Archive for November, 2012

A Coup in Ford Nation: The Future of the Mayoralty of Toronto

November 27, 2012 1 comment

Yesterday’s remarkable news that the consistently controversial mayor of Toronto Rob Ford has been legally removed from office by a judge who ruled that he violated provincial conflict of interest laws has sparked a flurry of immediate reactions and imminent possibilities. Ford will certainly appeal the ruling, and both the divisive mayor and his ever-dwindling base of conservative support in city council (his Executive Committee lost staunch defender Giorgio Mammoliti hours after the decision was released) and in the public will couch the ruling and its yet-to-play-out aftermath in the comforting paranoid terms of a vast left-wing conspiracy aligned against him and his gravy-cutting agenda. This martyrdom narrative will doubtlessly form the core of Ford’s practically inevitable campaign to recapture to the mayor’s chair, whenever the next election is held (Justice Charles Hackland could have banned Ford from running again, but pulled back from this even more radical judgement).

“Which lawsuit is this again? I have ever so many to keep track of…”

Ford is a  political figure who has long posed as the champion of the marginalized working-class suburban right against the supposed liberalized interests of the downtown core. He and his supporters will hardly hesitate to build up the ruling (concerning his unethical use of his own power and influence to solicit donations for his football foundation and then decision to debate and vote on a council resolution concerning those actions) as a perceived injustice to render him as an even greater hero to a municipal constituency best described as the righteously unoppressed. The key upshot, therefore, of this day in Toronto political history is that Rob Ford is far from spent as a political force in this city. He will fight on, if only because the stubborn, entitled heedlessness (“Wilful blindness”, in a memorable description from Hackland’s decision) that led him into his illegal folly in the first place will not allow him to back down.

But Ford’s widely-arrayed opponents (including not merely the demonic pinko leftists that he darkly warns about but increasingly the moderates and even right-leaning sorts who took a flyer on him in the election but have turned away as his blustering ineffectiveness as a reformer and administrator has become apparent) should not get too giddy about this small but perhaps fatal blow against his odious mayorship. Certainly, Ford is not even close to finished, and neither the legal and procedural denouement of this ruling nor the eventual election that will truly decide the immediate future of Toronto’s political leadership will be a cakewalk for liberal candidates.

It will take more than a prominent mayoral hopeful with name recognition like, say, Olivia Chow to sweep aside the Ford taint at City Hall. It will take a strong voting coalition and organizational structure in the election and afterwards, as well as a concerted effort to advance a progressive vision for the city’s future that encompasses more than incremental elements like plastic bag bans and restored bike lanes. It is not enough to merely rid the city of Ford, a buffoonish frontman for greedy business interests and anti-union zealots. The regressive ideology that he represents must not merely be temporarily deferred by a legal technicality. It must be convincingly proven to be insufficient to the challenges posed by a modern city and unquestionably displaced by a set of ideas and policies that show it to be nothing more than the thin set of demagogic slogans that its critics dubbed it even before it emerged, full-throated and imposing, in the mayoral campaign of 2010. It may only take a court ruling to removed Rob Ford from the mayor’s chair, but it will take much more that that to remove his damaging ideology from the political cityscape.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Sucker Punch

November 25, 2012 6 comments

Sucker Punch (2011; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Sucker Punch, in the evident impetus of its conception, puts me in mind of King Kong. Merian Cooper decided to incorporate a romance into his visionary spectacle of the exotic after criticism of the lack of that element in his previous films. Zack Snyder, often pigeonholed for encoding an underlying chauvinism into his visionary spectacles of CG-age stark morality (300 and Watchmen), decided to represent a woman’s perspective in his latest hyper-stylish offering. But Cooper could not but echo the fundamental conservative democratic assumptions that defined his worldview, destroying his now-beloved giant ape atop a towering symbol of the triumph of arrogant industrial hubris over wild, primitive nature. And Snyder, though he seeks to render a species of modern feminism in iconic cinematic terms, winds up reinforcing the very patriarchal structures he seeks to viciously demolish. Or… does he?

Make no mistake, Sucker Punch is constructed thematically and narratively as a case study of feminist resistance to the malevolent dominance of the patriarchy. The basic skeleton of the story involves the attempts of a young woman with the infantilizing moniker of Babydoll (the schoolgirlish Emily Browning) to escape a mental institution in Vermont that her cruel stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) has committed her to after the death of her mother and younger sister, hopefully before a lobotomist arrives to scramble her frontal lobe. Stacked onto this basic frame is a fantasy layer of sisterly solidarity between Babydoll and four other women (played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in a burlesque club and brothel whose Moulin Rouge gilding and lacing seems to be draped only loosely onto the decaying asylum that they all actually seem to be locked up in. Bursting out of this layer are fantastical action sequences of the kind that have turned Snyder into one of Hollywood’s most notable geek-blockbuster auteurs (he’s helming a new Superman film next), baroque visual mashups that visualize the quest of Babydoll and her collaborators to acquire the mundane objects (a map, a lighter, a knife, a key) that will allow them to break out of their prison.

This prison, mind you, is never merely literal. It is a metaphoric figuration of the larger prison of patriarchy that locks up these women against their will (the outside world, when briefly glimpsed at the start and end of the film, seems firmly 1950s in appearance and character). The personification of this exploitative, objectifying patriarchal authority is Blue (Oscar Isaac), imagined as a manipulative lead orderly in the mental hospital and a smarmy pimp in the house of ill repute. He embodies and verbalizes the restrictive assumptions of the male power structure, the focal point of the objectifying gaze that insists on its mission of benevolent protection of supposedly helpless women while limiting their freedom through threats and violence, and imposing its sexualized desire upon their bodies and their minds. Sucker Punch views feminine agency as fundamentally incommensurate with masculine will, which runs ever towards dominance and must therefore be violently turned away (Babydoll’s final act of provocative resistance is, of course, a swift kick to the junk).

How is the resistance enacted by Babydoll and her fellow insurgents generally imagined, then? As a raw dance of exaggerated sexuality that transfixes sweaty men in suits and is celebrated by her fellow oppressed women, but that the audience never sees (snatches of a dance production number are glimpsed over the end credits). What we see instead is the dance of stylized hyper-violence, the commando object-retrieval missions to Oriental temples, steampunky WWI trenches, medieval castles, and breakneck futuristic trains.

Although Snyder short-circuits the traditional basis of objectification by choosing not to show Babydoll’s apparently mesmeric gyrations, he unleashes the objects of desire of the male geek gaze with glee. The action sequences unveil his five female leads dispatching hordes of robot soldiers, dragons and orcs, and steam-powered zombie Germans with guns and bombs and swords, their midriffs and thighs and cleavage spilling out of leather cossetting as they slice and blast away at their faceless male drone foes. For a purported vision of feminist liberation, it all seems rather like the fevered, self-negating masturbatory fantasies of a teenage boy (especially when one of those fantasy action figures is Disney Channel ingenue Hudgens, who has gone from mooning over Zac Efron to strafing dragons with machine guns).

The question posed by Sucker Punch, however, is whether this vision of feminism is a mere failure of Snyder’s metaphorical imagination or if it’s a sweeping indictment of what Snyder may see as contemporary feminism’s own confused muddle of ideological imperatives. Sucker Punch celebrates independent agency while simultaneously embracing the terms of patriarchal objectification and trying to appropriate them as symbols of liberation. Is this a cartoonish rendering of feminist tropes, or is it an accurately hyperbolic representation of where the discourse of feminist action stands at our present juncture? The performance of female sexuality for male audiences (through the privileged trope of male entertainment that is stylized violence) is not only the content of the film, it is also the path to freedom in the narrative of the film itself, although then only through considerable sacrifice akin to martyrdom. What, ultimately, is Snyder saying about feminism with Sucker Punch? He’s saying, I think, that it’s in the eye of the beheld as much as it is in the eye of the beholder. And that it’s often difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

November 22, 2012 1 comment

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor) (2004; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov)

There’s no point tiptoeing around it: the vampire genre has become Hollywood’s most lamentably efficient producer of complete bilge in recent years. So much crudtastic trash has been swathed in black leather and given pointy incisors lately that even an opera of the inane like Underworld can pass as a success (and even spawn three sequels! Bloodsucking, indeed). A genre once defined by lascivious sexual encroachment and elegant gore has even been streamlined and bowdlerized into the scrubbed, saccharine stalker-love fantasy of the Twilight Saga. Let’s face it: sparkling Mormon vampires that are “safe” objects of desire for flighty teenage girls are no kind of vampires at all.

So how refreshing and exciting is it, then, that one fleeting, much-needed shot in the arm to a genre that seemed to have had a stake driven into its heart came out of Russia (another, Let the Right One In, was spawned by Scandinavia)? In the Slavic world, the vampire legend is woven into the folkloric fabric of the culture, instead of blotting the surface like the empty gothic subcultural stain it has become in bloated suburban America. Timur Bekmambetov’s singularly stylish and entirely absorbing Night Watch promised to reinvigorate the legend in cinema much as Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian has done in literature, but while Kostova’s vision is historical and academic, Bekmambetov’s is modern and urban.

Night Watch slakes its bloodlust on the decaying corpse of the old Soviet social order, and the film is set in broken-down urban spaces of poetic decomposition and clutter. The film is a marvel of production design, and its stylish effects and visual cues add to the overwhelming coolness of the detached spaces. Lingering long after any of the complex elements of the vampire-mythos (or even the memorably weary EveryComrade lead performance from Konstantin Khabensky) are the assured visual touches that announced Bekmambetov as a deployer of nightmare images worth following. That he went on to direct stylish but underseen action blockbusters like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (which treats vampirism as a political history in-joke rather than as a metaphor for the aftermath of a historic political collapse), as well as a sequel to Night Watch (Day Watch), does not diminish the slick achievement that Bekmambetov unleashes here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“One of the Great Mysteries”: Science and Fath in American Conservative Politics

November 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently gave a casual interview with GQ clearly meant to test the waters for a potential Presidential run in 2016. Rubio took time out from talking about gangsta rap and not comparing Barack Obama to Fidel Castro (while actually doing so) to declare that, although he’s “not a scientist, man”, he feels that “we’ll never be able to answer” whether or not the earth was created in 7 days, as the Bible claims. Well, 6 days, technically, but I’m not a biblical scholar or a mathematician, man.

This is only news to the extent that it’s not really news. American conservatism has become so wedded to the hypocritical theocratic imperatives of Evangelical Christianity that its increasingly non-secular political organ (the GOP) must necessarily pay its outlandish faith-based claims credence or risk a fatal backlash from the hand that feeds it. Rubio is, from most appearances, no fool; he’s even been touted as the individual vanguard of the party’s much-needed outreach to the growing Hispanic-American voting demographic that they have recently lost decisively to the Democrats. There’s reasons to doubt this possibility: Republican policies and the conservative rhetoric behind them have been xenophobically hostile to Latinos for too long and too loudly to be wiped away by a single fresh-faced candidate, who, as a scion of Miami’s staunchly anti-Castro Cuban community, would not necessarily appeal to many Hispanic voters anyway. But whatever his future career prospects, Rubio’s line-toeing on the whole, messy, ambiguous “age of the earth” question reflects the choices made by a continental right wing that is increasingly contemptuous of scientific orthodoxy, seemingly as a matter of tribal allegiance.

Back off, man. I’m not a scientist.

Rubio’s deft framing of his answer, however, is instructive. He never says what he believes, ultimately, although anyone even flirting with the 6000-year-old planet theory is stepping beyond the scientific pale. But he puts a firm onus on education, and on a false epistemological equivalency between faith-based creationism on one hand and evolutionary biology and geological history on the other. This is the slim crack in the door that theocratic conservatives have long sought: the right to instruct American schoolchildren in both science and faith-based theories of creation and development and to “let them decide”. It’s a Choose Your Adventure approach to the none-too-uncertain basis of earth science education that has understandably (and rightly) provoked the resistance of fact-based educational practitioners, especially when the proposed alternative theories are so thinly reasoned and widely debunked.

Perhaps any such cracks are negligible anyway, especially with a high-profile recent court decision like Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District granting the faith lobby little daylight to work with. But the arguments are still out there being made, if mostly fruitlessly. Rubio demonstrates the well-worn trick of setting the terms of conversation in a manner that already gives his nonsensical perspective a fighting chance from the outset. But only because interviewer Michael Hainey cedes him more ground than he ought to with the wording of his question. “How old do you think the earth is?” is an absurd question on its face, and even beneath that level, too. At the risk of coming across as uncompromising or rude, it is not a matter of personal opinion, it is an established and incontrovertible truth. Hainey might as well ask Rubio how hot he thinks the sun is, or how many inches he believes to be in a foot. Opinion cannot trump empirical measurement, no matter how much a group of people might wish it to.

Conservative political operators so often exploit their opponents’ essential liberal tendencies towards equity and fairness to advance their reactionary agenda, and the life support which keeps creationism and its quasi-scientific offshoots breathing is provided by progressive notions of tolerance and justice. The key, as is so often the case, is not to allow that initial foothold.

A related prefacing question of the science vs. religion debate provides a perfect closing example. When, as a science-backer, one is next faced with the ever-thorny query, “Do you believe in evolution?”, try answering, “No.” When the initial surprise wears off, qualify the answer thusly: “I do not ‘believe’ in evolution, any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the Devil or Xenu. But I am convinced by it.” Belief and reasoning are not, in this calculus, inherently opposed. They are different muscles, subject to separate but not necessarily contradictory exertions. But there are some tasks that one muscle or the other cannot be of much use in tackling, and answering fundamental questions about the nature of our physical world is one of them. The sooner that conservatives face up to that, even in the Jesus-mad United States, the healthier their political movement will be from an intellectual point of view.

TV Quickshots #11

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Pregnant in Heels (Bravo; 2011-Present)

Pregnant in Heels might be the clearest demonstration of the abiding madness of the monied elites that current American popular culture has to offer. Worse yet, it shows with distinct disquiet that those same mad elites are breeding. The wise fool at the centre of this circus court is Rosie Pope, a self-styled “maternity concierge” (I think of Sherlock Holmes whenever I hear that employment title: “I’m the only one in the world, I invented the job”) who runs a toney Manhattan fashion and accessories boutique for expectant mothers and consults certain wealthy neurotics on how to overcome their self-absorbed personalities just enough to raise their forthcoming child.

Pope herself is a bit of a ridiculous figure. Her mania for children (she has three of her own) is considerable, and her famously bizarre speech intonations (roughly summarized as those of a Mid-Atlantic Valley Girl moments after accidentally biting her tongue) are endlessly lampoonable. Still, she is an anchor of sanity relative to her clients: recent episodes have included a viciously jealous lap dog assaulting baby stand-ins, a New Jersey couple that suspects their future nursery is haunted, and a South American trophy wife who considers acquiring a black market wet nurse. She does seem to help, but then it hardly takes maternity or psychological expertise to diagnose the disconnected mental malaise of the 1%. Pope even allows herself moments of borderline snark about her kooky clientele, although the safe harbour of melodramatic cliches is ever her final port of call. Despite this, the domestic portrait that Pregnant in Heels provides of New York City’s sheltered rich is sociologically valuable even while it falls firmly under the aegis of disposable trash television.

The Singing Detective (BBC; 1986)

Well-respected British writer and dramatist Dennis Potter’s career highlight wields a pen as sharp as a doctor’s scalpel or a knife in a dark alleyway. The Singing Detective features the future Dumbledore Michael Gambon as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction who suffers from a painful case of psoriasis (as did Potter himself). Philip E. Marlow is confined to a hospital ward full of sad bed-ridden cases, determinedly earnest but helpless doctors, and a pretty nurse (Joanne Whalley) who cover his whole afflicted body with soothing balm (the latter occasioning hilariously encyclopedic mental lists of unarousing things to keep erections at bay).

Gradually drawn out of his medical cage by lessening symptoms and by probing sessions with a Scottish shrink (Bill Patterson), Marlow nonetheless was escaping his condition long before through both memory and fantasy. He has flashbacks to his youth in wartime Gloucestershire as well as plays out scenes from the film-noir world of his fiction, following the titular gumshoe alter ego (also played by Gambon) in investigating the case of a mysterious, menacing bachelor (Patrick Malahide) who is the last person to see a Russian escort alive.

These three narrative frames reflect each other, and meld and trespass freely in the best post-modern tradition. The writing in the detective section is laced with the witty zingers and nocturnal intrigue of the genre, while the helpless pathos of both the hospital scenes and Marlow’s confused childhood is dramatically moving and quirkily funny in equal doses. The entire show is suffused with Freudian psychoanalytic assumptions to the point of being one heaping metaphorical symptom. Although most fiction, whether on the page or on the screen, seeks the implication and identification of its audience, The Singing Detective entertains with a highly singular and entirely personal set of psychological neuroses. For Potter, this series seems to have been the best cure.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Burn After Reading

November 15, 2012 1 comment

Burn After Reading (2008; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Fourteen years after The Big Lebowski and twelve years after O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens have yet to make another great comedy. Intolerable Cruelty had intermittent moments of loopy comedic inspiration, but the less said about The Ladykillers and Tom Hanks’  Southern accent, the better. It’s fair to say that Burn After Reading is as close to their past comedic glory as the brothers have gotten recently (when they’ve concentrated, compellingly, on more dramatic material), though it’s also entirely fair to say that long stretches of it are completely devoid of laughs.

What saves the movie from forgettability, really, is the rogue’s gallery of classic Coen character creations that it boasts. One can never presume to question the Coens’ powers as crafters of fascinatingly weird and deranged people, and the central cast here provides some classic oddballs to the Coens Canon of Creeps. George Clooney redeems his staid Grant impersonation in Intolerable Cruelty with Harry, a creature of nervous charm and slippery dissembling. Richard Jenkins plays one sad, strange bastard. John Malkovich embodies a bitter ex-CIA analyst with misguided intellectual pretensions and a snobbish disdain for the Great Unwashed. Tilda Swinton is his frigid, baffled wife. And Frances McDormand, always on point in the films of her husband (Joel) and brother-in-law (Ethan), whips up yet another totally singular middle-aged woman, this one bursting with positive thinking and driven by a fundamental need for youth-recapturing cosmetic surgery.

But Brad Pitt, amazingly, steals the half of the movie that he’s allowed access to. His lunkheaded workout-nut gym-rat, Chad has got some funny lines, sure (“I thought you might be worried about the security… of your shit”), but his square movements, constant gum-chewing, perpetual dumbfounded expression, and gnomic observations (“Appearances can be… deceptive”) are consistently hilarious. But his comic tour-de-force unbalances the bumbling intelligence-agency satire of the switchback-laden plot; as fantastic as Pitt is, he and Chad seem to have bopped accidentally into the wrong film, earbuds in, sucking a smoothie through a straw, and ultimately hiding in the wrong closet. This is hardly a poor film, and certainly interesting to consider in light of the current Petraeus scandal and its revelation of the comedy of errors that is the real-life CIA. But what’s telling about the quality of the comedic writing at work here is that what’s funniest about Burn After Reading is not what’s on the script page but what the talented actors conjure up to bring it to life. And top-notch Coens comedies always read funny first.

Categories: Film, Reviews

All Your Votes Are Belong To Us: The 2012 Presidential Election’s Internet Meme War

November 12, 2012 2 comments

When U.S. President Barack Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney for America’s top job last Tuesday, analysis and prognosis was offered from all media quarters and beyond. With the presidential campaign as long, as complex, and as all-saturating as it is, there were plenty of potential causes for and reasons behind the result to consider in detail. The natural electoral advantage enjoyed by any incumbent President was surely part of it, especially in the campaign’s waning days when a historic weather disaster allowed Obama to demonstrate executive authority and the cool effectiveness under pressure that has characterized his foreign policy but has not often found similar outlets domestically. The ground organization and volunteer infrastructure of Obama’s Democratic Party appears to have outflanked Romney’s as well, turning out its base in greater numbers and not suffering the disastrous technical collapse that the Republicans’ prized vote-tracking app ORCA did on Election Day.

Perhaps more fundamental was the GOP’s dogged ideological insistence on alienating every voting demographic outside of white males, alarming Hispanics with immigration-related xenophobia, women with tone-deaf comments on abortion and rape, and African-Americans with the racially-charged framing of their attacks on the first black President. One dominant note in the coverage of Obama’s win (which was, Electoral-College-wise, a bit of a landslide, it must be said) was to emphasize the demographic sea-change represented by the 2012 Election, in which a diverse coalition was brought together in opposition to the Republican Party’s Southern and Midwestern rural white bloc. Although this new multicultural reality is one that the GOP will need to come to terms with rather than continuing to aggressively reject if it is to becoming relevant as a governing party again, it’s not the entire story of this election.

The same conservative counter-revolutionary tendencies that led the GOP’s ideologues to frighten and irritate the various non-white minorites, young voters, and women (the latter, after all, constitute a majority in America) blazed a path to rejecting various important elements of American culture (Hollywood movies, public television, etc.) which hamstrung their attempts to turn the discourse in their favour. To some extent, the narrative arc of the election saw Romney’s central claim of upgrading economic competence in the Oval Office slowly evaporate as he appeared less consistent and competent as the campaign wore on (he lost the last two debates decisively after breezing past a lackadaisical President in the first one, and his surrogates from VP nominee Paul Ryan on down to Tea Party-friendly Senate candidates made poor accounts of themselves too). This was partially due to the strength of the various body blows to his temperment and views made by Obama and the Democrats (and some self-inflicted shots, too, like the infamous 47% video), but also due to the epistemic closure of the echo-chamber right wing discourse, where meanness and negativity coexisted uncomfortably with soft-focus propagandistic distortions of the American character and priorities.

An illuminating case study on this effect, or this lack of effect from the Republican perspective, can be descried in a helpfully summarized account of the internet memes of the 2012 presidential election from Know Your Meme, an organ of the I Can Has Cheezburger/FAILblog corpus that tracks and documents the ephemeral tangents of Internet culture. Both sides in the campaign attempted to purposely employ social media and its viral potential to their benefit at certain points: the Romney campaign released apps (one of which included a much-mocked typo) and appears to have artificially raised the number of followers of his Twitter account in July to ridiculous levels, while the Obama team released a much-pariodied online slideshow comparing his policies with those of his opponent and crafted the quickly-discarded catchphrase and hashtag “Romnesia” to tag the former Massachusetts Governor for his convenient finessing of past stands on the issues.

But the defining memes of the campaign were obviously not the ones curated by political consultants and campaign strategists. They were the spontaneous memes, sparked by notable occurences in the campaign and spread on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and various other internet gathering points. Sometimes these memes had ideological targets or partisan underpinnings (like the Mansplaining Paul Ryan meme or the Obama-attacking You Didn’t Build That, which was the conceptual heart of the GOP Convention), but just as often they didn’t, instead grasping at a random moment of strangeness or comedy amidst the otherwise dour policy talk of the debates in particular.

In this corner of the electoral battle, it is clear that the Democrats won a thumping victory. Witness the most memorable memes that targetted, in one way or another, Romney and the GOP when compared to those that the Republicans and their operatives and supporters used against the Democrats. There was Binders Full of Women, a meme whose perpetrators leapt on Romney’s awkward phrasing in the second debate concerning employment equality initiatives during his gubernatorial days (which turned out to be a fib anyway) to create a surreal new expression of patriarchal limitations on female employees. Fired Big Bird, arising from Romney’s pledge to cut funding to PBS in the first debate, grounded the cruelty of proposed Republican spending cuts in a commonly-adored childhood touchstone. And Horses and Bayonets emphasized a moment of powerful snark from Obama (whose presidential humour is among the sharpest of the past media-driven century) that established his foreign policy mastery over Romney in the final debate while also offering rich opportunity for comic anachronism.

Truth be told, I had never even heard of the competing conservative memes before reading through Know Your Meme’s compilation of the election’s viral fodder (perhaps as a result of my own epistemic closure). But it must be said that they are not impressive. Where the liberal-tilted memes discussed above effectively bring some objectionable policy position into sharper relief by connecting it to a comical concept, the conservative ones of note are little more than outbursts of abusive belligerence against a President and a party that they resent with primal, pre-logical fervour.

Take Laughing Joe Biden, which referenced the Vice President’s quietly devastating amusement at Paul Ryan’s earnestly libertarian expressions of policy positions during their debate. While certain image macros go for the surreal and the non-ideological (I like the one of Biden as Mortal Kombat character), most others that criticize Biden’s laughter do so from a vicious and insulting place, calling him stupid (a popular view on the right that Biden had just dispelled convincingly in front of a national audience) and making dark associations between him and the Joker (a menacing comparison that has also been infamously but ambiguously applied to Obama).

Or, alternately, one can consider the troubling Obama the Eater of Dogs meme, cooked up by the racist dog-whistling demagogues at Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller from an excerpt in Obama’s Dreams of My Father concerning the young future President eating dog with his stepfather in Indonesia. Intended as a response to the story of Romney’s former family dog being strapped in his carrier to the roof of the car for a 12-hour roadtrip, the meme fed into feverish conservative prejudice against Obama’s international origins, and pushed the far right conception of the President as somehow an inherently un-American figure. Humour of this mean and xenophobic type does not tend to go viral because it offends more than it appeals, and it is not an effective political messaging tool because it has no political message outside of the paranoid, closed-minded resentment of difference. In this way, however, these memes constitute a succinct example of the similar paucity of significant ideas at the heart of contemporary American conservatism.

It may seem frivolous to focus on something as inherent disposable as internet memes to shed light on an election result, but then political campaigns are every bit as disposable as these memes, and often enough just as frivolous as well. Simply because the final result of an election can have serious and wide-reaching consequences on governing policy and national direction does not mean that the process of winning those results does not slip into silliness and lowest-common-denominator appeals as often as not. With the campaign discourse so often conducted at this level, internet memes are not necessarily discursively dissonant. Indeed, they often contribute to the harmony of political messaging. The American conservative movement’s conscious decades-old decision to turn their collective backs on popular culture bore fruit on November 6th, in this way. And that fruit, like the Republican Party’s ideological and moral heart, was revealed to be rotten at the core. Did this decide the election? No, but any ocean of defeat is a multitude of drops, and this drop left swiftly-spreading ripples.

The City is Open, but the Man is Closed: Teju Cole’s First Novel

November 10, 2012 12 comments

There is much to Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City, but there is also little to it.  It’s a book of wandering ruminations without much of a narrative arc, and it ends as delicately and unobtrusively as it begins. Filtered through the perceptions of Julius, a Nigerian born-and-raised psychiatrist on his residency in New York City, Open City is a thoughtful journey into the impressions of a observant, sensitive, but emotional reticent character as well as into the nature of a city known for brashness and ambition but predicated on cooperative, laissez-faire individual self-interest.

Mostly, the novel consists of Julius’ thoughts, reactions, and observations of the city set during habitual long walks, his interactions with the people in his life (who tend to vanish, gradually, one by one), as well as reminiscences of his African youth. Not a whole lot happens, plot incident-wise, outside of Julius’ vaguely-reasoned holiday in a wintry Brussels (which has dire consequences for a troubled patient of his) and a tense reconnection and confrontation of past wrongs with a woman he knew in his teenage years in Nigeria. But once the reader settles into the rhythm of Cole’s prose, it can be a revealing journey through a poetic vision of modern life.

Like his protagonist, Cole was born in Nigeria and moved to America in the early ‘90s, where he is now employed as an art historian. I became aware of Open City through a blog mention of Cole’s Twitter account, which he employs almost exclusively to characterize microcosmic human fates with tragic irony and droll humour. A whole novel predicated on this sort of approach, which reflected Cole’s evident sensibilities on a novelistic scale, seemed a very promising prospect to me.

That Open City does not quite meet these expectations likely says more about the expectations than it does about the book itself. It’s an odd book; certainly well-written, carefully considered, and (despite its calm lack of incident) never dull or meandering. Cole’s narrator alter-ego is not as clinically detached as he may seem; indeed, he often enters into conversation with strangers and makes strong impressions, and does have close friends upon whose acquaintance his personal qualities are imprinted.

But, as Cole writes about late in the novel, Julius constructs himself as the hero in the story of his own life, even though he is sometimes far from heroic. He is removed from the consequences of his action not by emotional detachment so much as by narrative omission. Cole repeatedly pulls off a neat trick of eliding the importance of key developments by slipping them in between Julius’ lengthy reveries about paintings or photography or classical music or politics.

Sex, love, death, break-ups, and accusations flit by like darting sparrows or fleeting breezes, while the quotidian minutiae that generally escape notice take up the lion’s share of his prose’s attentions. Julius has more to say about Gustav Mahler’s late years than he does about his estrangement from his mother, and this psychiatrist never analyzes what is wrong with that. This beautifully-curated subtlety and indirectness turns a novel that might merely have been called insightful into a work that feels more timeless and zen. Cole’s city may be open and inviting, but his central denizen is closed. That powerful contrast stands firmly at the centre of his cool-headed but still strangely empathetic novel.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Film Review: The Avengers

November 7, 2012 9 comments

The Avengers (2012; Directed by Joss Whedon)

The Avengers is not told by an idiot, but it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But that nothing is nonetheless everything. What Marvel and Joss Whedon’s grandiose, overstuffed airborne beast of a superhero ur-movie signifies is the feverish daydream of an American mass culture entirely unmoored from the necessitous advantages of signification. It is epochal, in its way, for its times. But that is not to say that it is, in the narrowest sense, good or bad. It stamps such distinctions into the dirty earth. As a film, it does not seduce or persuade or convince. It tramples.

To kvetch so about The Avengers’s lack of underlying meaning is to be a hopeless bore. So let’s be hopeless, though hopefully not boring: for all there is to recommend it, I cannot. Or rather, there isn’t any point in recommending it or not, which is the exact problem. The Avengers is not merely post-criticism (this concept might sound like a good thing to many, but then it sounded pretty good to Stalin, too). It is – in its elaborate, all-encompassing, inevitable dominance – post-ideology. Slavoj Zizek said in a recent television appearance that ideology functions even if you don’t believe in it, but even this gnomic inverted-donut Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian logic is no match for The Avengers. Thought crumbles in the face of its enormity. Faith is not even in the conversation. It’s pointless to even criticize it as a simple overblown corporate product, although it is one. Its fundamental commodification explodes, reconstitutes itself from the energy of the blast, then implodes until nothing is left to grasp onto. It is a mystery, wrapped loosely in an enigma, reclining on a bed of money, oysters, and looted art, inviting us puny mortals to lick its toes. And who are we to say no?

If these issues seem tenuously drawn or overly theoretical, it’s because a traditional220px-theavengers2012poster critical dissection of the film’s cinematic parts cannot avail us in comprehending the excessive lack before our eyes. By all the terms by which we ought to understand the movies, The Avengers is a wild success. Presaged by no less than five previous superhero films, it represents an ambitious culmination of the translation of comic-book storytelling form into motion pictures, for good or for ill. If Whedon has no particular style worth pointing out as a filmmaker, then he gladly indulges in destructive visual fantasies of gigantic scope like a good Hollywood sport and a well-versed comics fanatic. In particular, extended action and battle sequences aboard a secret security agency’s flying aircraft carrier (your tax dollars at work, America!) and in midtown Manhattan are grand and exhausting exercises in violent vision.

Additionally, because this is Joss Whedon working from his own script, every character banters fluently in Whedonspeak, which is sometimes amusing in its witty inertia but just as frequently oddly defamiliarizing and capable of pulling us out of the moment. And The Avengers exists in nothing but the moment, ultimately, so allowing the audience to be yanked out of it doesn’t work out in its favour very often. Whedon’s cadre of actors are happy to meld into the larger picture and grab at their own moments here and there. Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo have some nice beats together as Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk may never catch on with audiences in his own flick, but is compelling in small doses here and gets one of the best gratuitous violence gags with Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki), and Chris Hemsworth’s buff Thor is a magnetic, laconic delight again. Most of the other actors fill the eye-candy role (although Jeremy Renner needs a non-action role or two but quick to avoid career stagnation) and serve some useful function in the plot, which, for all of its reliance on a shiny MacGuffin (the Tesseract, or something), is very much constructed with interlocking intentionality.

By any measure, then, The Avengers was a triumphant commercial success and is perhaps an aesthetic one as well, at least in its given context of cryogenically-preserved eternal male adolescence. But if this exquisitely-mounted pile of absorbing emptiness qualifies as a success, of what use can the term be to us anymore? This movie represents “success” in the post-millenial sense that has given us hedge-fund billionaires and reality-show debutants and very nearly President Mitt Romney. It’s not that The Avengers itself is terrible; it’s just that, in its undeniable accomplishment, it embodies a particular economic, cultural, and social context that is terrible. “Terrible” in the anachronistic meaning of great, imposing, and irresistible. Alternately, one could employ “awesome”, and not in the sense that the word was used by the movie’s fanboy target audience, which it seems to have thoroughly conquered. The Avengers, as its smug, snobbish demigod villain does at one point (in Germany, of all places), invites us to bow down to its superiority because that is our nature as pathetic humanoids. Unable to fathom disappointing the film in all its impressive glory, we obeyed. And perhaps that says as much about us as it does about the movie.

Categories: Comics, Culture, Film, Reviews

Disney’s Star Wars: Corporate Clouds with Aesthetic Silver Linings

November 4, 2012 4 comments

The Walt Disney Company’s announcement earlier this week that they had purchased Lucasfilm for over $4 billion and were planning a new Star Wars trilogy beginning in 2015 was greeted with few reactions that ranged anywhere near the positive. Amidst the fanboy laments and snarky photoshops of Mickey Mouse wielding a lightsabre or Princess Leia donning a Mickey cap, there were more thoughtful treatments of what it all meant, notably from Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, who sees the move as foreshadowing dark clouds for Hollywood with a potential aesthetic silver lining, the latter implication of which I’ll consider further in a moment.

But I was going to Tomorrowland to ride Space Mountain, it’s not fair!

What the announcement truly brought home was a truth that the multiple generations of Star Wars devotees have long denied, but is now unmissable. Whatever fans may wish to believe in order to validate their investment in George Lucas’ sci-fi/fantasy universe, it cannot be ignored now that Star Wars is now much more a corporate brand than a mere cinematic creative framework, and that Lucas’ legacy over the past three decades or so has been to shepherd his film creation into a product of mass consumption. The sale to Disney, a company whose own commodification of their creative products was the 20th Century gold standard of the form, makes perfect sense in this context; it was a match made in corporate heaven (or is it haven?), in this way.

As I have written about before, the high level of investment and engagement that Star Wars fandom displays leads to a sense of symbolic possession of an entertainment product that is, in fact, a highly-protected piece of corporate ownership. Many Star Wars fans continue to prefigure their judgments on every new development in the franchise on the assumption that the galaxy far, far away belongs to them, the audience that embraced it, and not to its increasingly out-of-touch creator. Will this feeling become modified by this blatant exemplification of capitalist dominion over their beloved series, particularly by a conglomerate best known for family-friendly cartoons (but which has extended into richer and more adult fare through several company arms at various times)? Or will the wounded sense of dedication to the Jedi ideal become that much stronger for rebellious fans now that the House of Mouse, a veritable evil Galactic Empire for many, is building a new Deathstar?

The Lucas of George looks mildly uncomfortable, no?

That I do not share this perspective should be immediately clear. My point of view lies closer to O’Hehir’s, having enjoyed the original trilogy with some geeky enthusiasm but hardly with an all-consuming passion, and being distinctly unmoved by the messy and unfeeling prequels. To whatever extent I might think the Star Wars franchise framework has anything to offer film-goers, I doubt that George Lucas is anything resembling the filmmaker to give it to us anymore.

Handing the reins over to a younger filmmaker with a passion for the universe (maybe J.J. Abrams, who has already made a Star Wars film in another sci-fi franchise, or perhaps Joss Whedon, an established geek god and director of recent superhero megahit The Avengers for Marvel Comics and Disney) would be the best thing that could happen to Star Wars at this point, and might even see the franchise rise back to something approaching its original creative pinnacle, if not higher (probably not higher). I would feel more confidence in something like this happening if, say, Warner Bros. (who cultivated a superb collection of cinematic artisans through the course of the Harry Potter movies) had made the purchase, but then Disney did turn Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp loose on those films based on an amusement park ride, so there’s a track record to draw upon, at least. Still, this is mostly a news story of multinational media conglomerates combining brand names, which is as clear a sign as any of profit-driven corporate capitalism’s complete co-opting of American popular culture. As if they could exist without each other in the first place.

Categories: Culture, Film