and occasionally deadly) conformity is, as usual, personal integrity and individuality. That this avenue of pursuit amplifies rather than dampens the social ills critiqued with Collins’ broad generic strokes seems not to have occurred to anyone involved. Still, at least The Hunger Games is able to diagnose those ills, even if its medicine is at best a painkiller and at worst a placebo. Youth-oriented blockbusters could do worse, and very often do. One that depicts and seeks to resist capitalist hegemony deserves our qualified appreciation, even if the resistance is basically inscribed by power itself.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Mad Max

September 1, 2012 2 comments

Mad Max (1979; Directed by George Miller)

George Miller (former doctor turned movie director) turned out a more influential and popular film than he probably strictly deserved to with Mad Max. Simultaneously launching the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, popular Australian film, and Mel Gibson in America, Mad Max has risen to the level of a seminal classic despite drastic gaps in the quality of its key cinematic elements.

Those dingos will think twice before trying to take MY baby!

Though the film’s Aussie-slanged dialogue retains some colloquial appeal, it’s only recently been heard in North America after 20 years of domination by the American-English-dubbed version. Take away the almost alien expressiveness of the talk of the characters, and the script gets rather dodgy indeed (and it isn’t exactly undodgy in its original form, either). The music is downright horrible. The plot seems better constructed than it is, and unfolds to its revenge-fantasy conclusion with strained predictability. The vengeance structure that the narrative gradually takes on would anticipate the major throughline of Gibson’s career, from Braveheart to Ransom to The Patriot and even The Passion of the Christ, wherein the holy Resurrection is sort a coda of payback for visceral maltreatment. Hell, Mel even starred in a movie literally entitled Payback. All of that started, more or less, with Mad Max.

And yet, there’s something undeniably appealing about Miller’s film on a purely cinematic level. From the opening sequence’s white-knuckle car chases and Hollywood-quality crash stunts to the widescreen Australian countryside, perfectly adapted to dystopian decay, the visual look of Mad Max is what makes it at all notable. It’s got a savage, knawed beauty to it that can overcome even the most pernicious action-movie melodrama (and it is chocked full of that, though perhaps not as much as its sequels The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, whose film geek profiles vastly oustrip that of its predecessor). Mad Max remains a film worth seeing, anyway, if only to look at.

Categories: Film, Reviews