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“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

Film Review: Wanted

Wanted (2008; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov)

Digit-pushing Chicago account manager Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), we are told rather inelegantly at the opening of Wanted, is a pussy. He is terrorized in the workplace by his insufferable plus-sized female boss (Lorna Scott) and at home by his nagging girlfriend (Kristen Hager). The latter cuckolds him, too; she’s cheating on him with his obsequious best friend from work (Chris Pratt), who borrows some of Wesley’s dwindling funds to buy condoms and energy drinks to enable the affair. Dissatisfied with his lot but afflicted by strange, time-slowing anxiety attacks that prevent corrective action for his daily emasculation, Wesley amounts to little more than an anonymous, exploited cog in the grinding machine of faceless capitalism, a depressed drone in the thrall of multiple buzzing hive queens.

This is not a Mike Judge movie, however, but a Timur Bekmambetov one. So, of course, Wesley is actually the son of a master killer who was also a member of a top-secret order of assassins called the Fraternity. Founded in the distant medieval past by a guild of weavers in a Moravian monastery, the Fraternity receives its targets in cloth binary code from the Loom of Fate, and executes these supposedly universal-balance-restoring hits with extreme prejudice and bullet-curving awesomeness. Why, precisely, Moravian weaver monks decided to disregard their holy orders to become determinist contract killers is perhaps elucidated in the comic series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones on which Wanted is loosely based, because it certainly isn’t elucidated in the film itself.

Elucidation is not the point here. The point is that Wesley’s dad was a badass, and he is destined to be one as well. Recruited by the swaggering, tattooed Fox (Angelina Jolie), Wesley learns the darks arts of the Fraternity, which is based in a monastic-castle-type textile plant in an industrial stretch of the city. He is beaten to a pulp repeatedly, given knife training by a hulking butcher (though he only ever uses a blade against that same butcher), tasked to snatch a flying shuttle from a running loom, and taught to bend bullets around obstacles with his mind (his apparent anxiety attacks are related to these latter abilities).

He’s also educated on the history of the order and his obligations to its tenets by the stentorian Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who mostly hangs around an enormous library and speaks authoritatively, as such Morgan Freeman stock characters are wont to do. Sloan tells Wesley that he is the only one who can take down Cross (an almost mute but still smoldering Thomas Krestchmann), the rogue agent who allegedly killed his father in the film’s opening scene, but first he must take out a few targets to hone his chops. Wesley chafes at the bonds of Sloan’s mentorship and does not entirely trust his motives, which turns out to be a good instinct, as not all in the Fraternity is as mystical and pure as it seems.

Anyone who’s seen Night Watch or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter knows that Bekmambetov is a skilled purveyor of stylish, physically-impossible action sequences, and Wanted demonstrates his mastery of the form better than any of those films. The tricks deployed here are sometimes ridiculous but nonetheless imaginative and thrilling: Wesley flips his car lengthwise over a stretch limousine to shoot down a smoking fat cat through the sunroof; another agent force-jumps out of one skyscraper into another, blasting goons as he hangs in the air; Wesley, Cross, and Fox battle through a European commuter train which ends up suspended from a bridge over a mountainous chasm. The latter scene predicts ­Vampire Hunter’s climax on a burning railroad trestle, and Wanted is also dotted with a production design tapestry of urban decay that characterized Bekmambetov’s Russian vampire epics.

What gives Wanted an extra step on the director’s other work is his lead actor, the ever-worthwhile McAvoy. So perfectly cast as a downtrodden urban office drone (he wrings humour and even pathos out of these stultifyingly churlish moments), the utilization of James McAvoy as a bullet-bending action assassin is so utterly incongruous as to be sort of perfect. The ludicrous mismatch with the implausible action kitten Jolie (deployed as a sort of deadly and oddly sexless doll by Bekmambetov, which is as reasonable a solution to the problems her gifts create onscreen as any other male-gaze filmmaker has ever come up with) actually helps his case. There’s no real romantic frisson between them, with a showcase kiss intended only as retribution to Wesley’s ex-girlfriend and ex-best-friend. She’s the ornamental female to the action-figure male, all part of the masculine fantasy aspect of the entire project, and McAvoy embraces and skillfully embodies the role of the nervous regular Joe turned manly super-assassin as surely as Jolie effortlessly slips into sex symbol mode.

Ideologically, however, Wanted is a horrid discursive tract. The blunt force trauma of its critique of capitalist labour is only intensified by the fact that its director is a former Red Army artillery officer. The film is mostly uninterested in any sort of Marxist anti-capitalism, however, locating the real tragedy of the systemic imperatives in a wider cultural castration of male agency and curbing of masculine self-expression.

Wesley is miserable because he doesn’t know who he is; the Fraternity (male-coded from its name down, although it has non-male members) gives him a powerfully phallic identity, tied inextricably to penis-extension weaponry and patrilineal inheritance. His male empowerment leaves him in an unequal, even misogynistic relationship to the women around him, who are either sexy but unknowable professional collaborators like Fox or castrating figures to be overcome like his boss and his girlfriend. What Wesley inherits from his father (who is not who Wesley is told he is at first, and who he ends up killing in an Oedipal twist) is a lone wolf mastery of cool-headed violence and its attendant masculine independence. This new identity has no use for women who are anything other than sexualized vehicles for pleasure; how convenient that Angelina Jolie is present, then.

Wanted, therefore, is stylish in its application of violent imagery but objectionable in its conception of that imagery as necessarily related to chauvinistic patriarchal structures. The signature moment of the problematic discourse it feeds off of (and into) is the first kill of the movie, featuring an East Indian businesswoman shot through her forehead by a sniper rifle, the gun’s red dot sight lining up with her bindi. It’s an instance of crude, cruel visual wit that contains overtones of misogynistic violence and snide ethnic humour. It’s a “cool” beat in a “cool” action movie, but the discourse that lies beneath it, and beneath Wanted in general, is much less palatable.

Categories: Film, Reviews