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At the End of the Pope: Benedict XVI and the Pontificate of Modernity

February 28, 2013 1 comment

At the time that this post was published, the Catholic Church had just become, if only briefly, a captainless vessel. The sitting Pope Benedict XVI (the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) had announced on February 11th that he would resign as the head of the Catholic Church effective at the end of the month (call it a holy two-weeks’ notice). As the College of Cardinals assembles for a Conclave to elect one from amongst their august selves to the post of the 266th Vicar of Christ (with the swing vote belonging, in hoary doctrinal tradition, to none other than the Holy Spirit), there have already been numerous considerations, analyses, and accountings of the legacy and meaning of Benedict’s brief papacy, which officially ended today.

Benedict XVI’s helicopter departs Vatican City

Though I can hardly claim to be qualified to assess the pontificate of the outgoing Bishop of Rome in the company of career Vaticanologists (they’re like vulcanologists, only they study celibate old men instead of upswelling magma), there is something of interest in the conclusion of Benedict’s reign at the top of the rapidly ossifying ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ratzinger, upon assumption of the office, was clear about conceiving his time at the wheel of the Popemobile as being a transitional phase after the long and popular papacy of John Paul II. A pinched, detail-oriented German who was the oldest Pope to be elected in 250 years and formerly headed the Vatican’s successor office to the Inquisition, Benedict had neither the inclination nor the evident ability to match his predecessor’s world-spanning celebrity and outreach to the faithful and the unfaithful alike (although he was one of the unseen architects of that opening to the world, ironically enough). That the Church pulled back into itself, focusing on conservative countermeasures to the relative openness of past decades since the Second Vatican Council, was perhaps characteristic of its leader. That this leader spent most of his time wearing the big hat in the throes of the morally-damaging, unresolvable worldwide Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, and who displayed an unwillingness to move the goalposts of justice on the manner very far at all, can be attributed similarly to his rule by inertia.

Indeed, there was something substantially contemporary about the papacy of Benedict XVI, a certain current character dancing above the immovable bedrock of millenia of clerical traditionalism and even the open derision for secular modernity that he often expressed. John Paul II, himself not much more liberal than his successor in many key push-button matters of public Catholic doctrine like ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or birth control, nonetheless projected through his status as the first multimedia Pope the dominant characteristics of the waning decades of the century that his papacy just outlasted. As a dissident figure of an oppressed people who resisted and was a vocal opponent of dictatorial tyranny and lived to bask in the glow of the collapse of such regimes and replacement by a species of globalized, liberalized capitalist prosperity, John Paul II’s papacy was a compressed narrative of the 20th Century. That his shimmering coda of mass adulation (mixed with the begrudging admiration of even his Church’s most vocal critics) was darkly-lined by the spreading sex abuse scandal dovetailed with the tonal mix of anxiety, instability, and inequality of power that has thus far swallowed the 21st Century.

Benedict’s papacy saw a distinct uptick of these darkening feelings, along with a renewed conservative emphasis. Where John Paul II turned his moral-rhetorical megaphone at actual dictators and their oppressive systems (to oft-inflated but undeniably existing effect), Benedict XVI turned his ire, like many a foppish “conservative intellectual”, at the inherently dubious “dictatorship of relativism”. It is never terribly convincing when the acolyte of an institution whose moral and temporal authority is slipping further and further away by the hour blames every ill of the past brace of centuries upon the subjective, self-interested refusal of people around the world to do what he and his fellow Catholic theologians say they should. If our young century has been very much defined by the stubborn firmness of those looking to preserve their prized imbalance of power, wealth, and influence, then the inability of Benedict to keep his institution from backsliding is a rare instance of that act of preservation failing.

And yet Benedict’s Church was defined not only by these anti-modern factors but also by a distinct increase in the corporatization of the Vatican, a consolidation of its activities, messages, and public image into a well-oiled transnational company that should have been expected under the influence of a longtime clerical bureaucrat. But his departing act, his wilful resignation from the Papacy and assumption of the peculiarly academic title of Pope Emeritus, is the most modern and business-world-ish element of his pontificate.

Like my hat? ‘Twas my cat. Evening wear: Vampire bat!

The last Pope to vacate the office while living was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated quite against his will so that the Antipope at Avignon could unite the Catholic Church and end the Western Schism (you did not need to know that, but I just really wanted an excuse to write the words “Antipope” and “schism”, as well as link to the contemporaneous but only tangentially related First Defenestration of Prague). No Pope has abdicated entirely willingly since the 13th Century, when Celestine V decided he’d really much rather live in a cave than in the Vatican, thank you very much. But then Benedict XVI did not abdicate, he resigned, like a businessman might.

Though I’m not sure there is as much sinister, hidden intent in this development in papal history as Andrew Sullivan thinks there is (Sully, like many with libertarian leanings, has a tendency to see nefarious institutional collusion almost everywhere), there is something odd and unrevealed about Benedict’s choice to become Ratzinger again. Stated health concerns aside (I have joked that he should have said he wanted to spend more time with his family, har har), perhaps the outgoing Pope preferred influencing the progression of the Church’s glacially-slow evolution from behind the curtain rather than from the dais of St. Peter’s as the Vicar of Christ himself. In a global culture so often dazzled by flashy celebrity (and the Pope, geriatric though the role may inherently be, is as flashy and prominent as religious celebrity gets), the gloved hand that manipulates the tiller is that much more easily overlooked. Ratzinger has seriously influenced the course of the Catholic Church, for good and for ill, for 50+ years. If today marked his retirement, it remains to be seen how retired he will be, even when a new Pope emerges from the Conclave.

PopMatters Television Review – Parade’s End

February 26, 2013 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.

Parade’s End

 

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter #4

February 23, 2013 1 comment

More recommended Twitter feeds for your consideration and consumption. Previous iterations: the first, second, third. @Sidslang can be examined and judged and found wanting here.

@TheBig_Sam

Parody accounts have populated Twitter like a multiplying brood of satiric spiders, but the true champs of the form leap off from the parodic target’s stereotyped qualities into inventive brilliance. Witness, therefore, an exhibit of this craft at its highest level with this parody feed focusing on English Premier League football manager Sam Allardyce. Currently helming West Ham United, the voluble Allardyce (nicknamed “Big Sam” for his physical size as well as expansive personality) is as well-known for his lusty, outspoken public image as he is for his managing prowess, which has mostly been burned away on second-tier clubs.

@TheBig_Sam, though infrequently updated, leaps off from this base on flights of inspired and often explicit creative riffing on not only current developments for his club or in the game, but also in the world at large. His discourse is rather Brit-centric, understandably, and an outsider to the island’s culture often required a quick Google search or two to gain the measure of the references. But the effort is ever rewarded; once you’re all caught up, it’s ripping stuff.

Multi-tweet bursts detailing with comically-reimagined figures that “Big Sam” encounters are true highlights. Scroll through the tweet archive for his befriending of Swansea’s Danish manager Michael Laudrup on February 3rd (they share a Toblerone after a game between their clubs, and Laudrup invites his counterpart over to his place to “watch ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and have some Mai Tais”) or West Ham player Matty Taylor telling him on December 7th of last year that he found a bird that closely resembled a disappeared rock star.

To be truthful, the completely inspired litany of tweets about prominent British Conservative politician Michael Heseltine from today (Feb. 22, 2013) forced my hand on this point of recommendation, it must be said. Proceeding from an off-colour quip about South African amputee runner Oscar Pistorius’ artificial legs to a nighttime stroll with Heseltine during which “Big Sam” watched Heseltine “hold the moon in his hands, and orchestrate the stars”, it’s a perfect distillation of @TheBig_Sam’s imaginative, crude, and killer comic method.

Representative Tweet:

Film Review: Good Bye, Lenin!

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003; Directed by Wolfgang Becker)

A surprisingly heartfelt execution of a premise that could have been too clever by half, German filmmaking veteran Wolfgang Becker’s charming parable about social upheaval and historical amnesia in post-reunification Berlin succeeds as it does because it trusts its characters enough to let them breathe and feel and live. Where an American indie of the same type may well have lingered frivolously on the witty ingenuity of the central scheme, Good Bye, Lenin! is tempered with the experience of a nation where real, painful, disfiguring social change has overturned the basic national reality (and not just once in living memory, either).

This premise is as follows: as the East German state collapses and reunification with the West beckons, young idealist Alex (Daniel Brühl) lives with his infirm mother Christiane (Katrin Saß) and sister Ariane (Maria Simon) in East Berlin, romancing a Soviet nurse named Lara (Chulpan Khamatova). His proudly socialist mother has a heart attack when Alex is arrested at an anti-government demonstration, then slips into a coma and awakes, much weakened and unaware of recent sociopolitical developments, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Concerned that discovery of the post-communist situation in the country could make good on the doctor’s warning that a further shock could kill her, Alex perpetrates an elaborate ruse. Marshaling every surrounding detail from home decor to food containers to fake news reports to craft a seamless illusion of the Democratic Republic’s continuity, he turns his ailing mother’s whole life into a Potemkin village of rose-tinted quotidian communism.

In a way, Alex’s meticulous recreation of the departed socialist system is an act of wish fulfillment, not merely for his backwards-looking mother, but for himself as well. A complex project both personal and entrepreneurial, the ruse is an attempt to construct a beneficent social framework that Western democracy promised to Eastern Europe but has had chronic issues in delivering in full. Becker’s film is never blatant in its judgements, and always ambiguous about the systems we use to make civilization function. In this way and surprisingly many more, Good Bye, Lenin! is smart little movie that isn’t even really that little, in the end.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

February 15, 2013 1 comment

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012; Directed by Rupert Sanders)

By all initial appearances an earnest fairy-tale epic featuring elements of cinematic vision from a neophyte feature director, Snow White and the Huntsman winds up instead as an unmoving studio product that is rather more middling and compromised than promised. For its many good if not exactly brilliant ideas, it generally smacks of a movie conceived of and executed by committee, with references, borrowings, marketing ploys, and cynical genre mainstays all front and centre in the final product.

Though it boasted decent box office, Snow White and the Huntsman is destined to be better known in pop culture as the movie that broke up the tween-dream romantic attachment of female lead Kristen Stewart and her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. Stewart’s affair with director Rupert Sanders is such common knowledge that his many lingering close-ups of her oddly-compelling pouting visage cannot help but take on alternate meanings than those advanced by the text of the film itself. It does not help that the movie is hardly much more interesting than the thousand tabloid stories its Helen-esque starlet and her directorial Paris launched.

The film adapts the Brothers Grimm folktale (which inspired Walt Disney’s revolutionary 1937 animated feature) into the sort of mythical fantasy quest narrative that marks Hollywood’s current geek ascendancy (of which Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is an obvious high-water mark as well as a clear and specific influence on this film). Snow White is a carefree princess in a lovely, prosperous kingdom who first sees her beloved mother pass away and then watches her kingly father become ensnared, murdered, and overthrown by the ambitious Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Snow White grows to young adulthood (at which point Stewart plays her) imprisoned in a tower of this malevolent new queen’s castle (the design of which combines Hogwarts, Minas Tirith, and Mont Saint-Michel in France) while the once-fertile land around her dies.

Ravenna, you see, is marked by an insatiable desire to remain forever youthful and beautiful. She replenishes her stores of young aura by bathing in milk, magically sucking the years from fetching peasant maidens, stopping the hearts of ruggedly handsome rebels, snacking on the tiny tickers of birds, and even draining the bloom from the natural world near her castle. Theron relishes every cornpone moment of this; she’s a deliciously unironic baddie, her old-fashioned cackling-witch villainy resisting even a half-hearted flashback suggesting a motivating survival impulse. She stalks her sepulchral sorcerer’s tower chamber like Saruwoman the Blonde, and taunts Snow White in their final stand-off by standing inside a fire (perhaps taking a certain Garth Brooks song a bit too literally), screaming out: “You cannot defeat me!”

The artificial youth element of the tale feels more specifically critical of the Hollywood image factory in the age of botox than it did in the 1930s, and casting the naturalistic public image iconoclast Stewart as the evil queen’s nemesis throws these themes into sharper relief. Still, this element is left entirely dormant and inert in the subtext, going nowhere in a metaphorical sense. At any rate, the plot grinds on, as Snow White escapes the tower and rides clear of Ravenna’s black riders on a unsaddled white horse (like the later overhead shots of a party of nine companions trekking along the lips of canyons and slopes of mountains, this chase sequence feels like a direct homage to Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring). She gets lost in the Dark Forest (you can hear the capitalization), at which point Hemsworth’s titular Huntsman (not sure you can hear the capitalization on that one, but let’s roll with it) is drafted to track her down.

If by my life, death, or suspension of personal hygiene, I can protect you, I will.

Hemsworth is best in the role of a bluff beefcake whose physical superiority does not always avail him best (witness Thor), but here goes more for the drunken, haunted underdog in search of redemption, clearing this low bar by a few feet at least. He strikes up a fondness for the girl he’s hunting when she reminds him of his deceased wife, and elects to protect her from the queen’s minions, the chief of which is Finn (Sam Spruell), an albino racist thug with a eunuch haircut who also happens to be Ravenna’s brother and shares vicariously in her youthening abilities. Joined eventually by Snow White’s childhood sweetheart William, now grown into a skilled bowman with zero sense of humour (perfect for fine-looking stick-in-the-mud Sam Claflin), and a posse of (yup) seven dwarves, this group adventures their way to a final battle of resistance against Ravenna’s evil reign.

The vaunted visual feast that was promised in trailers and pre-release promotion never quite comes to fruition in the film itself, although there are striking images clustered around certain sequences nonetheless. A hallucinogenic nightmare in the Dark Forest afflicts Stewart with swarming beetles and oozing black tree barnacles, a gothic vision countered by a blossoming faerie wonderland which includes an arresting tortoise, its shell encrusted with verdant moss and wildflowers. Mostly, though, Sanders returns repeatedly to showy images of fragmentation and dissolution. Theron’s evil queen fragments into a murder of crows, her jet-black dark-magic army shatters into razor-sharp obsidian shards, a white hart with birch-branch antlers transforms into fluttering butterflies, and Stewart’s egregious attempt at a British accent dissolves into audience laughter (to apportion criticism fairly, Hemsworth’s Scots brogue is not much better).

In a movie chocked full of showcase CGI (a Del Toro-esque bridge troll, the molten-gold hooded figure from Ravenna’s prophetic mirror, the obsidian armies), the most convincing and impressive effect is also by far the weirdest. The seven dwarves are played not by the usual little people, but by full-sized and recognizable British thesps (Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, and Brian Gleeson, ginger son of Brendan) whose faces are digitally transposed onto the bodies of little people.

I warned you not to eat fruit from Walmart, my dear.

It’s a bizarre and rather disconcerting effect, but never anything but seamless; it makes one wonder why Peter Jackson has persisted with old-fashioned forced-perspective tricks in his Hobbit films, if the technology is available to achieve a similar effect with computers. Nothing of note is done with the dwarves (there’s a few bad poop jokes and one of them perishes heroically), but they do look damned good. Still, it’s a little disappointing that the final role of Hoskins’ long and varied screen career (he retired after Snow White wrapped to deal with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease) sees his face uncannily grafted onto a four-foot-tall body.

But then, disappointment is the dominant feeling engendered by Snow White and the Huntsman. What could have been, with a little more talent, ambition, and originality, haunts the film as it unfolds in grim creative half-measures. At the film’s shallow core is Stewart, not so much its star or even its central performer as its gesticulating queen bee. She certainly doesn’t say much of consequence or pathos, although she musters surprising force in her rousing pre-battle St. Crispin’s Day speech to her rebel troops (the words are a touch more poetic than the boilerplate clichés as well, though still hardly the Bard).

With her upturned nose and beaver chompers framed in a pale face by unruly raven hair, there’s little doubt that Stewart maintains a striking look, a certain model presence at the heart of the film that’s supposed to be all about the persistent triumph of her beauty and luminosity. But Stewart is not luminous, really. She’s the Everygirl, only maybe a bit prettier; at least that’s what her appeal as Twilight’s Bella was supposedly based upon, to what limited degree I am able to understand it. Casting the Everygirl as the ethereal princess of destiny is perhaps not the biggest problem facing Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s emblematic enough of the film’s numerous, crippling pitfalls to stand as its defining failure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #3 – Catching Hell

February 13, 2013 2 comments

Catching Hell (Directed by Alex Gibney)

Acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney’s exploration of a memorable and troubling moment of recent baseball history is most notable not for the questions it answers but for the further questions it poses, namely about the terms and nature of sports fandom.

I’m sure it’s been said (though I can’t be sure of where) that the mass emotional investments in the fortunes of sports teams in modern capitalist society constitute nothing less than a substitution for the similarly intense association once felt for popular religion (and the two belief-system continue to unite in parts of America, in particular the Bible Belt’s mania for high school and college football). The sort of irrational tribal loyalties and inherited ideologies that characterize sports fandom as they once embodied institutionalized faith are nowhere more self-evident than in the orbit of clubs and franchises with a long history of futility, or at least of championshiplessness (new word!). And no franchise in North American sports has experienced a more infamously long run of futility than the Chicago Cubs.

Little know fact: Bartman was actually listening to “Stacy’s Mom” on repeat the entire game.

Catching Hell focuses on a recent incident in Cubs futility (which stretches back over a century to 1908, when they last won a World Series title) that left particularly visible scars. In Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs had a lead over the Florida Marlins and were but a few outs from reaching the World Series (which would have been accomplishment enough for the club, not having been there since 1945). A fly ball into foul territory down the left field line seemed to portent one of those precious outs, and outfielder Moises Alou moved towards a key catch near the stands. As he leapt with his glove upstretched into the liminal no-man’s-land between field of play and fan seating, however, several fans in the crowd reached for the ball, too. One of them made contact, knocking the ball into the seats; Alou stomped in frustration at the missed catch. Boos began.

What happened subsequent to this – an eight-run inning from the Marlins and a victory for them in the NCLS and eventually in the World Series as well – had no direct line of logical causation to a simple missed catch on a foul ball. At the very least, the Cubs’ fall had no more direct line to that play than to a key fielding error or the poor relief pitching that also characterized the comeback rally. But once the Cubs had suffered another painful defeat, all the more excruciating for the cruel proximity to glory, it became clear to the Cub fan consciousness that this moment was where the psychic energy had shifted against the home team and another failure became inevitable.

The mob’s ire turned immediately, before the disastrous inning was even over, at the perceived culprit of their collective shame, or a simple scapegoat for it: Steve Bartman, a mild-mannered fan in a cap, turtleneck and headphones who was judged to have administered the fatal touch. Negative vibes and open threats were directed at Bartman as the Cubs fell further behind and in the days and weeks that followed the defeat, necessitating first his removal from the stadium by security and then his self-sequestering from the media and fan circus that subsequently ensued. Beyond that, the repeatedly televised image of Bartman after the play, alone, self-contained, and headphoned (he was listening to the radio call of the game while watching it) in the midst of an increasingly rabid crowd, when combined with his public silence, seemed to be a provocation to the popular anger. How could he not appear to be feeling the anguish that all Cubs fans were feeling, especially when he was the perceived cause of it? It was too much to bear (bear/Cubs pun not intended, though I now wish it was).

Gibney’s fascination with this incident stems not from a shared devotion to the Cubs, but from an analogous fan trauma. Like so many of America’s progressive artists, Gibney is a Bostonian, and therefore a loyal Red Sox fan whose youth was marked by several irruptions of the legendary Curse of the Bambino, the folkloric assurance of Red Sox futility in the championship arena supposedly tracing back to the club’s trading of baseball’s mythic Father Abraham, Babe Ruth, to the rival New York Yankees in 1920. As this so-called “Curse” was lifted after 86 years and several close calls by not only one but two recent Sox titles, Gibney can afford to be magnanimous in his sympathy for another fanbase’s collective anguish (although he holds them to account for the ugliness of their collective reaction, to be sure).

But he also related the Bartman incident to a similar endlessly-replayed moment in Red Sox lore: a ground ball trickling through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run and, like the Marlins, eventually the title. Gibney wonders at why Buckner’s specific error, rather than the chain of mistakes by other Sox players that led up to it, was the focus of wrath, a question that transfers easily to the Bartman situation, too. Buckner himself appears, also wondering at the persistence of the wrath and displaying obvious emotion in recalling it, even though his place in franchise history has been rehabilitated post-championships.

Relying on archival television footage, video from the Cubs game taken by superfan and filmmaker Matt Liston, and interviews with other witnesses, observers, and sports media types (though not with Bartman, who has meticulously defended his privacy since that fateful moment), Gibney gives the incident as detailed and nuanced a treatment as he gives his more serious documentary subjects. But Catching Hell also suggests that there is a certain seriousness to the mentality of the sports fan as well, or at least a core of zeal surrounded by a sleeve of easily-frayed resentments and dire voodoo superstitions. Rationally-minded and/or statistically-rigorous fans balk at the run-of-the-mill fan’s belief in the fairy tales of curses and momentum, but an unswerving belief in the irrational motivates sport fandom as surely as it does any other segment of American society.

As the Bartman incident demonstrates, and as Gibney comes right up to the verge of saying without quite saying it, the demands of irrational beliefs can often push American subcultures into the mentality of the mob (even to the bloodlust of the lynch mob; Bartman did receive death threats, and may not have been physically safe from reprisals had he remained at Wrigley until the game had ended). This unsettling conclusion is what sets Catching Hell (what an apt and chilling title that is for this story) apart as a sports film: it suggests that sports, or rather those who watch and love them, can be dangerous, and it examines a nucleus of illogical and potentially violent negativity that lurks at the heart of even America’s most idyllic and popularly romanticized pastime.

Film Review: Gone Baby Gone

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Gone Baby Gone (2007; Directed by Ben Affleck)

Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel about a kidnapped child from the working-class South Boston neighbourhood of Dorcester and the effort to uncover what has become of her, the feature directorial debut of Ben Affleck shares many of the hallmarks of his next effort, The Town. Like that more prominent bank heist thriller, Gone Baby Gone concerns the rough-hewn, crime-inflected lifestyle of the city’s lower-income whites in contrast to the stony police who operate in their midst, flushing out the illegality from the socioeconomic undergrowth like so many beaters on a grouse hunt.

Dotting his film with overhead vistas of the Boston area and street-level sweeps of lived-in urban grime, Affleck is highly skilled at establishing an overpowering (even suffocating) sense of location, a setting given colour and nuance by the local dialects that he and co-writer Aaron Stockard place into their characters’ mouths. Such auteurly expressions of local pride aside, Affleck emerges in this initial effort as nothing if not a highly competent but decidedly non-ingenious genre filmmaker (his highly-praised latest film Argo manages to shake off such generic shackles, or at least combines enough of them seamlessly enough to approximate creative liberty). Lehane’s trademarked style of twisting, talky thriller plots set in the Beantown metropolitan (he also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island) proves a snug fit for Affleck’s working-class authenticity act; The Town would largely replicate this tendency, and push it just a bit too far, especially with Affleck’s own criminal with a heart of gold.

It’s fortunate for Gone Baby Gone that the elder Affleck stays behind the lens, allowing his scrawnier, infinitely more interesting kid brother Casey handle the principled proletarian lead part of private investigator Patrick Kenzie. Kenzie comes across as the sort of guy who doesn’t fit into the crude over-masculinized social infrastructure of a white ghetto like Dorcester, but makes up for it with intelligence, sympathy, and even an outsized bravado that disarms potential rivals, not to mention a network of key contacts (including a drug dealer who directs him to an important clue). What he finds in his search for the truth about the young girl’s disappearance threatens his life, his relationship with his girlfriend and fellow P.I. (Michelle Monaghan), and ultimately his keenly-defined sense of right and wrong.

In a genre exercise of this sort, one looks to individual performances for hints of distinction. Affleck collects a fine cast, including Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver as family members of the vanished girl, a memorable Amy Ryan as her troubled, tweaking mother, and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman as the Boston cops whose begrudging lack of cooperation with Kenzie’s investigation becomes more darkly meaningful as the plot corkscrews towards it ambiguous conclusion.

Employing the iconically upstanding Freeman as the fulcrum point of Gone Baby Gone’s unsettling of moral heteronormativity might be Ben Affleck’s canniest move in this film. Without giving too much away, the revelation of the kidnapped Amanda’s fate complicates our assumptions by introducing the cold absolutes of socio-economic class difference into the ethical equation. Freeman, whose latter-day screen career has seen him uplift and even transcend the “magic negro” stock stereotype without ever really stepping outside of it, is generally a reliable hitching-post for audience sympathies. Affleck sets up an essential closing dichotomy that tugs at this tendency with opposing conceptions of The Right Thing To Do, a dichotomy that also sets Kenzie and his girlfriend at direct odds. This choice, alongside a few other casting selections, a sense of location and visual sweep, and a mastery of genre storytelling, suggests more than anything else in Gone Baby Gone that Ben Affleck might have more to contribute to the movies behind a camera than he ever managed to give them in front of one.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #5

February 8, 2013 1 comment

It’s that time again: I need new content but don’t feel like writing 2000 words about Oilers second-line wingers. So! I shall post some of the strangest search terms that have directed internet surfers to these parts. Past entries: #1, #2, #3, #4. Call this #5.

guy fieri twat

That’s a touch harsh, isn’t it? Okay, maybe not.

i find your lack of progress disturbing

Darth Vader gives quarterly employee evaluations. Force-choke layoffs likely to follow.

virulent smile

Before travelling to happy places, be sure to arrange an anti-grinning innoculation.

jeremy lin oil painting

Googled that myself, and found this. Glorious. Too bad he’s a Rocket now and the Knicks are better without him.

abraham lincoln vampire hunter fanfic jack barts

For those who kept their essential dignity and steered clear of the summer’s B-movie pinnacle, Jack Barts is the sashaying slave-owning vampire who first runs afoul of young Abe and his family and steers the future President towards his youthful vampire-hunting calling. Later, they face each other down and throw horses at each other. Fanfic cannot be weirder than that, try as it might. Defused, as it were.

old picture of white males voting

So, any election photos from before 1970 or so, then. Or, in the case of Saskatchewan, from the last election.

dope trolls hobbit

Dope-smoking trolls are maybe the only off-colour, tonally incongruent joke that Peter Jackson didn’t do in that movie.

god is a badass

That pretty much sums up Milton, doesn’t it?

big fat dumb viking comic strip character

Somewhere in the fjords, Hagar the Horrible sits in the prow of his longship, clutching his knees, tears soaking his beard. You have done this.

amitabh bachchan stand in coat pant

Yeah, this is incoherent. But it did make me realize that Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is being played by an Indian Bollywood vet in Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby. Which raises the eyebrows yet another millimetre.

best male bums 2012

Best asses of last year, or best hobos of last year? Either way, I would direct you to alternate precincts.

the most random picture on the internet

Here’s my vote:

guineapigsbikes

Film Review: Lincoln

February 5, 2013 2 comments

Lincoln (2012; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

So much goes right in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it’s more than a little miraculous. The director mostly dampens down his legendary, sometimes movie-crippling sentimentality, at least until the end (a needless if compact exposition of the assassination), delivering a taut, no-nonsense portrait of moral principle as filtered through political procedure. Tony Kushner’s script, focusing on Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed and enshrine slavery’s abolition into the governing document of the United States, is a revelation, steeped in period dialect and constructed around the distinct styles of speech of its (many) characters while always keeping the faith with its central themes and metaphors. The performances are reverent and even priestly, and the photography shines through its accurate veneer of historically-accurate blemish like the stubborn twinkle of a well-employed prayer icon, with the lighting design in particular a holy marvel.

The surfeit of religious-tinged language may be forgiven, I hope, by the practical sanctity of the material. What has Abraham Lincoln become, in the national mythical imagination, but the American Christ? A secular martyr, sacrificing his own life so that the country might live, so that its copious sins (especially its greatest one, the institution of human property and forced labour) may be struck from the moral ledger. His peculiarities (and they were legion) are often lost in legend, his qualities as a man, a father, a thinker, even as a leader all smoothed down into a hagiographic philosopher-king image of a figure not so much of his time as above it, encapsulating but transcending the grasping, bitterly resentful political conflicts breaking out in all quarters around the fringes of the unspeakable slaughter of the Civil War battlefields.

Spielberg starts this portrait of Lincoln’s last months as President on one of those battlefields, a desperate greyscale of moisture and bloodshed, boots sinking into mud, bayonets biting into chests, soldiers drowning in overspilling puddles. More even than passing a slavery-banning measure in the frothing snakepit that is the House of Representatives, Lincoln’s overriding aim in the scope of the film is ending this destructive internecine conflict. But he will do it on his own terms, and those terms begin and end with a cessation of the moral horror of slavery, in support of which the Confederacy will fight tooth and nail (no “states’ rights” equivocating here; even the slippery Southerners and their Northern apologists don’t pretend that the war is about anything but the right to buy, sell, and own black slaves).

The legendarily Method thespian Daniel Day-Lewis tightly grips at Lincoln’s sense of his own fallibility, though he can’t help but invest the 16th President with the still, serene gravitas of a Midwestern monk. He argues with his emotionally-accusatory wife (Sally Field, who hasn’t been this good in three decades, if ever) who doggedly mourns their dead son and cannot countenance Abraham’s internalized grief (their Meyers-Briggs Personality Types are in definite opposition on this point). He butts heads with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an odd wig), who seeks to make his own way, out of his father’s shadow and in the Union army. And he gradually works up his nerve to dive into applying the requisite backroom pressure required to wheedle the necessary Aye votes for his beloved amendment in the divided House, with an ample assist from his austere but efficient Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and a trio of political operators Seward imports from Albany (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a wonderful, Falstaffian James Spader).

Day-Lewis physically approximates the Lincoln image familiar to Americans, a tall man who stoops with the weight of a splintered nation on his shoulders. His Lincoln is a keen listener who asks the opinion of telegraph operators and African-American corporals and frontier toll-keepers and values what they say as much as the learned views of his cabinet. But he will also talk and talk well; Lincoln can and does silent dissenters in the personal and executive spheres by elaborately laying out the well-considered, near-encyclopedic nuance of his thought-processes, but he also has a fantastic instinct for the well-placed story or anecdote. More than any of his other messianic features, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a seasoned teller of parables, to the point of occasionally frustrating his apostles.

Movies are fine and all, but I still wish I was back in Italy cobbling shoes.

Almost every cinematic aspect of Lincoln is worthy of nothing but firm praise (and I haven’t even found proper space to talk up the brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones, whose abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens broods stony-faced in between delicious verbal smackdowns). But as is laid out in thoughtful detail by Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott and Kate Masur in their roundtable blog discussion of the film’s political ramifications, there’s a complexity to its view of slavery, the Civil War, the legislative process, and prejudiced institutional structures that does not always play to the credit of the film, of its subject, and of the historical record.

It seems to me that Kushner and Spielberg want to have Lincoln cut both ways. They want to unleash the grand, sweeping statements about the absolute imperative of human freedom, the comforting liberal monuments of civil rights and racial equality (or at least legal toleration, for a start). The inexorable march of progress that animated practically every Hollywood prestige movie not conceived by Clint Eastwood is paramount to Lincoln. As is usually the case, it is also depicted as a paternalistic struggle carried out wholly by white magnamity on behalf of powerless but noble African-Americans (although much of the liberal wind is let out of that particular balloon at dagger-like mentions of planned Reconstruction). As Scott points out in the linked discussion above, the unsentimental refusal to tolerate Lost Cause mythologizing with anything close to serious consideration is not only to the film’s great credit, but rather revolutionary in the annals of Hollywood’s approach to the Civil War; as Masur counter-points, it is not nearly so laudable or innovative in the context of civil rights message films.

But the filmmakers also want to show that it’s a twisting road to justice, and that Lincoln had to leave the door open to considerable compromises (the pinnacle of which, in Lincoln, is the possibility of negotiating a peaceful settlement to hostilities with Confederate representatives who want nothing more than to preserve the plantation system that the President seeks to abolish). There’s an implied dismissal of the principled radicalism of the Thaddeus Stevens-led abolitionist wing of the then-fledgling Republican Party (how the tables can turn in a century and a half in politics: the party of the anti-slavery Union in the Civil War era has become the party of the cultural Confederacy of the contemporary South). Compromise gets things done, Kushner and Spielberg tell us, and the absolutism of abolitionism was no more useful in seeking a solution than that of the slave-holders defending their white-supremacist order. There’s more than a hint of current affairs applicability to this message, coming as it is during the Obama Administration’s constant push for tough compromises with loftier goals in mind. Obama’s explicit and implicit similarities to Lincoln are always at the forefront of historical considerations, and the current President does not mind encouraging associations with the Illinois lawyer predecessor he greatly admires (for whatever admiration is worth; George W. Bush admired Lincoln too, and look where that got America).

Yet, of course, the abolitionists were right, and we live in the society they envisioned (indeed, well beyond it). Kushner will wring a knowing laugh from the audience at a slippery-slope argument by a vacillating Representative during the House debate, who fears that ending slavery will lead to the black vote and even (horror of horrors) the female vote. But then he will brush aside the moral clarity of those who wished slavery smashed absolutely as naive and even counter-productive.

The key to Lincoln on this point is arrived at by Masur, however: “the compromises that Lincoln did not make are more significant than the ones he did.” And the compromises, intellectual and artistic, that Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis and their team did not make in Lincoln are more significant than the ones they did. Lincoln emerges as a tempered masterpiece, worthy of the similarly qualified triumph it seeks to portray.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Helvetica

February 3, 2013 1 comment

Helvetica (2007; Directed by Gary Hustwit)

Note that it’s not called Helvetica: A People’s History. Though Gary Hustwit’s documentary on the Walmart of typefaces does trace the development of typeface design in a manner that almost makes the world seem like an interesting one, it falls a little flat when it tries to tease out the larger meanings of the ubiquitous Swiss font.

Hustwit unspools a lot of footage of signs around the world that use Helvetica, and provides a soapbox for the discussion of globalized corporate homogeneity that the font’s ubiquity suggests, which is all well and good. But how does it really impress itself upon everyday people around the world? What is it that people who are not well-schooled graphic design experts see in the words typographically styled in this one specific way? Does its familiarity comfort them, or is there something deeper about its rounded, standardized form that appeals to the eye and, through it, to a segment of the human psyche? What do ordinary folks “see” when they see Helvetica?

It’s not really clear, because we never hear from any of them. There are plenty of bourgeois designers and pithy media critics waxing poetic on what “real people” get out of Helvetica, but none of these “real people” ever actually appear. Perhaps because they simply aren’t as interested in typefaces as people who make their living from them, or maybe they just didn’t have as many clever bon mots to toss about for Hustwit’s enraptured camera. Either way, the film comes off as a vaguely engaging look at something that, despite its widespread cultural hegemony, only a very tiny creative elite believes means anything in particular. As attractively shot and witty as it can be, Helvetica winds up being at least a little bit condescending as a result.

Categories: Film, Reviews