Archive

Archive for April, 2013

Tempered Hopes, Deferred Glories: Your 2012-2013 Edmonton Oilers

April 29, 2013 1 comment

The Edmonton Oilers’ shortened NHL season ended on Saturday night with an impressive 7-2 win (albeit in an essentially meaningless game) over the Vancouver Canucks. Though some improvement in standings positioning was shown from previous seasons (24th is undeniably better than 29th or 30th), another finish out of playoff position (seven years running now, longest streak of spring futility in the league now that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the postseason) was undoubtedly disappointing for a fanbase led to expect a more competitive team.

There were consequences for management, as GM Steve Tambellini was let go before season’s end and replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish. There was also a note of challenge from the usually sycophantic Edmonton sports media to the sheltered upper management, as President Kevin Lowe (often understood to be the true mover behind the annual inadequate roster) was grilled over the team’s lack of success in a surprising press conference announcing MacTavish’s promotion to general manager. Lowe’s thin-skinned reaction to criticism later required a contrite apology, but also demonstrated that his intolerance for dissenting views may be part of the problem for the organization.

MacT doesn’t get a banner backdrop? Setting him up to fail already!

Still, this was another season lost, and though the Oilers’ talented core is young and learning, valuable years are draining off of contracts and frustration is building. In particular, hyper-competitive franchise player Taylor Hall seemed irritated with the trend of losing. Considering his emergence as a legitimate play-driving superstar this season, Hall is one player the organization cannot afford to allow to become malcontent. The fans, dedicated though they are, are not blessed with infinite patience either. Not to put too fine a point on it, but winning needs to happen for this team soon.

In terms more aesthetic, there was plenty to latch onto in the Oilers orbit this year. On multiple occasions, the offensive miracles that their cadre of stellar young forwards were capable of came to the fore and lopsided scores (including a satisfying 8-2 lashing of the archrival Calgary Flames) were the result. Hall, as mentioned, learned to “push the river”, as blogger Lowetide puts it, Jordan Eberle came down to earth a bit from a positive outlier season but still showed sublime hands and accuracy, Magnus Paajarvi made major strides towards fulfilling his potential, and Justin Schultz’s blueline learning curve was neither as steep or as shallow as variously predicted.

But you really had to not be paying attention to the Oilers if the running highlight of the truncated season was not infectious rookie Nail Yakupov. While the sea change that I hinted he may portend at the start of the season has not arrived, Yakupov’s joyful celebrations and swaggering play (which improved as the season wore on and included 11 goals in the last month of the schedule) won over the mid-sized northern Canadian city that found itself doubting the kid earlier in the season. As he finished off a hat trick in the final win over the Canucks and moved into a likely Calder trophy finalist position, it was clear that Nail Yakupov, though only a part of the future of an Oilers team that remains tremendously promising but tantalizingly lacking in tangible glories, was much closer to being ready to snatch the spotlight. The bigger triumphs for this team were disappointingly deferred for another season, but the game-by-game delights increased, and the enthusiastic Yakupov was front-and-centre in providing them. Long may they continue and grow.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: Ratatouille

April 27, 2013 1 comment

Ratatouille (2007; Directed by Brad Bird)

Let’s get the utterly obvious out of the way: Brad Bird is a filmmaking genius. The proof is in the pudding (pun intended), and the glorious, inspiring, appetizing, and strangely touching Ratatouille is most definitely the pudding. It’s also a spirited animated metaphor for the possibilities of climbing the social ladder and self-improvement inherent to democracy, at least at its ideal pinnacle.

What sets Bird’s films apart from Pixar’s usual animated delights is not only his astoundingly well-tuned visual senses but the way his scripts enfold larger, more challenging themes than most live-action films even bother with, and deal with them in ways that are never ham-handed or one-dimensional. The legendary Terry Gilliam (who, for all of his gifts, must wish he had Brad Bird’s unfailing sense of cinematic unity) said in an interview a few years ago that “all the really good political movies now are animated films”, and Bird’s films prove him largely right. The Iron Giant and The Incredibles were, in their own ways, conflicted discussions on the nature of democracy. The Iron Giant brought McCarthy-era Cold War paranoia and arms-race militarism face to face with liberal-humanist empathy and walked away with one of most resonant parables for pacifism ever committed to celluloid. The Incredibles considered the mutant exceptionalism of superheroes not as an existential threat to democratic social balance by Nietzschean Übermensch, but as an extension of the encouragement of individualism and personal fulfillment. It also suggested, subtly, that healthier elites would do well to find common ground with the masses they tend to hold themselves above (recall Dash slowing his pace in the track meet near the conclusion).

I suppose Ratatouille is a similarly-couched meditation, though it’s perhaps more universal than that (and of course more entertaining and involving than such an assessment makes it sound). In fact, it’s one of the sharpest parables about class ever told in the cinema, made all the sharper for its setting in the gastronomic milieu of Paris, the clearest example of strict social demarcation in a French society full of such examples. Remy’s passion for fine cuisine and his extreme edification of fictional master chef Auguste Gusteau’s aphorism that “anyone can cook” is no lesser for his being a common rat. In a cartoon instance of amplification through simplification, the socioeconomic assumptions at the the heart of haute cuisine are made starker by being based in a division of species rather than of class. The divisions are also generational, as Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) struggles not only with the doubts of his human proxy Linguini (Lou Romano) but also of his father (Brian Dennehy) and the rest of his rat clan.

But Ratatouille is about how talent and creativity can break the chains of the social hierarchy, how ability can trump pre-determined circumstances. If this is the stuff of progressive post-hippie meritocratic fantasies, then Bird manages to redeem its often-counter-productive naivety. The film sums up this sumptuous potential exquisitely (and vaults over Bird’s previous work) in one climactic moment: the withering, cynical, stork-like Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) tasting Remy’s ratatouille.

The caustic restaurant critic’s arc is somewhat obvious, but the moment of his conversion touches in a profound place. This gastronomic epiphany enshrines the sensual, primal, connective power of food, its ability to transcend prejudices and pre-conceived notions and tap deep wells of emotional memory. In the species of empathy activated in Ego (which allows him to overcome his ego) lies the kernels of tolerance and equality, and the essence of the democratic ideal (rarely approached though that ideal may be in actual democratic society). The scene is the defining moment of a fine film that also transcends assumptions, a classic of the animated form as much for its thematic resonance as for its technical and entertainment achievements.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Man on Wire

April 24, 2013 1 comment

Man on Wire (2008; Directed by James Marsh)

James Marsh’s sublime documentary – a heady mix of archival footage, seamless re-creations, heist-film editing, superb score, and lively talking-head interviews – is a giddy joy of a film. The effusive Gallic charm of high-wire artist Phillippe Petit lifts it beyond the staid, earth-bound confines of most docs, and imbues it with a playful beauty.

Petit made his name with a series of guerrilla wire-walkings in the early 1970s, wherein he and his band of mischievous bohemian collaborators steal into lofty premises and set up the tightrope without being noticed before Petit is loosed on his unique public stage. Though he never details his motives for springing these sorts of high-wire acts on the public rather than getting proper official approval, it’s evident that Petit enjoys the performance-art spontaneity of the surprise for his impromptu audiences, as well as the convenience of bypass the considerable insurance and safety hurdles that would doubtlessly accompany official sanction. These circus capers began with Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral before Petit moved on to the more ambitious crossing of the towers of the Sydney Tower Bridge. Usually the authorities perform their duty and arrest Petit when he comes down from his artistic perch in the sky (wherever he is, he’s breaking some law or other), but charges are rarely forthcoming. The beguiling daring of his high-wire enterprises overwhelm laws and bureaucracy as well as the basest cynicism. They are, in a word, magical.

None of them managed to be more magical than his spanning of and performing in the gap between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in August 1974, then newly-opened and the tallest buildings in the world. Petit and his team’s ballsy plan to carry off the surprise performance is the focus of Marsh’s film. A celebrated story at the time, Petit’s act has gained added resonance since 9/11 deprived the world of his ultimate high-wire muses. Rather smartly, Marsh allows no mention of the disaster in the text of the film itself. It celebrates instead the first moment that the forbidding behemoths of steel and concrete became symbols of something more transcendent, without clouding that transcendence with the last moments that they became symbols of something much more sinister.

Man on Wire‘s silence on the cataclysm that made a repeat of Petit’s feat impossible is completely fair: this is not a mournful film, but a celebratory one. It remembers fondly, but does not grieve; it’s a wake rather than a dour funeral. But its silence relies on a sharp, tragic knowledge of the ultimate fate of Phillippe Petit’s greatest high-wire stage to deepen its pathos. Man on Wire provides no eulogy for the World Trade Center; it’s more of a happy anecdote of finer days, told in the after-service glow of alcohol and kindly reminiscence. Marsh and Petit realize that the wire walk is not how the buildings will ultimately be remembered, as darker forces have asserted themselves on that particular segment of memory. But it’s how they wish to remember the buildings, and their documentary is persuasive enough to make us want to remember them that way as well.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Authoritarian Impulse in America

April 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Since Monday afternoon, when two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring 183 more, one of America’s great cities and the whole nation and much of the world beyond has been fixated on the unfolding aftermath of what can only be labeled a terrorist attack. As details about the methods of the act and eventually information about the suspects trickled in over the course of the week, it fed not a sense of healing and calm but an edgy mass anxiety tinged with the sting of popular mourning. It certainly could not help that another mid-week large-scale disaster, the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant near West, Texas, added to the tragic public mood.

This low simmer of unease rolled rapidly into a violent boil of renewed, sustained terror late Thursday night. Late that night and into the early morning hours of Friday, the recently-revealed bombing suspects (and brothers) Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shot and killed a MIT campus police officer, engaged in a major gun-and-explosives battle with police that left the elder Tamerlan dead, and touched off a tense, overwhelming city-wide manhunt that saw all of Boston locked down and, by 9 pm on Friday, the younger Dzhokhar arrested by the authorities. All of this was reported breathlessly by both traditional television as well as online media, minute-by-minute.

It was fascinating to watch events unfold and reactions unfold with them on real time on social media. The online community was both more timely in disseminating and interpreting the deluge of information on the day of the bombing and of the manhunt than the old media (even cable news, where usual reliable mainstay CNN did not precisely cover itself in glory) and less responsible and certain in this dissemination. Nothing new and exciting emerged about the relative current affairs potential (and pitfalls) of web communities like Twitter or Reddit that we did not basically know before, and if anything was revealed it was how well certain hoary old media giants have adapted to the new formats as opposed to others (the Boston Globe’s Twitter feed was indispensible; their reports were far out ahead of other outlets, and usually proven right in the end).

Beyond the standard analysis of media coverage, however, the events of this past week in the Boston area carried grimmer implications for the American political and social order. The overwhelming force of the ever-growing national-security-complex-enabled police state was out in full force in Boston, as a major U.S. city was completely locked down for the better part of a day due to a single teenager with a gun (who turned out to be grievously injured and sheltering in a boat in someone’s backyard all that time). Coming at the end of a week in which major new gun-control legislation was defeated in Congress, the applicability of the situation to these events was not lost on gun-control advocates.

Nor was the heavy-handed invocation of public safety measures as an excuse to curb constitutional freedoms (of Boston-metropolitan residents as well as of Chechen-descended, Kyrgyzstan-born American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was not read his Miranda rights despite a Department of Justice indication that criminal courts will handle his case) in the name of security lost on civil liberties defenders, of which Glenn Greenwald is the most imperiously vocal. It isn’t simply that constitutional rights or the rule of law are suspended in the face of terrorism (domestic though it may be) and a resulting atmosphere of fear. Nor is it that a vindictive jingoism (the bullheaded “USA” chant erupted in the streets when the living suspect’s capture went public) and xenophobic persecution (a Muslim woman and her child were bullied in public in the city’s suburbs in response to the events) are the most fundamental reactions to any threat in post-War-on-Terror-era America (to say nothing of geographical ignorance; many angry “Real Americans” wanted military action against the Czech Republic once the suspects’ ethnic backgrounds were made public, mistaking the Central European democracy for Central Asian Russian breakaway state Chechnya).

What the Boston Marathon bombings, the hunt for its suspects, and the undercurrent of authoritarianism of the entire exercise has shown is that America has changed deeply in the decade-plus since the 9/11. Or, perhaps, certain darker, more oppressive elements in its national character have simply come out more strongly and inevitably than before. How the justice system and the wider public approaches the denouement of these events will go a long way towards suggesting whether or not the authoritarian impulse is ascendant in American life, or if a civil society can still be reconciled with widespread anxiety over terrorist threats.

Simon Winchester and the Gap in the Middle of “A Crack in the Edge of the World”

April 17, 2013 1 comment

English author, journalist, and geologist Simon Winchester is a tremendously knowledgeable and voluble writer with an evident passion to share that knowledge and volubility with as many readers as possible. Perhaps relatedly, he is also an inherently distracted, unbearably long-winded, and mostly insufferable non-fiction scribe. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 should be so much more fascinating a read than it actually ends up being, especially given its author’s experience as a travel writer, scholarly historian, and geologist. Winchester should be unique adapted to impart a multifarious perspective on one of the largest and most influential disasters in American history, explicating the earth science behind the 1906 San Francisco quake, delving into the rich historical record of players and circumstances in the galvanizing events, and providing a first-hand traveller’s view of how California is made by its geological profile into a place that is both irresistible and dangerous.

Winchester should be able to give us this, but he doesn’t. A Crack in the Edge of the World is a meandering bore of a book, only occasionally coalescing into the kind of absorbing account that the memorable event deserves. His book opens with eyewitness accounts of the earth-shaking moment from various figures, including geological grandee Grove Karl Gilbert, as if he intends to revisit their experiences as recurring characters in an in-depth portrayal of the quake. We never, however, hear from them again. Winchester then embarks on a detailed but unfocused history of geology, which includes his trek across the North American plate, from Iceland through various quake sites in the Eastern and Midwestern United States to California and eventually up to Alaska.

Matters crystallize into more involving prose when, after 200 often-painful pages of geology and traveloguery, he at last arrives in the city by the bay and lets the indulgent eccentricity drop away in favour of riveting history of destruction, reaction, and recovery in the great city of the wild turn-of-the-century American West. When he allows his runaway attention to become fixed on a historical event of such evident drama and interest, Winchester’s book is at its best. Even in these most enjoyable chapters, A Crack in the Edge of the World can’t hold its focus quite long enough, hopping from one major figure in the quake story to another, never quite providing more than a sketch of people like Arnold Genthe, whose iconic photographs of the disaster brought its effects to the wider world, or Brigadier General Frederick Funston and Mayor Eugene Schmitz, highly-flawed figures in public life who rose unquestionably to the occasion when presented with a major crisis.

More of a handicap than the book’s uneven nature, however, are the very frequent moments when a dubious assertion, a head-scratching metaphor or analogy, a shameless instance of self-promotion, or a simple, fixable error crops up in the text. One can collect and display examples like a Victorian amateur scientist collects and displays natural specimens. Winchester refers to Ungava as being in “Western Canada” when it is rather clearly a region of northern Quebec. In discussing the reaction of insurance companies to the great quake, he credits them as catalysts for great progressive social reforms when their role seems more commensurate with the financial firming-up of such changes already in place. He calls the businesses destroyed in a series of quakes around New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812 “priceless” (would a business not, by its very definitional nature, necessarily have a price?) and later compares Midwestern strip malls to Conestoga wagons with apparent serious intent.

Winchester’s greatest single unsubstantiated claim may be attributing the explosive growth of the American Pentecostal movement to the earthquake almost exclusively, as it was the first great disaster that the charismatic fundamentalists were able to ascribe solely to God’s wrath at the sinfulness of mankind. The church’s founding and exponential growth before (and well after) the 1906 event is of no concern; the quake is what really animated it, he tells us, though it’s not clear how. In an indelibly smarmy and disingenuous moment, he even pretends to cast doubt on this assertion by comparing it to a similarly controversial theory that the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 strengthened and inspired fundamentalist Islamic groups. What he doesn’t think it worth stating is that this particular theory is presented by him in his own book on the subject, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded.

Some of the quake-centric moments aside, then, A Crack in the Edge of the World becomes caught up in many of Winchester’s most irritating habits as a non-fiction scribe. It’s a bit lucky, really, that it wasn’t caught up in more of that than it is; brief mentions are made of his 1980s travel quest to visit every American town named Paradise (what a skull-softening read that would have been), and he also nerdily lists the locations of various worldwide seismographs that recorded the disturbance caused by the quake in alphabetical order. And he never does get around that telling us much at all about the “America” promised in the subtitle except from a geological perspective (which is maybe what he meant by it all along). It’s all too bad, really. Simon Winchester has a truly earth-shaking subject on his hands, but he can’t seem to get himself and his problematic tendencies out of its way.

Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

April 14, 2013 1 comment

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006; Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)

Like all good fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro’s soul-shaking post-Spanish Civil War fable leaves you just as troubled as enchanted. It can be beautiful and sad, hopeful but tinged with darkness and death. It’s decidedly Grimm, but never quite grim. It’s also a technical, aesthetic, and emotional knockout.

Pan’s Labyrinth is the tale of a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who moves with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), at his remote command post. Vidal is a pitiless fascist in General Francisco Franco‘s service after the dictator’s victory in the Civil War, and is seeking to smoke out some of the last surviving pockets of Republican rebels from the dark pine forests around his post. He is not aware that both his housekeeper (Maribel Verdu) and his doctor (Alex Angulo) are aiding a local rebel band, though this petty tyrant suspects and despises everyone around him, especially his unwanted stepdaughter.

Repelled by Vidal and resentful of her mother for taking up with him and dragging her along, Ofelia awakes one night and follows an insect/fairy through an old stone labyrinth and down to a pit occupied by a sylvan Faun (Doug Jones). The creature offers her a quest consisting of three tasks; if she completes them, she can take her rightful place as a prodigal princess in a fantastical kingdom far from the rational horrors of her current situation. The challenges reflect the harsh turns that events around Ofelia and her family unit begin to take, but also complicate and obscure their implications. Her memorable encounter with the Pale Man, an infanticidal cannibal whose eyeballs fit into sockets in the palms of his hands, imparts an aggressive fairy-tale moral about greed and may have metaphoric implications for the fate of her newborn brother, but also carries unsettling symbolic resonance outside of any filmic-textual element in play.

Del Toro contrasts the insensible dream-logic of this magical realm and the ambiguous tasks that Ofelia must complete to reach it with the cruel and brutal lock-step reality of life under the iron fist of Captain Vidal. The captain’s prized possession is a watch given to him by his war-hero father. In this one totemic prop, Vidal’s tripartite obsession with martial glory, patriarchal masculinity, and cold technological certainty is synechdochized. The falangist authoritarian ideology that animates his viciousness, and that dominated the Europe of the mid-twentieth century, is likewise embodied in this symbol. Del Toro’s fantasy elements, in comparison with this expression of soulless rationality that leads to individual and mass suffering, are less logical and predictable, as might be expected in such a metaphorical binary. But what is most fascinating about them is their shared capacity for corporeal violence and rule-bound rigidity. The Faun, for all his dream-fulfilling promises to Ofelia, is no less authoritarian in his treatment of her as Vidal is, and Ofelia’s quest carries considerable personal risks.

The purposeful obscurity and underlying menace of these elements may prove to be a stumbling block to engagement for some viewers, but they are precisely what gives the film its rare, surprising power. Del Toro and his team of technical wizards (the creature design and execution is top-notch, and entirely deserved the Best Makeup and Art Direction Academy Awards the film was awarded) weaves this panoply of images – some of them wondrous, some of them painful, all of them unforgettable – together into such a beguiling and affecting whole that its complete impact is unanticipated but unerringly substantial. The fantasy world that Ofelia encounters is not a gilded escape from a harsh reality, as the modern fairy-tale narrative so often is. It is harsh and dangerous in its own specific ways, and no less difficult for fallible mortal vessels to navigate. For all of its fantastical lucidity, Pan’s Labyrinth‘s shaded sense of humanity (with some of the good and much of the bad suggested by that generalized term) is what makes it so unsettling and, ultimately, so great.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Album Review: Fossil Collective – Tell Where I Lie

April 12, 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.

Fossil Collective – Tell Where I Lie

 

Categories: Music, Reviews

“Accidental Racist” and the Neo-Confederate Ideological Inheritance

April 9, 2013 3 comments

Already the most contentious politically-tinged country music song since Toby Keith offered to put a boot in Osama bin Laden’s ass, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s much-maligned collaboration “Accidental Racist” has been firing the relays of Internet snark and disgust since word of it began to break sometime yesterday. If you’re not familiar, check the embed below (if it doesn’t vanish from YouTube again first) and hear for yourself, if you like.

But I can easily summarize the highly sophisticated lyrics for you. Brad Paisley, Virginia-born country superstar, feels kind of odd and conflicted that the African-American barista who gave him his tall cinnamon dolce latte at Starbucks didn’t take too kindly to his t-shirt displaying the battle flag of the white supremacist splinter state that rebelled against the legitimate American government 150 years ago in order to preserve its wealthiest citizens’ right to own black people as property. The rebel flag is “somehow” “the elephant in the corner of the South” (don’t ask him to explain how, though, he’s missin’ some of that book learnin’). This makes him feel reflective and even mildly apologetic about that whole slavery thing that his ancestors did, but not so much so that he isn’t still proud that they are his ancestors and that they owned slaves and fought and died to keep them. It’s not really his fault anyway, it’s all those dead white supremacists that did it, so why can’t white people and black people just move beyond the past and try to get along? Also, Reconstruction was just a big construction project with a bit of hugging thrown in. He thinks he might have read that somewhere, maybe even in a book.

We have so much in common. Navy blue ballcaps, for instance.

To support this surely sincere but pretty damned irresponsible string of sentiments, Paisley trots out the compromised husk of a once-fine-flowing MC, LL Cool J, who has not once before evinced the slightest interest in race relations in his considerable musical oeuvre. LL purportedly answers “Mr. White Man” with how “Mr. Black Man” is feeling, mostly worried that white people don’t like his clothes or resent him because William Tecumseh Sherman levelled Georgia in 1864, which he sure didn’t have anything to do with. No, sir, he was just wearing baggy pants in the ghetto. Anyway, LL comes around to saying (or at least implying), your ancestors did buy and sell mine like livestock and gave up the right to do so only after crushing military defeat, and their modern descendants still defend and glorify the war effort while simultaneously disavowing its proximal, massively immoral cause. But I don’t like your hat, so I guess we’re equally guilty.

The always-indispensible Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Paisley’s explanation of his intentions with the song and then unpacks the precise ways that it is quite non-accidentally racist, so there isn’t much to add on those subjects. But what emerges most clearly, for me, is that the post-Civil War Reconstruction project failed on no count more thoroughly than on that of ideologically restructuring the former Confederate states. There was considerable resistance amongst the remainder of the antebellum social order to increased rights and freedoms for their freed slaves, definitely. The story of the post-Civil War South tends to be told predominantly in terms of the curbing of African-American equality in favour of a re-established plantation hierarchy under the Jim Crow laws and then under segregation. The social malevolence of racial inequality has been gradually and painfully named, legislated, and reduced as far as the American political appetite is willing to allow it to be.

But the sentiments expressed by Paisley in “Accidental Racist” as well as in his defence of it demonstrates that Reconstruction’s failure to address the profound cleavages that resulted from the Civil War did not merely do disservice to blacks in the South, but to whites as well. It took until after the Second World War for the former Confederacy to catch up to much of the rest of the country in terms of economic development and educational output. The inability of white Southerners to face up to and disavow the supremacist ideology of their Confederate forefathers has contributed to a cultural backwardness that was once lampooned by acerbic public voices like H.L. Mencken and is often played off as a Yankee stereotype of the Dixie hayseed. But there is little doubt that the continued contrast between the beliefs and historical opinions of the Southern States and that of the rest of America is related to the Lost Cause perspective being given leeway rather than being forcefully suppressed.

But the astoundingly wrong-headed attempt at reconciliation by Paisley, one of the most prominent names in the vanguard form of neo-Confederate cultural ideology that is country music, puts the glaring, long-delayed need for Deconfederatification into sharp relief. In his mea culpa for the song, Paisley repeats the truism that previous generations committed awful acts and a blameless current generation is “left holding the bag”. The problem with this analogy is that far too often, Paisley and his Stars-and-Bars-wearing confederates peek into that bag, that “burden” of previous generations, and don’t think what’s in there is quite so bad. And, in songs like “Accidental Racist”, once the demonstrative conflicted feelings and half-apologies and platitudinal urgings for tolerance and coexistence are trotted out, they pass that bag on again.

Categories: Culture, History, Music, Politics

Film Review: JFK

April 8, 2013 2 comments

JFK (1991; Directed by Oliver Stone)

Is Oliver Stone’s alternately lionized and condemned film about a dubious criminal investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a document of accurate historical truth? Obviously not. It could never be, just as no overarching narrative of the JFK assassination (the now widely-discredited Warren Report quite included) ever could be. There is so much that is unknown, that never can be known, about what really happened in the lead-up to and aftermath of that dark sunny day in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. It’s a tragedy (or a crime) all the more resonant for its lack of an explanation or even, really, a moral lesson.

Stone and his co-writer Zachary Sklar were aware of this very dissatisfying fact and based this definitive fiction film about the assassination upon not only the detailed uncertainty around this defining event of 1960s America, but also on the nagging malaise that underlies it. The more information that one uncovers when digging into the deep scholarly lore of the assassination, the less answers are revealed and the more questions are raised. JFK is not reducible to a mere conspiracy theory because of this keen appreciation of how epistemology actually tends to operate. We are told repeatedly by the liberal-humanist heteronormative order that knowledge is power, but just as often knowledge is a rabbit-hole with many twists and turns and dead ends but with no exit. Information and evidence in great overflowing excess, as Borges depicted in The Library of Babel and as Oliver Stone depicted in JFK, offers no resolutions, only the promise of an inescapable intellectual morass.

Stone called JFK a “counter-fiction” to the official “fiction” provided by the American government and its servile media. In a manner commensurate with the comforting propagandistic grand myths of American greatness favoured by the Straussian neo-conservatives who were scratching at the doors of power during the George H.W. Bush Administration in office when the film came out (and who had their feet up on the furniture in the Administration of Bush’s son a decade later), Stone sells a myth (which is a really just a polite and grandiose word for a lie) that suggests profound reserves of healthy distrust for the military-industrial complex that we see Dwight Eisenhower warning about in the film’s opening moments.

If there is no smoking gun for Stone to enter into onscreen evidence, then controversial New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played with an avuncular Southern determination by then-superstar Kevin Costner) never quite found one either. The closest he came, and the moment JFK focused on with a cultural-meme-inspiring zeal (although the Seinfeld parody helped that cause), is the famous “Back… and to the left.” This interpretation of the key, fatal moment on the Zapruder film of the shooting boils down the impressively labyrinthine outpourings of information, data, and suggestion into a point of concrete self-evidence that could not be mistaken. Crystallized in this one instance was more than government cover-ups and anti-Castro counter-intelligence and military paranoia over Vietnam, the cocktail of motives unveiled for Garrison by Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X like Dante being taken on a guided tour of the inner circles of Hell. In easy-to-grasp terms, “Back and to the left” showed that, as so many have long suspected, not all was as we were told it was. Indeed, it was much more as it seemed.

Politics and “accuracy” aside, JFK is often a mesmerizing film, most particularly in its most complicated, info-rich sequences, where Stone’s Oscar-winning editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia interweave visual information like master painters (cinematographer Robert Richardson also won an Oscar for his work here). Wonderful performances from an all-star cast abound as well. Recognizable faces from Joe Pesci to Jack Lemmon to John Candy to Kevin Bacon (this is an indispensible title for the Six Degrees game) and beyond slide into the film, craft memorable characters at lightning speed, and slip out again, only to return when they’re most required (or, maddeningly, when they aren’t). And Gary Oldman’s eerie, complex depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald in flashbacks and reconstructed archival footage is a must-see. He embodies the self-proclaimed patsy and publically-condemned lone gunman as he has become: a haunting spectre in the echoing halls of the American historical psyche. If it’s even possible to leave aside the contentious, tangled underpinnings, try to do so. As pure filmmaking, JFK is as skilled and transporting as it gets. It may all be a lie as well, but, if so, what a huge lie; and you know what Hitler told us about “the Big Lie”, after all.

So let his film’s critics flail away about conspiracies and fabrications and use the noun/adjective “crackpot” until it ceases to have even the slightest rhetorical meaning. Oliver Stone’s convoluted, untouchable cinematic myth stands above the fray, its virtuoso paranoia and troubled patriotism tapping into the swirling popular discontent concerning the official version of the events and painstakingly crafting a compelling myth of its own in response.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Roger Ebert: The Last Film Critic

April 5, 2013 2 comments

In sad and arresting news for lovers of film and of good, honest, nuanced writing, famed movie critic Roger Ebert has died at the age of 70. Afflicted with a tenacious and ultimately fatal case of cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands, Ebert’s illness transformed his kindly professorial appearance and even prevented him from speaking, but never proscribed his ability to express himself. Indeed, Ebert underwent what we can now unfortunately call a late renaissance as a writer and disseminator of ideas in recent years, embracing the opportunities presented by the Internet to redouble the voice that keenly dissected movies on television and in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. His Twitter (now silenced) was an unspoken must-follow, and his website expanded beyond his own reviews to include those of many acolytes (including his last regular television review program co-host, Richard Roeper) as well as essays on politics and other contemporary subjects worthy of his particular commentary. As the cancer that would take his life spread, so did his considered words, his clear-eyed reason, and his legacy.

We give you a thumbs up right back, good sir.

It’s delusional for me to place my modest critical efforts anywhere near those of the United States of America’s foremost film critic. But I can’t say that I have any doubts that were it not for the influence of Ebert’s reviews in my formative years as a writer, I would not be writing about the movies today, or likely producing criticism of any stripe. If it has not done me much good professionally, then that is my failing and not Ebert’s. In my pre-internet days, I watched Siskel & Ebert and devoured his movie yearbooks, absorbing not only his perspectives on movies (which I often disagreed with) but also the subtle turns of his prose rhetoric.

Roger Ebert did not write the greatest reviews for the greatest movies (although his commentary track for Citizen Kane is a must-listen for appreciators of one of Hollywood’s greatest moments). His opinions on Peter Jackson’s epochal Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, were hopelessly quaint and outdated, and his reviews in general fell in my estimation after he championed the staid and limp first Harry Potter film (“the new Wizard of Oz” or some inert praise to that effect) over the clearly superior Fellowship of the Ring (read Stephanie Zacharek’s take for Salon on the latter for a review shot through with transcendent and erudite awe at greatness). But he could dismantle a poor cinematic effort with velvet gloves and a surgeon’s knife. No wonder that his latter days saw him directing his powers more and more at the fever of Republican madness infecting American political and social life with the same righteous rhetorical scalpel.

More than anything, though, Roger Ebert outlived the public utility of his profession. His stated goal with Siskel & Ebert, with its famously reductive thumbs-up/thumbs-down summary judgements and edited critical discussions, was to bring the often stuffy, smug and ungenerous craft of film criticism to the people. His direct writing on the movies he watched and either loved, loathed, or often found lingering in the liminal space between those poles empowered readers and film fans (present blogging company included) to form and express their own interpretations and opinions on American culture’s foremost entertainment product. His own work spread easily to the internet, and he championed online film writing as a necessary and exciting form even as it rendered the formerly privileged position of the paid traditional media critic almost entirely vestigial. There are some great stories about this sector of his public work at Ain’t It Cool News, a movie fandom site that Ebert spoke glowingly of on many occasions.

Largely due to these efforts of democratizing and decentralizing film criticism, Ebert is likely to be last hugely prominent film critic in pop culture. No longer do filmgoers wait patiently to read what a New York Times critic like Pauline Kael has to say about a movie before judging it for themselves. If they ever did, that is; if anything, film criticism has had to work hard to catch up to the public’s clear-cut assessment of cinematic product, with populist writers like Ebert at the head of that column. Hundreds of critical perspectives of varying degrees of sophistication and positivity can be accessed with a single online search, including those of major media critical voices. The cultural capital of the movie critic has been drained away, ironically thanks to the passion for myriad views on film felt by the man who held more of that capital than anyone else. Writing about movies, as this humble if long-winded blog proves, is no longer merely the province of the privileged. Perhaps Roger Ebert would have appreciated that more than any other part of his legacy.

Categories: Culture, Current Affairs, Film