Archive for October, 2012

Film Review: Cloud Atlas

October 31, 2012 5 comments

Cloud Atlas (2012; Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer)

Widely-heralded as a stunning, ambitious head-scratcher of an epic by critics and audiences, Cloud Atlas is a film that snaps into focus if you’ve already read the book it’s based on. Adapted by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer from David Mitchell’s wonderfully-written, exquisitely-structured nested-doll combination of six separate but subtly connected narratives spanning the globe and many centuries, the film preserves as much of the writing as possible but does away a bit too eagerly with the structure. As remarkable, entertaining, and moving as the cinematic vision offered up in Cloud Atlas tends to be, its pristine waters are muddied, if only slightly, by the structural choices made in adaptation.

But first and foremost, let us gaze into those waters, and see our shimmering reflections in them. Whatever else they decide to do in translating Mitchell’s tremendous work to the screen, it is clear that the directors get precisely what the novel is about: human life, fate, morality, freedom, and all of its facets, universally applied in vastly different contexts. Maybe this is what all novels are about, ultimately, but Mitchell elevates these eternal themes to spiritual dimensions, interlocking his separate tales, ripping yarns all, in a way that suggests reincarnation, recurrence, and return.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis reuse their cast throughout all six sections, wherein the actor portraying the protagonist in one section makes a mere cameo in another, the selfless hero of one story plays the irredeemable villain in another (Wachowskis fave Hugo Weaving, of course, is always the bad guy). This technical choice informs the metaphorical meaning in other ways as well, as romantic attachments that end tragically in one storyline are completed happily in another, the same actors representing love consummated and interrupted. It’s a clever stroke that bears fruit again and again, often in ways unexpected even to someone familiar with the source material.

One should allow the expert storytelling of Mitchell’s tales wash over one’s mind of its own accord, but brief summaries of each narrative thread are necessary. The first section, chronologically, follows an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) supposedly stricken with a Polynesian parasite aboard a sailing ship in 1849 being treated by a loquacious doctor (Tom Hanks) and interacting with a stowaway fugitive slave (David Gyasi). Next is the tale of a young disinherited bisexual composer (Ben Whishaw) in interwar Scotland, acting as amanuensis to a demanding old musical genius (Jim Broadbent) gone to seed. There’s a corporate-malfeasance detective tale set in 1970s San Francisco with Halle Berry as a plucky investigative reporter, a present-day comic yarn of a debt-ridden English publisher (Broadbent again) confined to an old-folks home by his bitter brother (Hugh Grant), a sci-fi dystopia set in 22nd-Century Korea, and a post-apocalyptic adventure featuring Hanks and Berry trekking through Hawaii on an uncertain quest.

At least, this is how Mitchell arranged them in his novel, taking each story to its halfway point before cutting away and paying it off later, in reverse order. Only the post-apocalyptic “Sloosha’s Crossin’” section remained whole. Tykwer and the Wachowskis elect to intercut between the tales instead, jettisoning the half-and-half structure for a form of narrative, thematic, and symbolic montage more suited to the cinema. Following the lead of Mitchell himself, who characterized Cloud Atlas as one story of recurrence and not six distinct (if linked) stories, the filmmakers connect, contrast, and juxtapose one story to another, often cleverly, sometimes profoundly, but occasionally dubiously. Meanings collide and evaporate, certain elements are emphasized when it would perhaps be better for the specific story or for the film as a whole if others were. Most unfortunately, Mitchell’s narrative prowess is diminished, as the intercutting structure jumbles and tangles the thread of the stories, rendering them less intelligible and easy to follow than they were on the page. I’ve read the book, so I had no problems picking things up, but I can certainly imagine viewers new to the material losing the plot.

This interweaving of the stories in editing also misreads how people tend to read the stories in the book and how they’re likely to watch them in the film: as six separate narratives, with similar ideas and points of intersection with each other, but fundamentally their own unique accounts with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Every reader of Cloud Atlas has their favourite section, as well as their least favourite; despite the interspersed editing trickery, I suspect it will be the same for the film.

You break it, you buy it, boys!

The “Pacific Journals” section always seems to suffer in comparison to the others, as Mitchell’s  demonstration of his mastery of an antiquated epistolary style on the page turned away plenty of potential readers with its period language and punctuation. Despite its sweeping visual sense and strong turns from Gyasi and the make-up-disguised Hanks (technical Oscar nods will abound, but nobody can hope to compete with this film for the Makeup statuette), it also comes across as a bit stilted and precious onscreen. The “Letters from Zedelghem” portion (Whishaw and Broadbent as composers) suffers major modifying and excising, shifting from Belgium to the outskirts of Edinburgh, losing the daughter of the aged composer who attracts rakish Robert Frobisher’s eye, and missing out on great swaths of the singular, droll narrative voice that Mitchell provides for his young protagonist in this tale. What was a definite highlight of the novel becomes a drag on film, and it’s the movie’s greatest tragedy.

Tykwer rebounds from his failure with this section by turning the other two 20th-Century-set stories that he directs into straight-ahead, engaging genre exercises. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is preserved nearly whole and anchored wonderfully by the perfectly-cast Broadbent as the persnickety title character, providing some much-needed levity. The “Luisa Rey Mystery” features Berry at her most appealing, and manages to twist the generic formula more than enough to remain interesting. These are the most uncomplicated sections, but they are rendered with effective skill by Tykwer (director of the propulsive Run Lola Run) and his actors.

So this is the dark future we were being warned about in “Gangnam Style”…

The more involved futuristic sections allow the Wachowskis free reign to practice their stylized violence and ponderous philosophy away from the period constraints of the “Pacific Journal” sequences they were also responsible for. The story of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and her resistance to the authoritarian power of Unanimity in the Neo Seoul of 2144 was Mitchell’s nimblest genre exercise in the novel, comingling dystopian classics ranging from Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury to Phillip K. Dick, Soylent Green (referenced directly in the Cavendish section), and (yes) the Wachowskis themselves into a dense homage to the form and a signature deepening of its possibilities. Of course the makers of The Matrix knock this material out of the park, crafting a reflexive homage to film classics like Blade Runner that works on its own merits, as well as transforming the usually-cuddly Sturgess (as Sonmi’s liberator from the Union Rebellion) into a badass action hero. That European-descended actors like Sturgess, Weaving, and Grant are done up as ethnic Asians may fit with the program, though, doesn’t make it anything but racially problematic (elsewhere, Bae also plays a Mexican lady, while Berry whites up as the Jewish wife of Broadbent’s aged composer).

The core of Cloud Atlas, structurally and hermeneutically, was always the middle section set in Hawaii, narrated in a broken-down regional dialect and inheriting the myriad themes, emotions, and narrative elements of previous sections. The central role is a tribal twist on Hanks’ usual everyman acting frame which goes otherwise unfulfilled here (which is fine; the guy’s got range that is generally underappreciated), and Berry as his foil from an advanced civilization does remote and unknowable rather well, even if she speaks the island dialect with the Southern drawl she picked up for Their Eyes Were Watching God. But its themes of guilt and forgiveness, redemption and escape, belonging and hope crystallize the similar elements of the other stories into a narrative that contains and reflects them all.

It may seem contradictory to say so after breaking it down to its constituent parts as I’ve done, but it’s as a complete, overarching work that Cloud Atlas succeeds best. Both its maximal scope and technical accomplishment smooth out the frequent wrinkles, and the sheer ambition and visionary quality of the picture is the conduit for its rare magic. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made a memorable, often beautiful picture that does not telegraph its messages and trusts its audience to stick with it and put things together as they go. Structural issues aside, Cloud Atlas is a fine piece of work and an indelible cinematic experience, and film lovers can ask for little more.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Frida and Diego: Self-Iconography and the Biographical Narrative in Fine Art

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Opening last weekend at the Art Gallery of Ontario and running until January 20th, “Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting” is a strong exhibition of the varied work of Mexican art icons Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But, like so many other blockbuster exhibitions, it’s also a clear demonstration of how popular iconography, artist biography and commonly-circulated narrative tropes are employed in marketing and presenting fine art to the mass public.

Kahlo and Rivera were long-time spouses and lovers as well as fellow artists and sometimes collaborators, sharing intense personal interactions as well as deeply-committed socialist political principles (both were Marxists and Communist Party members, and hosted the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky at their home when he arrived in Mexico near the end of his life). They were also both prominent artistic figures in their lifetimes, and though Rivera was more widely-appreciated and commissioned earlier than his younger partner, Frida Kahlo has surpassed him in the popular imagination since then, not only in her native Mexico but also in anglophone America.

Some of this is down to her art, with its vivid directness, flattened surrealism, and frequent incorporation of self-portraiture. Although the more traditionally-trained Rivera covered a wider variety of artistic genres and styles, from early experiments with Cubism in his youth in Europe to his famed Mexican mural art, and was perhaps more technically impressive, Kahlo was a figure more in touch with the shapings of modern tastes and mass image-making of her time and, even more so, our own. If there is no single Frida Kahlo painting that is as iconic as the defining masterpieces of the sort that received the Private Life of a Masterpiece treatment, it may be because Kahlo was her own greatest work of iconography.

In placing her own image, with her flower head-dressings, indigenous Mexican robes, and famous unibrow, at the centre of so many of her paintings as well as of the many photographs she posed for, Frida’s own constructed image defined her in the public eye. It certainly didn’t hurt, a decade back, to have an Oscar-nominated biopic starring another Mexican icon, Salma Hayek, spread that image to a wider audience than the gallery-bound art world would allow. Whatever can be said comparatively about their art, the droopy-faced, corpulent Diego Rivera could not hope to compete with his lover in the sphere of mass image marketing.

But Frida Kahlo has also been the posthumous beneficiary of a biographic narrative (which sometimes become bio-graphic, when expressed in her work) that conforms nicely to the popular imagination of great art as the direct expression of pain, tragedy, and even madness. Just as Vincent Van Gogh has become the definitive representation of artistic brilliance more for his mental disquiet, self-mutilation, and eventual suicide than for his memorable (but not unsurpassed) paintings, Kahlo’s addressing of her physical pain (she had polio as a child and fell victim to a debilitating traffic accident as a young adult) in her work aligned her with the popular idea of the great artist as a channeller of personal affliction.

Imagination, training, technique, and hard work (all of which her partner Rivera possessed in spades) matter less in the creation of notable art than having had harsh things happen to you, in this conception. That she and Rivera had a sometimes turbulent relationship (both had numerous affairs, for Kahlo with both men and women, and their marriage was ended for a year at the end of 1930s) and that she crossed path with historical figures like Trotsky make her even finer fodder for popular interest. But it is in her alignment with the modern individualist ideal of the artist as a conduit of personal, physical, and/or psychological anguish, as well as her exquisite self-presentation as a living icon through fashion, photography, and art, that has made Frida Kahlo the memorable figure in the art world that she remains to this day. And this, therefore makes her and her work suitable material for a major museum exhibition in the 21st Century.

Categories: Art, Culture

Film Review: Velvet Goldmine

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Velvet Goldmine (1998; Directed by Todd Haynes)

It’s entirely possible that, if I cared a whit for the immense cultural importance of glam-rock and if I had seen this film before the infinitely superior but extremely similar I’m Not There, I may have felt a little better about Velvet Goldmine. The artfully-indirect biopic sprinkled with eerily committed performances and incredibly arch faux-losiphical quips about the deep significance of rock music thing seems to be Todd Haynes’ go-to formula, and the manner in which he approaches both this film and its much-better twin from a decade later is so similar that it reduces the creative profile of both films as a result.

Haynes’ style goes beyond a mere methodology; he repeats the same elements almost point-by-point. Both the Dylan bio and the veiled portrayal of Bowie offered here cover humble origins, the difficulties of hipness, the effects of unraveling relationships, the square cluelessness of the press (these scenes in both films come off almost like exact copies of each other), glib dismissal of the artists’ “commercial” period, behind-the-scenes madness, and ornately-constructed musical-fantasy sequences.

Not only does Haynes say what he has to say about these figures in precisely the same way, he seems to have precisely the same thing to say: pop idols are elusive types who inevitably get lost in the images they create to make themselves more than themselves. This is not a glib or an incorrect observation, necessarily, but it’s simply explored more entertainingly and insightfully in I’m Not There than it is here.

It’s too bad that Velvet Goldmine comes off as merely okay, because Haynes has unreal visual talents that seem largely wasted on hipster-pleasing hyperbole about essentially superficial “art”. His actors almost make you believe the cleverer-than-thou nonsense they’re compelled to spout, though. Talents as rich as those of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (who is lost when not asked to portray tightly-packed determined detachment, which fortunately he is here), Toni Collette (outstanding, as always) and Ewan McGregor (totally out there at all times, a performance of joyously reckless abandon) can make up for a lot of misplaced ambition on the part of a filmmaker, and they largely do.

And the oft-praised Christian Bale, who stole a sizable chunk of I’m Not There from the overhyped Cate Blanchett’s impersonation of peak rock star Dylan, grounds the film beautifully. He nails not only the raging fanboy and wannabe-scene-kid’s naive desire to be accepted, but also the brooding regret of a grown professional forced to revisit his largely shameful youthful dalliances. Bale manages to overcome the scriptual reality that his entire part is an obvious homage to the faceless reporter figure from Citizen Kane. Next to the borderline-inhuman beautiful people he idolized (Haynes makes a vague inference that they were planted by aliens, or so exceptional as to be equivalent to extraterrestrials), Bale is frail, awkward, and real. If only the rest of the film felt less like a fashionably shallow exercise and more like that.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter #3

October 23, 2012 2 comments

Some more recommendations from across the Twitterverse to mull over, if you would. Previous posts on the subjects can be read here and here, and my Twitter self plies his trade here.


Rob Delaney is Twitter. Twitter is not quite complete without Rob Delaney. A comedian of mid-level fame in the stand-up world who has not yet moved into the realm of mass cultural penetration (he would enjoy that phrase) of, say, Louis CK, Delaney’s feed is another organ of his body of comedic work, and a very funny one at that. Delaney mixes sexual humour with loopy surrealism, often involving animals (“So crazy that when a man gets an erection it’s because his penis is filling with millions of microscopic sparrows”). But his humour is unpredictable. His jokes turn inside out, reversing themselves, taking turns into precincts unmapped. Delaney is also keenly aware of the opportunities afforded by the medium. He’s chosen a few corporatized “official” Twitter accounts to terrorized with consistent impunity: he tweets the strangest questions and/or calls for help at Walmart’s official feed, flutters lovingly around music-world crush Adele, and has made headlines for his hilarious tweet-badgering of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. More than anything, Delaney’s feed serves as a reminder that both comedy and Twitter are, at their similar cores, writerly pursuits, and that it takes a certain skill and predilection as a writer to succeed in both. And that Rob Delaney does, very nicely.

Representative Tweet:


Self-described as a “mash-up” of the philosopy of the 19th-century Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kirkegaard and the vapid tweets of reality TV star Kim Kardashian, KimKierkegaardashian initially promises a species of easy invidious distinction between intellectual depth and contemporary cultural superficiality. A similar trick is achieved by the @Justin_Buber account, which combines Justin Bieber’s pop lyrics with the snatches from the theorizing of Martin Buber. But where Buber has nothing to do with Bieber, besides a coincidental homonistic relation, the writings of Kierkegaard give us surprising insight into the supposedly unpunctureable pink balloon of Kardashianism. In the direct juxtaposition of Kim’s inane Twitter narration of upper-crust consumption and Søren’s existential exploration of alienation and despair, a human core hitherto believed to be empty (indeed, often conceived of as the very personification of cultural emptiness, as Paris Hilton and Snooki once were in their turns) is filled with doubt and disconnection from meaning. Kierkegaard believed that humanity could only approach meaningful existence through acts of subjective being. @KimKierkegaard suggests ironically that there is no act of subjective being more meaningful than keeping up with the Kardashians.

Representative Tweet:

Film Review: Argo

October 21, 2012 2 comments

Argo (2012; Directed by Ben Affleck)

There’s a fantastic, ideologically-rich moment at the absolute climax of Ben Affleck’s third film as a director, the generally fantastic Argo, which summarizes its impact in one scene and therefore must be discussed, spoilers be damned.  Detained by Revolutionary Guards at the final checkpoint before embarking on a Swiss Air flight that will free them from chaotic Iran months after the overthrow of the Shah in late 1979, a group of six American diplomats and the CIA agent assigned to get them out must sell the revolutionaries on their cover story for being in the country.

Speaking in fluent Parsi, one of the diplomats tells the guards that they are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Middle-Eastern-tinged science-fiction adventure. He shows them the script and storyboards, and gives them a plot synopsis in their own language that couches the narrative in the popular propagandistic discourses concerning the function and aims of the Islamic Revolution. Meanings and emotions and tensions are piled atop one another in this moment, but what stands out is a vision of the cinema as a universal language for the hopes and dreams of people across the world and across ideological divides.

This is how Affleck views the cinema, too, and Argo is his perfectly-balanced testament to that belief. Much more than his geographically-specific Boston dramas (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) that preceded it, Argo grounds its ideas in larger terms. Simultaneously conscious of its historical fidelity, contemporary political applicability, and entertainment imperative, Argo succeeds at all three disciplines. It manages to be a tense espionage thriller, a resonant social-political document, and a sharp send-up of Hollywood artificiality, often melding the genres to the point of erasing the supposed boundaries between them.

Affleck himself plays the CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez, coming across as a sort of secular, ascetic intelligence saint. If he’s a less obtrusive screen presence here than in The Town, then Affleck still places himself firmly at the centre of the proceedings in a way that a more modest film artist would not have. It detracts little, and he mostly lets his co-stars grab the highlight moments, but the film is constructed around Mendez and his sense of duty to his country, to the diplomats cooped up in the house of the Canadian ambassador (played by the indispensible Victor Garber) that he must find a way to extricate from their situation, and to his family. A filmmaker with less inherent vanity than Affleck might have shown more restraint in directing the film from both in front of and behind the camera.

But it’s a minor criticism, and besides the taking of some cynical dramatic license during the screws-tightened climax, it’s the only one I can conceive of levelling at the film. Argo is crackerjack entertainment with a working, reasoning brain behind it. Even with the Hollywoodizing of the group’s escape attempt, the last half of the movie or so is majorly tense stuff, especially the tipping point, where Affleck and editor William Goldenberg masterfully intercut between the airport, the Iranian-occupied U.S. embassy where attempts to identify six missing Americans inch towards fruition, and a studio backlot in Hollywood. The political element is also treated with steely-eyed clarity. Reams of archival footage is used, scrupulous re-creations are employed (the end credits feature side-by-sides of the original images and the film’s re-created ones, a heavy-handed but effective way of establishing historical bona fides), and Chris Terrio’s tensile script never shies away from the powerful grievances of the Iranian revolutionaries against the deposed Shah’s brutal and repressive American-backed regime. Iranians are not the blindly fundamentalist monsters of current right-wing Islamophobic fever-dreams; they simply responded to terror with terror.

But Argo is hardly as humourless as it may sound. It also boasts a satiric core that is likewise its fundamental organizing principle. Mendez’s challenge is to build the Canadian film crew concept into a cover convincing enough to fool the Iranians and, perhaps more importantly, to persuade the State Department bureaucrats who must greenlight it (and who would prefer to drop off some bicycles and tell the trapped diplomats to ride for the border, hundreds of miles from Tehran, in the Persian winter).

To do so, he travels to sun-soaked Los Angeles, where haphazard B-movies are being shot by crusty industry vets and the iconic Hollywood sign deteriorates in the hills, several letters lying in ruins. Enlisting the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist (and sometimes CIA contractor) John Chambers (John Goodman) as well as the aforementioned crusty producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez takes an oft-rejected sci-fi script and makes the whole ridiculous movie industry believe that a few unknown Canadians intend to make the next Star Wars in the deserts of Iran.

The Hollywood send-up portion of Argo may receive less critical attention than the electric gravitas of the sequences in Iran, even if it is often hilarious (Mendez and his co-conspirators sign off on their phone calls with “Argo fuck yourself!”; Chambers replies to an actor’s complaint that he can’t perform in the minotaur mask he has been given with the quip, “If he could act, he wouldn’t be playing the minotaur.”) But it does tip the audience off to Affleck’s overall project with Argo. In depicting a corporate movie business full of fakes, bullshitters, and cynics peddling crap films to a troubled America in the midst of a film characterized by intellectual integrity, aesthetic depth, and technical skill, Affleck is taking a stand for artistic craftsmanship over commercial production. Even for a critic harbouring fundamental doubts about the level of separation between these supposed binaries, this is an encouraging expression of intent.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: 21 Jump Street

October 18, 2012 2 comments

21 Jump Street (Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

I wish I could say that I don’t know why I decided to give 21 Jump Street a chance, but in fact, I know exactly why I watched it. I seriously doubted that Hollywood’s latest self-aware comedic retooling of a dated ‘80s television show would hold much appeal for me, but overcame that impulse on account of the directors’ credit. It was the live-action directorial debut of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the creative duo behind the side-splitting cult animated show Clone High and the marvelous, hilarious feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and their brand of rapid, giddy comedy had huge potential, even with such questionable material.

I should have heeded those doubts. 21 Jump Street is a cluttered, frantic calamity, intermittently funny but generally infected by the phage of raunchy, crude masculine infantilism that has turned the once-proud American film comedy into a quarantine zone for adults. Working from a script by Michael Bacall (who also gets story credit with co-star Jonah Hill), Lord and Miller try their best to insert their zany signature into the proceedings, and sometimes even succeed. But the movie remains a frequently-misfiring mess that no director, no matter their talents in the comedic sphere, could salvage.

The story, such as it is, adapts the popular social-issues TV drama which launched the career of a young Johnny Depp (who cameos briefly here) into a putative send-up of both high school movies and police action flicks. This should be fertile ground for Lord and Miller, who specialize in reproducing the narrative and thematic tropes of popular genres (disaster films in Cloudy, high school comedies in Clone High) and putting just enough of a defamiliarized twist on them to make the viewer question why those tropes exist in the first place. Their humor comes not from the sharpness of their satire, though, but from the obsessive speed and subtle surrealism of the jokes.

Unfortunately, Bacall’s jokes are not suited to their tone, being mostly of the genuinely sophomoric variety and not of the parodic sophomoric variety that Lord and Miller’s previous work excels at. Much of this failure is down to the leads as well. As a pair of youthful cops of complimentary ineptitude drafted into an undercover unit in a local high school and tasked with busting a mysterious drug ring, the aforementioned Hill and Hollywood It-Stud Channing Tatum do fine with the crudity, as far as it goes. But their timing is not well-aligned with the frenetic pace that Lord and Miller try to establish.

There’s the occasional amusing fish-out-of-water moment, as their characters assume undercover identities that are the opposite of their own high school experiences: the socially-awkward Hill (whose appeal mystifies me) gets in with the sensitive, socially-conscious artsy popular kids while the handsome jock Tatum (who is a game enough performer, despite the natural blank look that his face defaults to) finds himself in the company of tech and science nerds.

However, the visual highlight of the whole movie is a thoroughly random and surreal sequence following the cops sampling the super-hallucinogenic drug they’re in the school to bust. It’s a moment that has little to do with the actors, but more to do with the visual imagination of Lord and Miller, whose animation instincts take over as the head of a suspicious teacher turns into a talking ice cream cone. But this is a brief flash of brilliance in this movie, which otherwise hems in such whimsical impulses from its directorial team. Mostly, it’s just… off.

That may come across as an insufficiently specific criticism, but then one of the hardest things to write about as a critic is why something is not funny when it is trying to be so. To adapt Woody Allen’s truism, writing about comedy, more so than even writing about music, is like dancing about architecture. The creation of comedy is such an improvisational process, such an ephemeral, almost unquantifiable state of being, that explaining why it does or doesn’t work is pure folly. But 21 Jump Street, despite so many elements that ought to be going in its favour, is not very funny. It isn’t folly to admit that, although perhaps it was folly to expect it to be anything more.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Album Review: K’naan – Country, God or the Girl

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

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

K’naan – Country, God or the Girl


Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Amadeus

October 12, 2012 2 comments

Amadeus (1984; Directed by Milos Forman)

Milos Forman’s Oscar-sweeping imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life, music, and death is a lush, energetic, witty, and historically dishonest movie. Based on a play by Peter Shaffer, the film has plenty to say about art, love, faith, and human nature, and says it flamboyantly, even if it couches those observations in a fundamental lie.

The fictionalized account of Mozart (played by an unforgettably joyous Tom Hulce) is framed through the hammy madhouse confession of his bitter, forgotten, and guilt-ridden putative rival in Vienna, the royal court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for competently playing a role that is marvelously written). Recognizing and envying the implacable genius of Mozart’s work but abhorring his proto-bohemian joie de vivre and blithe disregard for the protocol of proper Austrian society, Salieri hatches a hazy, quasi-metaphorical plot to bring about Mozart’s untimely end through composition.

In Amadeus, art, which in Salieri’s belief system flows from the divine through human vessels like the frivolous yet gifted Mozart but never through himself, not only imitates but overtakes and consumes life. Life is art and art is life, both inseparable in their very being. The free-spirited Mozart can summon art at will as an extension of his liberated worldview, but the prim, devout Salieri, with his black garb and his abstentions from vices and desires, has no access to it. This dichotomy extends beyond actions and attire (Mozart’s ostentatious wigs and foppish clothing make him look like a glam rock star), but even regional accents: Abraham discourses in precise British English tones, where Hulce is pure American casual.

Applying the universal cultural assumption that true art belongs to the rebellious avant-garde and not to the well-heeled gatekeepers of bourgeois conventionality to the high-culture sphere of classical music is the masterstroke of Amadeus, even if it is a piece of unconsidered counter-cultural inherited wisdom. That this stroke is based on a distortion of Antonio Salieri’s life, music, influence, and relationship to Mozart is perhaps not to the film’s credit, mind you.

Although Mozart did resent the Italian domination of the Viennese musical environs (a presence which Salieri embodied) and the two men were rivals, they were friendly ones and mutual admirers. Additionally, far from being the “patron saint of mediocrity” (as the fictional Salieri dubs himself near the film’s end), the composer vilified by Shaffer’s adaptations was very prominent and influential in his own time, setting down many accepted standards of operatic composition in particular that subsequent (and more celebrated) composers followed and expanded upon and even teaching many of these future masters himself (including Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt). If his work is not as fondly-remembered as Mozart, well, whose is? Next to a Mozart, even accomplished composers seem like the measly incompetents.

As cinematically vibrant and thematically lucid (as well as just purely enjoyable) as Amadeus is, therefore, it is diminished, if only slightly, by this central figurative structuring around a historical mistruth. Its richness is diluted, its colours washed out. We can still be absorbed, but only if our disbelief is wholly suspended. A minor amount of extraneous research can threaten the entire conceit upon which the film is built, and that is a fragile frame indeed.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Kicking It Out: Racism and Tribalism in English Football

October 10, 2012 1 comment

As an amplifier for the concerns, obsessions, and divisions of any given society, professional sports can often focus social noise even better than crafted products of entertainment. Major American sports like baseball, basketball, and especially football are often conduits for the seething undercurrents of aggression, class resentment, and racialized hegemony that typify the psyche of the American male (the structure of the latter two sports in the South, especially at the college level, remains the truest inheritance of the slavery system still in existence in the U.S.). Likewise, hockey culture in Canada reflects middle-class assumptions about masculine traits and national character, particularly in opposition to the qualities favoured by European player development systems.

But the global game of soccer (or football, to everyone else not in the flashy thrall of the gridiron) is an even more nimble and adaptable black mirror for social anxieties, bouncing back instances of cultural assumptions onto the collective retinas of each national or sub-national community whose mainstream it enters into. I have written about this several times before, but current footballing events have provided a fascinating case study in the twinned issues of racism and tribalism in the English sphere of the game.

Football, in England and elsewhere (continental Europe especially), is often a breeding ground for expressions of the racial discrimination that underlie the superficial enlightened progressivism of European societies. The terraces from which fans watch the matches are generally awash with mass chants of the vilest and most insulting sort, usually sexual or violent in nature but often racially-charged as well. Racist discrimination on the field and behind the scenes at clubs at all levels is not at all uncommon either. Despite the efforts of highly public activist campaigns like the Kick It Out initiative to reduce such thoughtless hate speech, it continues to be prevalent around the game.

It takes only the merest effort on the part of an un-intrepid reporter to overhear terrace chants about monkeys directed at black players (or bananas thrown at them), witness references to gas chambers directed at clubs like Ajax Amsterdam or Tottenham Hotspur culturally identified with Jews, or any number of other such nasty instances of racial or ethnic targeting. This was precisely the approach taken by former Premier League defender (and head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ union) Clarke Carlisle in his recent BBC3 documentary, “Is Football Racist?” While there is some value to this kind of anecdotal enumeration vector, Carlisle scratched at its surface manifestations without getting at its roots in the program.

Those roots go down to country-wide discomfort with non-British immigrants, a popular reactionary sentiment that goes back at least a century or more, its clearest and most shameless irruption being the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech given by Enoch Powell in 1968. But the intense tribal solidarity that characterizes club allegiances scrambles our assumptions about such rhetoric, rendering what might seem like straight-up irresponsible discrimination into something much more complex and difficult to pin down.

The incident between Liverpool’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez and Manchester United defender Patrice Evra last season in which Suarez was suspended by the Football Association (FA) for racially abusing the black Frenchman was a case study in this. A one-man’s-word-against-another pantomime ensued between supporters of each club, the issue of racial abuse being dribbled back and forth in the give-and-take exchanges of a storied sports rivalry, the seriousness of the charges lost in tribal resentments. For fans of Liverpool, a club identified with left-wing labour and progressivism in general, Evra’s charges were one more blow in a long fight against the conservative, hegemonic Man U that they have long considered to be tilted against them.  Still, putting themselves in the awkward position of defending racial abuse was hardly the proudest moment for Liverpool supporters.

The whole of the East End weeps for thee, Sir John

Even knottier is the recent incident between Chelsea defender John Terry (also an England international) and Queen’s Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. Although Terry has been England captain before and is one of the country’s elite rearguards, he’s also one of the game’s more notable rogues, leaving behind a trail of on- and off-field incidents that have turned him into a pre-eminent heel to opposing fans. Accused by Ferdinand of racially-tinged comments during a match, Terry was investigated by the FA and even by the British law, acquitted eventually by the latter in a high-profile trial but suspended and removed from the England squad by the former.

If that wasn’t enough trouble, recall that Ferdinand’s brother Rio is also an England international, and the Manchester United defender stuck his nose into the proceedings as well by criticizing Terry’s Chelsea and England teammate (and Ferdinand’s fellow black Briton) Ashley Cole, who testified on Terry’s behalf, on Twitter. Ferdinand referred to Cole as “choc ice”, a perceived knock on his commitment to racial solidarity (“black on the outside, white on the inside”; “Uncle Tom” would be the American equivalent) that got him fined harshly. The situation was even further exacerbated this past weekend by Cole, who tweeted his own annoyance at the FA’s investigation of Terry and only avoided further punishment thanks to a contrite apology.

The key modifier of these sorts of situations in the footballing world is always the tribal loyalties of club and country, which take precedence over fundamental questions of right and wrong. What matters more to supporters is commitment to one’s proper side, a driving tribalism that has turned the English Premier League into one of the world’s most profitable sporting enterprises. But it’s a sentiment that can elide the thornier questions that crop up in the game, racism paramount among them. The ongoing official effort to kick racism out of English football faces an ingrained habit of racial taunting that is perhaps not intentionally linked to discrimination, but has the same effects nonetheless. Shaking the hold of these assumptions on the sport will take a deeper culture change than mere awareness-raising media campaigns can muster, but they are, at least, a beginning to the process.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Sports

PopMatters Television Review: Curiosity

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

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

Curiosity: Plane Crash



Categories: Reviews, Television