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Film Review: Auntie Mame

March 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Auntie Mame (1958; Directed by Morton DaCosta)

Witty as all get out, this is studio-era Hollywood screwball comedy at its best but also, sometimes, at its worst. For all of its sharpness, Auntie Mame is rarely anything but unsubtle with its conclusions, its intrusive orchestral score, and especially with its racial stereotyping (poor, marginalized Ito). Following an orphaned boy who goes to live with his jetsetting aunt in Manhattan and the madcap antics that swirl around them, it’s a depiction of a particular culture of American privilege that is more persistent and contemporary than the passage of half a century since its theatrical release might otherwise suggest.

Still, Auntie Mame is quite funny stuff fairly often, with Rosalind Russell firing on all comic cylinders as the titular lead. The writing is snide and knowing, rising once or twice to inspired heights (see the embed below: “It was just ghastly!”). The film is also a cutting satire of several facets of the clashing cultures of the wealthiest cadre of Americans that the Occupy movement sharply labelled as “the 1%”. Young Patrick Dennis’ coming-of-age path crosses that of progressive New York City faux-hemians, aristocratic and reactionary Southern plantation owners, Romney-esque Eastern Seaboard country-club scions, and staid, conventional urban bankers. Every faction comes in for roughly equal comic abuse, although Mame’s membership in the first group ultimately encourages us to side with them in the end as the least objectionable group, or at least the most fun to be around, despite their other foibles.

If such an obvious frothy slice of entertainment fluff has an overarching political-sociological point to make, however, (and comedies basically always do, if you parse the laughs properly), it’s that class isn’t the basis of the vaunted liberal-conservative divide in the United States. Culture, on the other hand, most definitely is. Furthermore, nearly everyone of any consequences on both sides of this divide are pretty equanimously ludicrous as well as complicit in the perpetuation of their common socioeconomic privilege. It’s a conclusion of which Jon Stewart would be very proud.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Persistence of Consumerism in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

March 27, 2013 2 comments

How, precisely, did I miss the hilarious and weirdly brilliant alternative hip hop single “Thrift Shop” (released last fall and topped the Billboard charts in January) until around about now? Out of touch with certain segments of the culture, I suppose. How ironic it is to have one’s tendency to be situated outside of the cultural cutting edge demonstrated so notably by a song celebrating the act of situating one’s self outside of the cultural cutting edge.

And “Thrift Shop”, by Seattle-based indie-rapper Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis (with a chorus vocal assist from Wanz), does celebrate that act, but it does so with such an aggressively loopy sense of the absurdity of resisting mass consumer capitalism that it would be just as easy to argue that it is sending up the act of resistance as glorifying it. Macklemore has spoken about “Thrift Shop” as a parodic refutation of hip hop’s ostentatious displays of wealth. Instead of cruising in Escalades and luxury sedan while wearing expensive designer clothes, his joke is to don tacky second-hand clothing while riding scooters. As far as it goes, it’s a bit of a cheap joke (as was that joke). But the devil is in the details, and those are drawn out to quite hilarious lengths in the song and its accompanied video (embedded below). Batman onesie pyjamas? A broken keyboard? “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honky!” If you squint just a little, it looks uncannily like genius.

As a critique of the ills of consumerism, however, “Thrift Shop” is predicated on little more than bean-counting. What separates the $50 Gucci t-shirts Macklemore mocks from the 50 t-shirts he can get for $1 beyond a pricetag? The components of the consumption of style are not erased, merely substituted. The shopping mania is displaced from expensive items to cheaper ones, and not for the purposes of morally-upright frugality but rather to support even greater consumption. Macklemore and his associates are surrounded by stuff, just as the wealth-obsessed rappers he critiques are, and they seem to intend to purchase a great deal of it. Both the lyrics and the video that visualizes them constitute a litany of consumer goods to be possessed, albeit recycled ones. The argument over the nature of consumption becomes about minimizing cost and repurposing objects, rather than challenging the very terms of the capitalist social contract. The Value Village chic, as “Thrift Shop” expresses it, swaps consumer goods but not the underlying ideology of capitalist consumption.

In this way, “Thrift Shop” and its success exemplifies the oft-elided truth that the core conceit of the alternative culture is little more than cover for the very psychosis of consumption that it claims to be curing. Quite likely, a simple comedic rap tune cannot accomplish even a compromised overturning of any element of the consumer culture. Furthemore, Macklemore’s intention does not reach quite that far in the first place; he is satirizing one particular expression of capitalist excess in popular culture without any larger active designs on ideological insurgency. But in both its subject matter and its own path to prominence (independent release to YouTube sensation to Billboard #1 single), “Thrift Shop” embodies the so-called hipster counterculture’s subservience to more imposing and persistent capitalist imperatives.

Categories: Culture, Music

Retrospective Film Review: The Big Lebowski

March 24, 2013 3 comments

The Big Lebowski (1998; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

It seems hard to accept now, but when The Big Lebowski was released 15 years ago in March of 1998, most film observers did not know quite what to make of it. Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen had emerged from the indie fringes into Oscar-winning mainstream critical respectability two years before with the widely-praised snowbound Midwestern noir Fargo, and their peculiar appeal had expanded beyond their usual cadre of devoted cinephiles. But, ever their own idiosyncratic filmmaking beings, the Coens followed this acclaimed new American classic with a superficially meandering comedy set in the trashy sprawl of Los Angeles, starring Jeff Bridges as a bearded stoner in perpetual flip-flops who spends much of his time in a bowling alley (although, interestingly, we never see him bowl).

You can hear the confusion alongside a begrudging appreciation in Roger Ebert’s review of the film upon its release, chafing at the film’s disinclination to approach the aesthetic heights of Fargo but admitting that it’s “weirdly engaging” nonetheless. Although his later Great Movies retrospective skews closer to the accepted line of critical consensus on the cult classic status of Lebowski, the key tone is all in his initial response. “What is this,” Ebert and many others wondered, “and why do I find myself liking it so much?”

This, my own retrospective, approaches the first question rather than the second. It’s much more interesting, for my purposes, to consider a movie’s qualities and characteristics rather than speculate about or research why it resonates with viewers. Thinking about the first question, ideally, should address elements of the second.

So what is The Big Lebowski? It’s a comedy, surely, and a very funny and highly quotable one, if the multiple phrases from the screenplay now added to our popular lexicon are any indication. It’s also, structurally, a detective story, a sun-baked California twist (shot by Roger Deakins with cinematographic mastery that outstrips the casual material) on Raymond Chandler stories with Bridges’ laid-back but reasonable Dude as an accidental coastal-bum Philip Marlowe. This is acknowledged by a sweaty private investigator (Jon Polito) who recognizes the Dude as a “brother shamus” (“What, like an Irish monk?”) due to his deep implication in the ongoing intrigue. But what The Big Lebowski really adds up to through its invocation of the detective frame is a layered revelation of a culture of uncertainties, borrowings, and unreliability which can best be navigated with the detached, mellow, abiding attitude of the Dude.

Though Ebert states that the plot is not the point, the truth is that it is the point and it isn’t. Surely most movie-watching humans are aware by now that, upon the film’s commencement, the Dude returns to his L.A. apartment from bowling one night in late 1990 or early 1991, where he is accosted by a pair of thugs who tell him that his wife owes money to their employer. They proceed to pee on his rug, which troubles him because, of course, “It really tied the room together”, although soon after they realize it’s all a case of mistaken identity (“Does this place look like I’m fucking married?” the Dude ripostes. “The toilet seat’s up, man!”).

After hashing the incident out with his bowling buddies Walter Sobchak (the brilliant, alternately imposing and clownish John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi, who atones for his blabbermouth Fargo character by being told to shut up by Walter whenever he opens his mouth), the Dude elects to buttonhole the man the goons were really after, a self-important, wheelchair-bound millionaire (David Huddleston) named (like the Dude himself) Jeffrey Lebowski, for compensation. This decision gets the Dude embroiled in a baroque set of interlocking machinations involving this other Lebowski, his trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid in her greatest role), his Bohemian artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore, whose art is “strongly vaginal”), a smooth pornographer named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and a cadre of German nihilists (including Peter Stormare and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) who have a pet ferret, like pancakes and electronic music, and threaten to castrate the Dude. All this, and several White Russians and marijuana cigarettes are consumed as well.

For a film often critically ghettoized as a “stoner classic”, The Big Lebowski is rather fiendishly complicated. However, unlike Chandler stories, little or nothing is revealed by unraveling the various strands in Old Duder’s head. “They threw out a ringer for a ringer!” the Dude says when explaining a particular point in the byzantine kidnapping plot, and the entire detective plot is kind of like that: a ringer tossed out for a ringer. The nihilists are fond of repeating that they believe in nothing, and though that doesn’t apply to this movie, the sentiment resonates off of the surrounding fictive walls. But nonetheless, the narrative structure is fascinating, proceeding from one misunderstanding to the next in a string of almost accidental occurrences that are quite purposely connected.

Careful, there’s a beverage here, man!

The structure is artfully reflected by the dialogue, especially by that of the Dude, who hears and then repeats phrases, often incorrectly or gnomically, in later scenes. He overhears George H.W. Bush in a grocery store, saying of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (precipitating the contemporaneous Gulf War) that “this aggression will not stand”; he then uses these words to describe the urination on his rug and justify his response. “In the parlance of our times”, “vagina”, “Johnson”, and so on; language is recycled and repurposed, its meanings re-applied, shifting and never quite stable.

This theme even has a showpiece visual component in the memorable “Gutterballs” musical drug-fantasy sequence that follows the Dude being drugged by Treehorn at a party. Set to a bizarre Kenny Rogers psychedelic-period tune (and thus usefully instructing us all that Kenny Rogers had a psychedelic period), “Gutterballs” is a marvelous slice of Freudian dream-logic, repurposing details from earlier parts of the film all while suggesting exactly nothing of what is to come. Mingling Bubsy Berkeley choreography with porno references and bowling imagery (including two balls and a pin that evoke male genitalia), the scene also features Saddam Hussein handing out bowling shoes and overt castration anxiety in the form of the lycra-suited nihilists chasing our slacker hero with oversized scissors. Like the recurrence of slices of idiosyncratic language, the meanings of the imagery that crops up here are ambiguous and unresolved.

That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

This inherent sense of uncertainty to everything in The Big Lebowski is what makes Walter’s overriding self-confidence in his own rightness (“Am I wrong?”, he is fond of asking after the Dude doubts his 100% ironclad assertions) so comically rich in this context. Whether making analogies to Vietnam (“There’s no literal connection”), or dubbing the German nihilists Nazis (“They were threatening castration, are we gonna split hairs here?”) and anti-Semites, or, most famously, claiming that he can “get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon. With nail polish”, Walter is the rigid, self-aggrandizing operator to the Dude’s go-with-the-flow hippie bloviating. We all know someone like Walter, that uncle or co-worker or friend of a relative who is outspoken, opinionated, and utterly convinced in his role as a righteous bulwark against a ravenous society of vigorously-peddled bullshit. That he is at once recognizably universal and individualized (he takes care of his ex-wife’s dog while she vacations with her new beau, and has aggressively retained her Jewish faith despite their divorce) is a testament to Goodman’s performance and to the Coen’s writing.

But it’s Bridges’ Dude, like his rug, that ties this room together. Shambling through the movie with ineffable charm, it’s become Bridges’ signature role, and for good reason. The reality, mind you, is that the Dude does not “abide” as much as we’d like to think. He spends a good deal of the movie angry or alarmed at the circus of developments around him, reacting in the moment to the litany of people taking advantage of him with irritation. But he does evince an attractive approach to all of these violent Germans, manipulating artists, urinating Chinamen (“’Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, dude”), overreacting Vietnam vet security experts, moniker-doppelganger rich men and reactionary sheriffs.

“Don’t be fatuous,” Maude tells him when he makes a snide comment about a cheap porn flick that Bunny appears in. But how else should he react to the cavalcade of nonsense whirling about him but with bemusement, if not occasional, outright dismissal? The Coens construct a simulacrum of a chaotic universe that looks rather like our own in The Big Lebowski, and we are asked to laugh at it with them, taking the Dude’s reaction as our cue. If we take it easy for all the sinners out there, like the patron saint of Dudeism does, according to our cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott), then navigating the fragmented madness of modern life becomes less of a burden. Whether this is what audiences have reacted to over 15 years or not, this is what comes out most clearly from the film itself, and what brings me back to it time after time, at least.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Shine

March 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Shine (1996; Directed by Scott Hicks)

Geoffrey Rush busted out into a successful film career of owning every role he inhabits by absolutely owning the role of schizoaffective pianist David Helfgott in Shine, a role for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. The key to Rush’s wonderful performance is not the Academy-pleasing depiction of mental illness, but rather the repetitive bursts of creative cognizance that Rush is able to layer into his portrayal of the troubled Australian musical genius. His Helfgott’s speech patterns spiral into rapid-fire nervous outpourings of stream-of-consciousness mental and vocabulary associations. Rush keenly laces these verbal riffs with puns and sneaking wit, crafting them into the linguistic equivalent of his character’s virtuosic piano performances. Therein lies the sparkling brilliance of Rush’s performance, in the clever subtextual connections he painstakingly strings between Helfgott’s art and his illness.

Without its world-class central performance, however, Shine does not consistently live up to its title. Aussie director Scott Hicks’ workmanlike use of his camera makes for a biopic that cuts corners rather than leaving everything up there on the stage. The mid-film climax of Helfgott nearly destroying himself as he performs Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 is quite impressive work, but most of the rest of the film is mired in predictable convention. Well-executed and often quite touching convention, certainly, but convention nonetheless. Shine therefore finds itself suffering the fate of many such biopics that capture Oscar gold for a memorable lead performance but whose more general lack of quality denies them cinematic immortality (Ray, Capote, Crazy Heart, Scent of a Woman, one could go on, could one not?).

So. Geoffrey Rush? Pretty amazing. The rest of the film? Not so much.

Categories: Film, Reviews

March Madness: Corporate Spectacle and Controlled Cultural Insanity

March 19, 2013 1 comment

As we stumble past the ides of March for one more year, the calendar implies one major thing for sports fans of a certain stripe. The U.S. men’s college basketball championship tournament, popularly known as NCAA March Madness, is set to commence once more. Terms like “Cinderella” and “bracketology” and “Upset City” are being dusted off for another several thousand uses. The hoary old class-tinged dichotomies of power-conference giants versus plucky mid-majors have erected themselves once again (and are especially vehement this year, with once-underdogs Gonzaga receiving a #1 seed as one of the tournament top 4 squads). And on occasion, someone even has the temerity to suggest that the “amateur” college players should perhaps get a cut of the massive television and merchandising profits the NCAA earns with its championship tournament.

But let’s leave aside yearly roster specifics and financial grievances, bracket-filling-in and office-pooling, and get down to brass tacks about what makes March Madness quite possibly the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. The reason the tournament tends to lower nationwide productivity in American workplaces for its first four-day weekend (though perhaps not as much as usually stated) is that it is the most purely, viscerally entertaining showcase spectacle for not only the sport of basketball, but maybe for any American sport. This is not to say that March Madness is the world’s greatest sporting event, or the even the highest-level competition in its given sport (give the NBA Finals that much as least).

No, what makes it special is that, more than any other sporting extravaganza (even more than the Olympics or the World Cup), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament demands and responds to frenzied crowd cries of “Mach schau, mach schau!” The first weekend, comprising the opening and second rounds of the tournament and eventually reducing 68 competing schools’ teams to only 16, is relentless and overwhelming in its roundball drama, at least by reputation and often in reality too. The games run all day and night with naught but a brief afternoon break for supper and evening news, a cascade of dunks and three-pointers and blocks and dribble penetration that leaves a dedicated watcher dizzy and exhausting.

Yes, indeed. Rise… to buy overpriced sneakers.

It’s very tough to be a dedicated watcher in the work-a-day world, but even a brief escape into the realm of buzzer-beating jump shots, court-rushing teammates, and dejected opponents is exhilarating. Much is made of this dense concentration of drama (and avoiding mention of frequent early-round blowouts makes it seem all the greater), of agony and ecstasy and athletic prowess that makes sport an occasionally transcendent but just as often deeply human saga of unpredictable narrative and impressive spectacle.

Never mind that the truly important games don’t even happen until the second and especially third tournament weekend, where the teams are whittled down to the elite programs of future NBA stars, starters, and role players contending for the title. Even if the early games feature basketball of a lower quality (a charge that many NBA hegemons level at all of college ball), the sheer profusion of displays of the game tramples such objections time and again. March Madness features so much basketball that it’s impossible not to come across fine examples of the craft, even in small sample sizes.

March Madness, we can say, contains multitudes. Indeed, it feels as if the tournament’s mostly-irresistible appeal represents and summarizes not only what is great about basketball. It collapses all of sport’s notable characteristics into a focused and unforgiving beast of a competition that captivates just as it embodies all that is questionable about big-time corporate-supported athletic competition. The corporate sponsors and profit-swallowing university bodies rely on free labour, of course; as in college football, the echoes of slavery in a business where white men make millions off of the uncompensated physical effort of young black men are substantial. But they also activate the fundamental tribal allegiances and simmering resentments that animate all sports fandom in a potent way, via scholastic alumni loyalties. Even if one does not have a rooting interest in an alma mater or a rival school, the tournament allows for new favourites to be chosen, as teams that make it further into the competition gain followers gradually, like a snowballing Twitter account.

Whether looked at cynically or with wonderment or with some balanced middle-ground approach, March Madness is clearly an impressive and populist spectacle that encompasses hints of cultural attitudes and practices in a sporting context. But its most miraculous achievement is how little these calculi matter once the ball is tipped and the Madness sets in. However widespread the tournament’s appeal is or isn’t, one thing about it is clear: its Madness is ours, encouraging, reflecting, and complicating our views of it as it spirals into its particular strain of controlled athletic insanity. That’s what makes the tournament great, and keeps us fascinated.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

March 16, 2013 1 comment

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012; Directed by Benh Zeitlin)

The artistic reproduction of the terms of a stereotype, marginalizing though it can be, is often enough a necessary feature of the accurate representation of common lived experience. We do fervently hope that members of minority communities attempt and manage to overcome the archetypal representations that pigeonhole and ghettoize them, and that popular representations of this struggle make every effort to follow suit. But we must likewise be cognizant that despite our progressive utopian hopes to the contrary, oft-circulated stereotypes can just as surely apply as archetypes of cultural difference and distinctness. To assert this is not to absolve stereotypical representations of a negative nature, nor does it excuse “politically incorrect” discriminatory humour or commentary that enshrines these stereotypes as limiting absolutes or markers of inherent inferiority. But it does compel a qualified recognition that depicting certain specific subcultural elements need not be preconditioned by bigotry.

This might serve as a useful preamble to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a critically-acclaimed independent film with a moving, transcendent artistic vision built on a foundation of aesthetic stereotypes of African-Americans from the Deep South. Prominent African-American academic bell hooks (the lower-case is intentional, and pretentious) took the film to task for its reproduction of racially-coded gender archetypes, the associations it draws between poverty and the natural state, and (most ludicrously) its “eroticization” of its child star, the Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old during filming, nine years old now). What hooks fails to realize, and what a limited popular audience has encouragingly embraced, is that Beasts of the Southern Wild finds hope, redemption, and profound human connection in cultural qualities that can be cynically labeled as stereotypes.

Directed by Benh Zeitlin (though credited to his filmmaking collective Court 13) and based on a one-act play by Lucy Alibar (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin), Beasts has been labeled magic realism for its fanciful but gritty depiction of life in coastal Louisiana. Set in a waterlogged bayou community referred to as the Bathtub, the film is perhaps more properly generically titled a fantasy, although elements of magic realism and Southern gothic are certainly active as well. The naturalistic Wallis is the protagonist and narrator Hushpuppy, who dwells alongside her rough-edged father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub; they have separate houses since the death of the girl’s mother (shown in a brief, sexualized flashback, commemorated by her daughter with a ratty old Chicago Bulls jersey, and associated with fried crocodile meat).

Hushpuppy learns from her shaman-esque schoolteacher about climate change, melting ice caps, and other less-scientific whispers of impending doom for her community. She, Wink, and their rustic fellow Bathtubbers endure a fire, a furious storm and subsequent flood, relocation by a FEMA-like government agency, and life-threatening disease, all without losing their determination, loyalty to their home and their way of life, and essential sense of joy and happiness. It’s a self-evident, only slightly metaphorical representation of the region’s post-Katrina social reality, although it carries the current state of deprivation several degrees (or decades) further. The production design takes on a post-apocalyptic Mad Max­-style visual character, in particular with details like Wink’s fishing boat, which is crafted out of the rear box of a pickup truck.

Whimsically-fashioned mundanity aside, none of this evokes a genuinely fantastical element (indeed, it is all too real). The imaginative aspect is left to the foreboding intermittent sequences of aurochs, elephant-sized prehistoric wild boars (rather than the actual historic aurochs, a species of large cattle that went extinct in 17th Century Poland) that come unstuck from thawing polar ice and rampage through interstitial inserts, smashing edifices and tearing at unseen bodies. Their import remains mysterious until near the film’s conclusion, when they arrive in the wetlands of the Bathtub. The aurochs are juxtaposed with Hushpuppy and other determined children stampeding towards their homes; the children are constructed by this direct association as wild animals, surviving as the titular beasts in a natural, pre-civilization (or post-civilization, or extra-civilization) setting. Indeed, when the literal beasts come face-to-face with the figurative beast, they recognize her as one of their own, even bowing on their knees as if to a queen.

“I gotta take care of mine,” she tells them in her Louisianan patois. This is the core theme of Beasts of the Southern Wild: taking care of your people. This pervading and affecting sense of communality trumps academically-minded readings of the film as disseminating the discourse of marginalization. Hushpuppy narrates her fundamentally Gaian thoughts of the world as a delicately-balanced system of interrelations, where even the weakest, poorest, or least productive cogs in the complex machine are required in order to maintain homeostasis. This is a stance expressed not only in ecological but also in political and social terms. The Bathtub is cut off from the wider, wealthier world by a levee, and when it floods, Wink and his fellow residents blow a hole in this boundary to let the waters drain away. To allow for healing, divisions must be removed, forcibly if necessary. Beasts of the Southern Wild may contain superficial stereotypes, but just a bit deeper down, it’s a virtuosic cinematic argument for a responsible and compassionate society that provides and cares for those who need it the most, not because it makes us feel better, but because it simply makes us better.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, and the Partisan Diminishment of Sexual Assault

March 12, 2013 2 comments

How painful and irritating to be doing this again: Expending words and intellectual effort to explore the nuanced and implications of yet another embarrassing public controversy raging around Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Whatever one thinks of the man, his views, his affiliations, or his behaviour (and regular readers of mine shouldn’t be under any illusions about how little I think of all that), it can be generally agreed that his tenure as mayor of Canada’s largest city has been characterized by too many of these distracting media kerfuffles. As with most issues involving this divisive political figure (or, rather, a figure who feeds upon political division), each ideological camp blames the other for the litany of scandals.

The binary nature of the responses to Ford’s hiccups is usually irritating and counterproductive, but in this latest uproar has become more complex and troubling. Without getting into too much detail, the latest problem involves former left-leaning mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, who publically accused Mayor Ford of making a verbal pass at her and then groping her ass (to put things frankly) at a fundraiser function late last week.

An unflattering photo that will live in infamy.

Even before political or ideological considerations are factored in, complications abound. Thomson publicized the accusation on Facebook the night it purportedly happened and has thus far declined to press charges or involve the law in any way. There are also apparent inconsistencies and holes in the story, which has emerged as and is yet to move beyond the kind of vicious, unsatisfying he said/she said back-and-forth dispute that sexual harassment and assault cases too often constitute.

But the real complications come in after political and ideological considerations are factored in. The reaction to the story on both the right and the left has been riven by dynamics both pragmatically political/electoral and related to wider ideological convictions and undercurrents. For Ford’s loyal supporters on the city’s right wing, Thomson’s accusation is further confirmation of what is perceived as a vast, underhanded downtown pinko conspiracy to tear down the gravy-cutting mayor (can one cut gravy? If so, how? Presumably only once it has congealed). This plays neatly into the siege mentality of comfortable suburban conservatives that Ford has so astutely and cynically exploited for electoral gain, as social victimizers of minorities and the poor imagine themselves to be the victimized when their excessive share of social wealth and privilege is mildly threatened.

As much as the aggrieved reaction on the right has sprung from a partisan defence of their tribal champion, the nature of many of the reactions to Thomson’s public charges has laid bare an ugly, misogynist sore of anti-feminism that has long festered underneath the scrubbed façade of conservative rhetoric, alongside racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian assumptions on the nature of power. Thomson, we’ve been told (mostly on the fever swamp of right-wing talk radio, so I have heard), is doing this all for political or financial gain, just wants attention, is on a vendetta against political opponent Ford, is fabricating the incident, is hysterical, and is simultaneously overreacting (“Big girls keep quiet,” was a phrase I read being used, painfully without irony) and underreacting (much has been made of her unwillingness thus far to go to the police, as if the same people criticizing her for not doing so would not criticize her for going too far if she did).

That lazy, ubiquitous scandal suffix is surely Richard Nixon’s most lamentable legacy.

Such rhetoric hardens the resolve of Thomson’s supporters on the progressive side of the issue, so reflective is it of the standard negative responses to such challenges to what is known as “the rape culture” (perhaps better calibrated as “the sexual assault culture” in this specific case, to evade hyperbole). The progressive feminist imperative to expose and root out instances of harassment and assault of women and to give the whistleblowers the requisite level of serious public support is important and, indeed, praiseworthy. But it may likewise meld into the popular distaste for Ford felt on the left and the effort to oppose and undermine his attempts to impose the sort of conservative policies he has espoused since his election. All of these partisan elements may also have a tendency to trample legitimate rational doubts about Thomson’s story and/or motivations in leveling such serious accusations, it must be said.

Saying any of this does not commit one invariably to a position on this incident, the truth of which may never be known for certain and the furour around which will likely continue to drag all the operative issues at hand through the mud. Such is the Toronto political scene in the Years of Our Ford, however, the cleavages and bitterness pre-dating even the current mayor and likely to outlast him as well. With more potential legal issues looming for Rob Ford, conservatives may be heard to lament yet another bump in his road, wondering why liberals won’t just leave him alone. The best answer is that it would be foolish for Ford’s opponents to leave him alone, since he does not seem to intend to leave them alone. Indeed, his entire tenure as mayor has been less about solving glaring civic problems than it has been about assaulting and wearing down as many of the city’s existing liberal policies and conventions as possible, as aggressively as possible.

None of this, of course, is terribly new, hence the nascent malaise over having to write yet another post about Rob Ford’s buffoonery. What is new, and not at all something to be happy about, is that the always-contentious issue of sexual assault, which inflames so many popular passions and is responded to with such harmful and hurtful notions, has been raised in relation to Toronto’s divisive mayor. Feminists and other sympathetic advocates for a deep-seated culture change in the social stigmas around sexual assault and harassment have a difficult-enough job disseminating awareness of the crime and its related structure of excuses, labels, and insinuations without running smack into the immovable wall of reactionary opinion that is Ford Nation. Perhaps the left can pledge to leave Rob Ford alone when he agrees to leave intricate and thorny social issues like this one alone. Neither option seems probable.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Marjoe

March 11, 2013 1 comment

Marjoe (1972; Directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan)

As his father relates in a later portion of this documentary film, Marjoe Gortner comes from a long line of preachers. But merely continuing the family business does not have quite enough aura to it. No, Gortner, Sr. tells a prayer meeting crowd that his prized preaching son was singled out by the Lord himself (while taking a bath, no less) to save souls as a Pentecostal revival preacher. He was chosen, and at the tender age of 3 ½ years.

Chosen he may have been, but as Marjoe (his odd name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph, the mortal parents of Jesus) tells it in the Best Documentary Feature of 1972 (per the Academy), there was nothing divine about his being marked for this calling. Famous in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a child preacher whose flamboyant verbosity in the name of Jesus belied his kindergartener appearance, Marjoe raked in what he estimates to be $3 million for his parents (who never gave him any of it, he claims) from gullible believers.

The boy evidently never believed a word of the fire-and-brimstone nonsense he had been drilled by his ambitious and pious parents to memorize, and rebelled against their vision for him in his late teens (the act’s novelty had also begun to dry up, and the meeting bookings did as well). The Marjoe Gortner who speaks to the production crew in a hotel room at the beginning of the film comes across as a standard hippie golden-boy, his curly blond locks, beanpole frame, and handsome confidence suggesting both a lankier Owen Wilson and Roger Daltrey in the Tommy film era.

Like Tommy, Marjoe offers a critique of charismatic religious leaders, but does so from the inside. Struggling in other career efforts as a young adult, Marjoe returns to the ministry in order to make money. The money, he finds, is pretty good; the Pentecostal faithful are quite willing to part with their dollar bills (and their $10s and $20s and higher denominations, too) for a preacher of any skill, and the skilled Gortner (who steals hip-jabbing stage moves from Mick Jagger) giddily counts out a pile of cash in a hotel room for the camera. Smith and Kernochan’s lens is repeatedly drawn to other preachers and ministry functionaries with fistfuls of dollars as well; subtle, it ain’t, but there’s little question that, to whatever extent it is or isn’t about the faith, the business is certainly about the money.

That the film shows all of this should make it pretty clear that Marjoe Gortner is not long for the Pentecostal ministry circuit. Indeed, Marjoe is his kiss-off exposé of what he views as the disingenuous crookedness and greed of this influential corner of American religion at the very least. If we are more familiar now with the racket that is evangelical revivalism, then it’s because a new generation of oily televangelist salesman have been busted with a hand in the holy cookie jar (or worse, in some cases). Marjoe offers what must have been a striking glimpse into a then-largely-unknown and little understood subculture. With the relentless sermons on salvation and damnation, the speaking in tongues, and the hand-laying healing of believers, it’s a bizarre portrait, even if we feel like we know it all well enough by now.

But Marjoe is not just a depiction of the Pentecostal faith; it’s a depiction of a well-paid conman in its midst. It is possible, with a comfortable acceptance of cognitively dissonance, to find the terms and the expression of belief in the ministry to be fantastically wacko while also feeling a little uncomfortable with how Marjoe Gortner exploits that wacko nature for his own financial gain.

Marjoe himself was quite uncomfortable with it, to be fair, which is why he decided to get out, and with this parting bang of a documentary, too. Exposing his deceitful career in the ministry was no guarantee of other such shysters being likewise exposed, nor of the basis of belief in the church being undermined. No one can begrudge his decision to end the charade and get out (although his father does not seem aware of his son’s lack of religious dedication when he introduces him at the aforementioned meeting). But one can begrudge Marjoe Gortner’s willingness to carry the charade on in the first place, and this can be the source of some viewer discomfort in what is otherwise a fascinating and insightful document of an enthusiastic religious movement.

Note: Russian subtitles aside, this is the full film on Youtube, with sound in English.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks: Intellectual Distance and Emotional Ruminations

One of the things most worth appreciating about American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is his considered, thoughtful tone. Ritter has been criticized for the impeccable, highly-crafted composure of his songs and their surrounding production on repeated occasions by the indie-cred gatekeepers at Pitchfork, who place inordinate value upon the appearance of rough-around-the-edges spontaneity that animates fashionable music in our present moment. This purported unconscious artlessness, of course, is no less constructed than Ritter’s conscious artfulness, but the fundamental assumptions of the subculture must of necessity be preserved and left unchallenged, bogus though they may be.

Circling back to our subject, however, we must note that Josh Ritter’s craftsmanship when forming albums of songs mirrors that of a novelist (which he also is). He and his collaborators edit, shape, and discard themes, ideas, feelings, and other artistic elements as if whittling away at drafts of a manuscript. This is the process of all artistic creation, of course, whatever its fuzzier appeals to more ephemeral muses. But Ritter’s final product shows a polish, a complexity, and a style of folk song poetry that aligns it closely with literary releases.

In the past, on his finest records like The Animal Years and So Runs the World Away, Ritter has applied his rich and nuanced songwriting skills to macrocosmic American themes of politics, religion, science, landscapes, and the permeable, unstable boundaries of history. What he has not always applied it to (and this is perhaps more what irks critics like those in Pitchfork’s employ) is his own life, experiences, and emotions. His youthful work displayed some lovely but clearly removed reminiscences of small-town experience (“Me & Jiggs”, “Kathleen”), certainly; and finely-detailed tragic love songs like “The Temptation of Adam” and “The Curse” may well have transmuted personal heart pangs into evocative metaphors. All these songs are undoubtedly touching, despite their crafted nature.

But Ritter has undeniably come to prefer the perspective of the intellectually-involved observer to that of the emotionally-enmeshed confessor (which was never a big part of his repertoire anyway). His greatest composition, The Animal Years’ mighty epic “Thin Blue Flame”, was conceived of as a modern American Dante’s Inferno, a floating dream of love, hate, faith, and disbelief. In the song, Ritter’s narrator looked down on a wide sweep of hope and failure and beauty and cruelty with ruthless clarity, but always already as viewed from a safe distance above, as if peeking over the cusp of a lofty cloud; there is something of Peter Brueghel in this vantage point, overwhelming and impressing us with human and natural detail but remaining at a safe, bemused remove from its muddy implications. One gets used to referring to Ritter’s voice as that of a narrator, rather than belonging to himself.

Josh-Ritter-The-Beast-in-Its-TracksThis is not a problem on The Beast in Its Tracks, Ritter’s latest album and his characteristically meticulous examination of the end of his marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes. There is zero doubt that the subject matter concerns an intensely personal emotional hurt felt by one Josh Ritter, folk singer, rather than by some fictionalized version of himself. Yet Ritter has carved out a niche as a measured, careful writer, and Beast is written from that niche as much as his wider-focused previous work was. As infused with melancholy as songs like “A Certain Light”, “Bonfire”, and “Lights” are, there is both a complex thoughtfulness and an inescapable smile lurking behind the pain, and indeed mostly overtaking it. Even “Nightmares”, with its mildly Boschian invocations of unconscious Hell imagery, has a skip in its acoustic step.

Even a broken heart cannot compel Ritter to discard joy or fairness or rationality; the charming, shuffling lead single “Joy to You Baby” is an admirably magnanimous statement of his essential positive outlook. By his admission in interviews, his songs on the subject for the album were written not from inside the impact zone of the immediate sting of his divorce but from a distance that has allowed for healing, contemplation, forgiveness, and a rejuvenating romance with another.

Most of these stages, feelings, and developments are alluded to, explored, and complicated in the album’s best cut, “New Lover”. “There are things I will not sing for the sting of sour notes”, Ritter sings in the first stanza, and the album is mostly free from recriminations or angry jabs. But in the space of the same song, Ritter show that even he can’t always resist the meaner impulses that come with heartbreak, reluctantly acknowledging that at its sharp conclusion that if his former lover was lonely and loveless, “I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy, too”.

The Beast in Its Tracks, though not as properly superb a record as his more literary folk efforts, is perhaps a stronger statement of Josh Ritter’s considerable ability as a musical conjurer of tone and emotion than anything he’s done. It re-contextualizes the tired and often bitter pop music mainstay of the breakup album, introducing a tone of calm rumination to a genre of songs that tends towards accusatory absolutes while acknowledging the contradictory emotional and mental push and pull of a romance on the rocks. Even with his heart worn quite evidently on his sleeve, Josh Ritter pays great heed to the needlework on his musical garments. As if his devotees would have expected anything less from him.

Categories: Literature, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Django Unchained

March 5, 2013 1 comment

Django Unchained (2012; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus is a companion pieces to dozens of other movies, simultaneously. It is most proximally a companion piece to the stylish, stark, and violent spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and directly references Sergio Corbucci’s notable genre entry Django. It is next a companion piece to Tarantino’s previous film, the densely cinematic, sneakily brilliant Nazi revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, which reduced almost unintelligible historical traumas to a series of action-movie paybacks and prominently featured a then-unknown Austrian-German actor named Christoph Waltz as a voluble but dangerous hunter of fugitives. And it is finally a companion piece to 2012’s two other prominent films about the Civil War era, Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, sharing the former’s steely spine of moral repugnance at the thought of slavery and the latter’s vividly gory vision of the institution as one whose sustaining brutality requires usurping brutality in response.

But Django Unchained renders the contradictions and horrors of the slave system of the antebellum South as an inflated cartoon, and not in a beneficial way. I wrote a Master’s thesis once, in the shady depths of an abortive academic past, which argued in part that employing the emphasized surreality of the cartoon could serve as a form of amplification through simplification, pushing certain key elements of history to the fore in a way that conventional representation does not.

This seems to be Tarantino’s intended effect in Django, as it was (much more successfully) in Inglourious Basterds. But this time, his treatment of a much thornier and less acknowledged instance of large-scale social darkness comes out of the tail end of his complex cinematic machine of referential intertextuality, theatrical verbiage, comic tableaus, and excessive ultra-violence as a mistimed joke. What saved Inglourious Basterds from a similar self-parodic misfire was the intensive program of mass-culture denazification that has thoroughly repudiated nearly every dangerous implication of the National Socialist ideology. This was a historicizing process largely accomplished post-war through film, as Tarantino proved to be well aware, and his film reflected this fact with the imaginary mass extermination of Party grandees in a cinema-turned-incinerator at its climax. Essentially, the destruction of Nazism was a fait accompli, and Tarantino was just piling on, cinematically speaking.

But even if slavery is long abolished in America and widely acknowledged as a Very Bad Thing Indeed, it is hardly a revelation that the ideological basis and tribal-regional identification that animated it is far from buried. This has proven especially true in a contemporary United States in which the first African-American President has been vilified in terms both deeply ideological and troublingly racially-coded. Django Unchained, alongside the more serious-of-purpose Lincoln, was greeted critically as a prestigious strike against the persistent zombie beliefs of Lost Cause revisionism. In one fell cinematic swoop (or perhaps two), we were told, these films were correcting the historic imbalance of Hollywood classics like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind that evinced an unfortunate bias towards Neo-Confederate sentiment. Lengthy silence from the movies on the subject of the Lost Cause was to be swept away by a newly-robust burst of liberal sabre-rattling, emboldened by Barack Obama’s progressive ascendency.

I have touched on the ways that Lincoln does and does not fit this characterization. But for all of its demonstratively rebellious black-on-white aggression (“Reparation this, bitch!”), Django Unchained is in some ways more a reflection of benevolent but paternalistic white uplift of the African-American oppressed than even Spielberg produces. The titular slave badass of few words (a commanding, swaggering Jamie Foxx) is bought, freed, and trained for vengeance, after all, by a relatively-enlightened white European, Dr. King Schultz (Waltz, copping his own charming Basterds turn and being rewarded richly for it once again).

I appear to have become soiled with the plasmatic excretions of some unfortunate wretch. I would be much obliged by the loan of your kerchief, sir.

Although masquerading as a dentist, the verbose Schultz is a bounty hunter (going after nothing but nasty white men, where most who practiced his occupation in the antebellum period would have been capturing escaped slaves, most likely), and requires Django to identify a gang of targets that were his overseers at a previous plantation. Impressed by Django’s acumen with a firearm and boundless taste for retribution against slavers, Schultz takes him on as an apprentice in his craft. As they collect wanted corpses and the resulting cash rewards over a winter in the West, Schultz learns of Django’s still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and promises to help to extract her from the clutches of her owner in Mississippi.

This owner, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes across as a Southern dandy at first, but reveals a vicious streak (and a white-supremacist interest in phrenology) when Schultz’s dissembling scheme to buy Broomhilda arouses his suspicions, or rather those of his devoted but whip-tongued senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Perhaps I ought to preface the revelation that their conflict results in a bloodbath of Peckinpah-esque proportions with a spoiler warning, but come now. This is Tarantino, people. Surely by now you know full well that the bloodbath is coming.

So, yes, there are gallons of goopily-spurting human bean-juice (seriously, these slave-owners and their minions are chocked full of the stuff, like engorged mosquitoes), “cool” homage shots, and precisely-chosen soundtrack cuts (plenty of Leone’s master composer Ennio Morricone, as well as some hip-hop and Johnny Cash). Tarantino, as always, lays out his core points in lecturing dialogue scenes, and two in particular encapsulate his basic point on slavery and his chosen response to its moral repugnance.

Candie’s aforementioned phrenological white supremacy is expressed in a nuanced, threatening soliloquy, accompanied by the skull of Stephen’s domestic predecessor, a hacksaw, and a hammer. The brutal arrogance at the heart of the slave system is imparted memorably by DiCaprio, at least until the implicit threat in his words becomes disappointingly explicit. This scene makes it clear that the issue isn’t that Tarantino doesn’t grasp what makes slavery such an important offence in American (and human) history; he grasps it, all right, but then tightens and squeezes his grip on it until it’s ready to burst.

An earlier scene between Schultz and Django truly summarizes the core values of Django Unchained, however. Pointing his rifle at a bounty target pushing a plow, Django hesitates when he notices that the man’s son is nearby. Schultz tramples over the human objections of his pupil; this is a bad man, a stagecoach robber and murderer, and we can gain by shooting him. “This is what I do”, Schultz tells him. “I kill people and sell their corpses for cash.”

King Schultz, in this way, is not much more righteous than Calvin J. Candie: both profit from a trade in human flesh, and the ethical distinction between the two men is only razor-thin. But like Schultz, Tarantino blusters his way towards the painless ethical trump card of bloody revenge in Django Unchained. There are deeper and more difficult problems inherent to the trauma of slavery than can be simply killed away, and this is not a film that is able to face up to them with regularity. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as they say, and this outing sees Tarantino’s formidable filmmaker’s eye blinded by the easy promise of righteous anger.

Categories: Film, History, Politics