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PopMatters Film Review: The East

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.

The East

 

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

May 28, 2013 5 comments

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

Star Trek Into Darkness is an exhilirating space epic on a tremendous scale, as thrilling and entertaining from moment to moment as its spectacular popcorn-movie predecessor and invested with far more political portent. But is it Star Trek? I was fully prepared to come away from this film armed with ample evidence for an answer of “No”, especially after the Star Wars borrowings of Abrams’ first effort in this long-lived and distinctly-pitched franchise practically begged for a subtitle of Episode XI: A New Hope. But I found myself being repeatedly pleasantly surprised at how Abrams delivers the expected contemporary blockbuster goods while also realigning the sights of his vision of Trek to be more in line with certain elements of the established canon at least.

Or perhaps what Abrams is really doing is realigning the extensive but historically rigid Trek canon to jive with modern blockbuster convention and contemporary political realities. The central character tension in Into Darkness is between Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto); Kirk cannot stop himself from breaking the rules, and Spock cannot bring himself to bend those rules even a bit. This tension can be extrapolated onto the creative tension that faces Abrams as the core challenge of adapting Star Trek into post-millenial tentpole movies. The current dominant mode of big Hollywood productions is the imaginative and the speculative, the ambitious CGI-conjured spectacles that adapt and repurpose classic influences into fresh entertainments, and Abrams is one of the geek-culture-savvy filmmakers who has very much mastered these frame-expanding projects. Though Star Trek was conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry as imagining such new possibilities in at least the sphere of ideas (all that “boldly going” stuff), it was consistently limited in its ability to visualize those possibilities not only by technical and budget constraints but also, increasingly, by the restrictive boundaries of its own legacy and the tenets of its fictional universe. Abrams (and the current geek-centric Hollywood milieu he represents) is Kirk, scornful of rules and conventions and trusting in his creative gut feelings, and the Star Trek franchise as it stood before he got his hands on it is Spock, unwilling or simply unable to transgress those rules and conventions.

Into Darkness makes it clearer than ever why Abrams and his writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurzman (with an assist this time around from Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof) chose to shatter these canonical shackles by altering the fictional timeline in 2009’s Star Trek. It was the only way they could get a fresh start on the material, the best method to give them room to create, to reinvent, to play in this well-established universe. The classical moniker of Eric Bana’s Romulan villain from that film now makes more sense; if the franchise could be said to be a majestic, intricately-ordered Rome, it took a Nero to burn it down so it could begin anew.

If Star Trek told a story of that act of temporal arson as a new origin tale, then Into Darkness is largely concerned with rebuilding science fiction’s great fictional capitol in less hopeful terms for a less hopeful time. The film opens on a strikingly-rendered, culturally-primitive world in the Nibiru system (a blazing palette of crimson vegetation contrasted with grey tree-trunks and white-painted indigenes) with a stark moral conundrum packed inside another one, in the mode of Christopher Nolan. Will Kirk and his crew let a developing people perish from a volcanic cataclysm or will they save the fledgling civilization from this fate and thus detour their destiny? Then, having chosen the latter option in the classic liberal uplift tradition of the series, does Kirk choose to let a key member of his crew perish in the effort or does he save him while knowingly violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive interdicting interference in the development of pre-space-technology alien species?

Kirk makes the only choice that Kirk can make, and is duly reprimanded for his transgression of Starfleet regulation. But his chastening punishment is short-lived, as a Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes destructively rogue, precipitating a crisis by bombing a subterranean archive complex in London and then targetting a meeting of Starfleet brass convened in response (and set in a war room whose design is straight out of Dr. Strangelove). Among those killed is Kirk’s mentor and father figure Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and it is with the impulsive stirrings of vengeance that our id-driven hero volunteers himself, his crew, and the Enterprise to lead a mission to the Klingon homeworld, to which Harrison has escaped with the aid of a trans-warp device invented by Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) and confiscated by Starfleet.

Kirk is ordered by the imperious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to take out Harrison with long-range photon torpedoes fired with extreme prejudice, thus accomplishing the mission of terminating the enemy of the intergalactic state without antagonizing the Klingons, who seem much more intent on antagonism in this alternate timeline than they were in their role as Cold War-era Russian proxies in the original series and films. Kirk rethinks this blatant assassination mission on the basis of his trusted crew’s moral objections, but the Enterprise still winds up as a chess piece in a deadly game between Marcus and Harrison, both of whom are up to much more than they seem to be.

Who let that shlub on the bridge? Security, escort this bum to the brig!

The contemporary political commentary here is evident enough to qualify as a near-allegory. Harrison’s London attack is a 9/11 of the future, and Marcus’ extra-legal cutthroat response echoes the security-state overreach and betrayal of founding principles that has characterized the United States’ decade-long War on Terror in retaliation. Harrison is a 23rd-century Osama bin Laden, whose willingness to disregard the strictures of civility is employed by Starfleet’s secretive intelligence agency Section 31 (a stand-in for the CIA introduced in the midst of the morally-ambiguous Trek series Deep Space 9 and a perfect canonical reference to use in addressing contemporary political realities). Spock objects to the drone-warfare-like use of distant photon torpedoes to kill a suspect without a proper trial, and Scotty objects to authorizing the loading of those torpedoes onto the ship without knowing their full import.

These details flit by quite quickly, small aspects of the relentless cinematic tapestry woven by Abrams and his team, but they remain impossible to miss. Indeed, they constitute fairly brazen criticisms of the ambiguous (at best) policies carried out by the Obama Administration’s national security arm in the midst of what is otherwise an engaging silver-screen potboiler. Most importantly, though, Into Darkness is not bogged down by these political features in terms of either pacing or ideology. It preserves not only its expert momentum (one exciting sequence flows into the next for the second half of the film like one overwhelming extended action climax) but also its very Roddenberrian core of moral rectitude. It does not argue, like a sci-fi Zero Dark Thirty, that ruthless brutality can only be repaid in kind, but rather that its takes not only tremendous determination but also collaborative openness and keen intelligence to do the right thing in the face of so much pitiless wrong.

On a geekier level, Abrams absolutely releases the hounds on this universe. The so-familiar Klingons, set up as formidable future antagonists, sound, feel, and above all look absolutely amazing. The Enterprise is more fully mapped, and this new shipboard geography is employed to great effect as Kirk and Scotty rush headlong towards Engineering as the damaged ship plummets from orbit and its latitude changes on a dime. Abrams expands the Federation’s culture and society, especially on Earth, which so often consists of little else outside of good old square Stafleet HQ in San Francisco (though we do see a dockside club and some cutting-edge fashion in this film that suggest the freaky alternative culture of that great Western gate of progressivism is not diminished 300 years hence). Both London and a country hospital on its outskirts mix sleek futuristic towers and hover-vehicles with traditional British tokens: St. Paul’s dome is still a skyline feature, the old manor house hospital retains a brick facade, and a Gainsborough landscape painting hangs over a hearth in a convalescent room. Furthermore, familiar features of the Trek mythology, especially from The Wrath of Khan, are referenced, utilized, and repurposed with cleverness and nuance (and, in one or two instances, with a fantastic lack of nuance).

At the centre of the film is a cast very comfortable with the crew’s mix of personalities. Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban, wonderful again) have smaller roles this time, and Pegg’s comic timing and stolid bravery push the oft-absent Scotty just a little above them. The position of Zoe Saldana’s active Uhura is elevated by her relationship with Quinto’s Spock, who really comes into his own here as a mixture of biting, near-sardonic Vulcan logical assertions and bursts of potent human emotion. Pine has more dramatic heavy lifting to do as Kirk this time, and cannot approximate William Shatner’s considered gravitas, flecked lightly as it was with cornpone overacting. His cad act is much more enjoyable, but his character is supposed to be outgrowing that and moving into more mature territory that does not suit the actor quite as well.

Some men just want to watch the world burn.

And then we have our larger-than-life villain, played by Cumberbatch as a figure so superior that he transcends mere smugness and achieves demigod status. Cumberbatch delivers his lines in righteous pronouncements; his formidable intelligence vibrates in every syllable, even when those syllables vibrate also with deeply-felt emotion. He’s given a chuckle-inducing dramatic reveal, several other iconic framings, and is often dressed in flattering if seemingly impractical long coats (he even stops amid the carnage he has caused at one point to steal one for no other conceivable reason than to look cool for the final confrontation). He’s also a formidable action hero, wiping out a whole squad of Klingons practically on his own. With a pre-emptive apology for both the spoiler and the awful pun, Cumberbatch opens a Khan of whoop-ass here, and it’s great stuff.

More than anything, though, Star Trek Into Darkness should balance out the perceived discrepancy between how Abrams’ entries into the film series are greeted by devoted Trekkies and by mass audiences, if only a bit. It could be easily missed beneath the wave of success of the 2009 Star Trek in the popular blockbuster marketplace, but there was an undercurrent of distrust and even frustration among Trek die-hards with Abrams’ slick reboot. The dearth of classic sci-fi Big Ideas was noted, and some derision was reserved for Abrams’ deployment of furious action, sexual suggestion, and other elements of pulpy sensationalism (Star Trek has frequently deployed these same pulp elements, of course, but Abrams does it much better). But Abrams’ own statements about not being much of a Star Trek fan and slighting the nerdier features of the franchise irked further; his Star Wars preference was obvious, and it seemed clear that Trek was a mere stepping stone to the space mega-franchise whose reboot he would have rather helmed (and now is). He wasn’t a believer, in other words. He wasn’t one of them.

Abrams may never be a Trekkie in the purest definition of the term, but the opening and closing sequences of Star Trek Into Darkness suggest that he has gained an understanding of what makes this property so enduring and appealing. The Nibiru away mission that begins the film and the embarcation on the famous five-year mission of the original series that ends it both invoke the overall tone of trail-blazing exploration and imaginative adventure that has been the hallmark of the small-screen Treks (as opposed to the deadly male rivalries and starship battles that dominate the silver-screen iterations). If even a small hint of that sense of astral-frontier wonder is imported into the Star Trek films to come, whether or not Abrams remains on board to oversee them, the stunningly successful relaunch of a once-moribund franchise should continue to enrapture and entertain as it has done for two impressive films thus far. And it will do it as Star Trek properand not as a pastiche of other influences.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Idlewild

May 27, 2013 1 comment

Idlewild (2006; Directed by Bryan Barber)

Idlewild was both a great and a potentially disastrous idea: hip hop’s pre-eminent creative duo, OutKast, coming off a mega-selling, critically-acclaimed double album that won the second Album of the Year Grammy Award for the genre (after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), make a rollicking film musical set in the titular town in Michigan (I naturally assumed it was the South, considering Outkast is from Atlanta) during the Great Depression. The result was a sizable commercial flop in cinemas and a moderate success in record stores (though only about half of the film songs were new, the companion album was full of originals), though artistically Idlewild is neither a total debacle nor an underappreciated triumph.

Onscreen, this concept manages to spawn a handful of fine individual moments, but it still comes off as a wasted opportunity. Considerable delays faced this project, and it’s possible that the vision of OutKast and director Bryan Barber never really made it across the finish line. It seems like there is a memorably entertaining musical somwhere here that was simply lost between the set and the editing room.

Part of the problem is that so much of the music seems to have been left out. There’s plenty of scenes concerning the supposedly unbreakable bond between lifelong friends Percival (Andre 3000) and Rooster (Big Boi). But they spend very little time together onscreen for such bosom buddies, and basically only ever repeat the same two lines to each other when they are together. Barber acknowledges that they have grown up into separate lives, Percival staying clean and lonesome in the mortuary business and Rooster balancing family life with running rackets and frequenting seedy clubs. It’s hardly a surprising move to construct Big Boi as a smooth ghetto player and Andre as a freaky maverick, as these are the creative personas they have assumed throughout OutKast’s run.

Indeed, Idlewild is in some ways a fictional frame for the gradual parting of creative ways for Andre 3000 and Big Boi, a narrativization of the slow dissolution of one of hip hop’s most productive partnerships (the Idlewild album remains their last joint release to date). But the products of that partnership, the fruits of that creative tension, the songs themselves, are secondary, perfunctory in the film. There are stand-out moments, like the brief, loopy “Chronomentrophobia”. Andre muses about the merciless gears of time in a sequence strewn with ticking clocks that is redolent in tone, aurally and visually, to the “Ms. Jackson” video. But really, very little is ever revealed about these men through the music. The tunes, cracking as they may be, are here simply as cracking tunes, not as thematic conduits or measures of character development, as is common to the musical genre. And the proceedings suffer as a result.

Idlewild saves its greatest triumph and deepest frustration for last. Andre’s character as written is supposed to be shy and withdrawn, no doubt, and his tragic love for Angel (Paula Patton) encourages him to push out of his shell and into an eventual coda of musical success and fame. But Andre’s prodigious stage charisma explodes so giddily during the musical number over the end credits that you find yourself wondering why the film decided that it was in its best interests to bury that charisma so very thoroughly up to that point. Narrative concerns trump sheer entertainment, right up to the end. Which is kind of the rub on Idlewild: there’s some good, and a whole lot of potential good, but the film never quite clues in to its own strengths enough to become something more than simply okay.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

“Everyone Expects Me To Be”: An Existential Lament from Rob Ford

May 24, 2013 1 comment

Every time I write something about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, I swear it simply must be the last time. Few would have expected that the man and his erratic, controversial actions could prove to be such a fruitful, tenacious subject of discussion. For a figure whose view of the world is so simple, whose motivations and psychology appear so entirely self-evident, Ford has proven to be a portal to access deeper social and political issues in Toronto, Canada, North America, and the West in general. This seems to be why critical analysts and opinion writers can’t quit Robert Bruce Ford, can’t seem to shake this bad habit of a subject. He’s like a drug.

But what’s even more like a drug is the drugs. Namely: crack cocaine, which a now-notorious (and still unconfirmed) video taken by an anonymous Somali-Canadian drug dealer from Etobicoke allegedly shows Mayor Ford smoking from a pipe. First reported on by a writer for American snark-oriented news site Gawker and very soon after corroborated by the Toronto Star (the Ahab to Ford’s elusive White Whale), the tantalizingly unsubstantiated cell phone video is the subject of much public and press speculation, a brusque dismissal (but not a full denial) from Ford and his brother Doug, and a “Crackstarter” fundraiser project at Gawker which seeks to raise $200,000 (the drug dealer’s supposed asking price) in donations to purchase the video’s rights in order to exhibit it to the world. The story has spread to the American media, may have contributed to Ford’s removal as head coach of a local high school football team (though the school board claimed to have been reviewing his tenure since March), and has (possibly) led to the dismissal of his chief of staff.

I certainly hope that is an Arizona Iced Tea in your right hand, young man.

But my interest is not in the ins and outs of this latest Ford scandal, yet another movement of the continuous, aggressive paso doble between his conspiracy-spinning defenders on the right and the relentless critics on the left hoping for his ouster. One moment, one alleged quotation from Ford in the infamous video as described in the Star, caught my attention and suggested previously unsounded depths to Rob Ford. I don’t mean when he apparently referred to Justin Trudeau as “a faggot” or to his football players as “just fucking minorities”. I mean this described instance of apparent introspection, doubt, and self-analysis:

“Everyone expects me to be right-wing. I’m just supposed to be this great.…” and his voice trails off.

We cannot be certain until the video is confirmed to be real and actually viewed, but if Ford did “mutter” these words, how can we understand them except as a sort of existential cry for aid? Is Ford voicing his own self-awareness, his knowledge that smoking crack is understood as being beyond the pale of the sort of settled suburban conservativism that he claims to represent? Is he chafing under the mantle of celebrated champion of the tax-hating, union-bashing, hippie-punching right wing, or retreating from its extreme pressures into narcotics abuse? Are the stresses cracking Rob Ford? Or is it something else?

The trailing off after that bitterly ironic amplifier “great” is interesting, indeed. The lament of Ford is one of deflated expectations of towering achievement, of the failure to live up to the ideological grandeur of the axis-shifting agenda that his Nation’s “revolution” was supposed to engender. Tone of voice is hidden from us (as is any certainty that he said it at all), but the chosen words sound resigned, melancholic, and above all self-deprecating. He doesn’t say that he does not meet these expectations, but the subtext is there; it would be the next sentence, surely, perhaps followed by a pithy quotation from Nietzsche or Kant (unlikely, yes, but then he’s purportedly doing drugs as he speaks; his power of intellectual recall may well be enhanced).

It is reminiscent of Ford’s greatest (alleged) moment in my experience, perhaps the only time that I’ve ever liked him or understood how he might be appealing to anyone other than your run-of-the-mill, pinko-raging, self-interested political reactionary who clings to a comforting narrative of persecution and victimhood even while reaping socioeconomic rewards. An inebriated Ford was reported to have responded to a female critic on the Esplanade on St. Patrick’s Day who told him to his face that he was “the worst mayor ever” by kissing her on the forehead like a corpulent linebacker Jesus is a sweaty suit and saying, “I know. But I try.” Ignoring the invasion of personal space, his kiss struck me as a simultaneous act of benediction, forgiveness, and atonement, and his response betrayed self-awareness, wit, and even humility.

This latter quality is perhaps the most salient common feature of these two otherwise very different reported exchanges, and the most fascinating for its brief, unrehearsed appearance. Ford, a comfortable son of a wealthy businessman who now rubs shoulders with the Prime Minister and has much of the city’s elite on speed dial, has built a meticulous populist image for himself as a fighter for the self-perceived marginalized suburban conservative tax base.

Whatever we might think about this image’s authenticity or lack thereof, it is at its heart based in an essentialy humble proletarian ideal. But it has been adopted by a man whose boorish, aggressive, confrontational and self-aggrandizing approach to being a champion of the people has left little room for humility. When Rob Ford talks in an alleged drug-using video about what his fellow citizens expect of him, he is stepping outside of that image, examining it, critiquing it, and finding it wanting. How much more productive his tenure as mayor may have been had he applied this same cool eye for self-examination and constructive criticism to his application of civic policy.

The World’s Most Expensive Paintings and Art Nouveau: Consumption and the Arts

I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.

Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto

In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.

The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.

A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.

Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau house in Brussels

And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.

Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.

But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.

Categories: Art, Culture, Television

Film Review: The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon

May 16, 2013 3 comments

The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon (2012; Directed by Andy Keen)

In the summer of 2011, Canadian rock music legends the Tragically Hip headlined a concert for 20,000+ fans in a farmer’s field outside the small town of Bobcaygeon in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, north of Peterborough. On one level, it was the sort of large-scale rock festival event that the venerable band has been staging for decades, often in remote rural locations (including, recently, the Arctic Circle) that burnish the salt-of-the-earth bona fides that are the foundation for the band’s resilient popularity.

On a deeper level, though, the Bobcaygeon show was representative of the Tragically Hip’s more profound connections with the Canadian public that has consumed, engaged with, and found meaning in their musical output over the past 25 years. This, at least, is what filmmaker Andy Keen’s hybrid documentary/concert film on the event sets out to explore, showing the band in performance, behind the scenes, and by speaking to the fans attending the show, the locals living near the concert site, and those in the band’s orbit.

Bobcaygeon, as any Canadian who has been in the vicinity of a radio for the past 15 years will know, gave its unusual name to one of the Hip’s most sublime and signature compositions. An acoustic-tinged single from 1998’s Phantom Power album, “Bobcaygeon” is accurately described by one fan interviewed by Keen as “a love story, but also a mystery”. Its surface-level narrative concerns a city policeman from Toronto seeing a woman in Bobcaygeon, a location and a relationship that provide him with a sense of peace and fulfillment away from the contentious tight-packed chaos of the metropolis, an isolated sanctuary where he “saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time”. After a particularly charged riotous evening in Toronto (the key reference is to the Christie Pits riot of 1933, though it is mixed with snapshots from early Hip gigs in the city, too), our cop-narrator thinks of “leaving it behind” for his country utopia. This plotline is about as evident as any provided in the notoriously oblique lyrics of Gord Downie, not least because the song’s music video visualizes it in such a literal manner.

But the buried theme in “Bobcaygeon”, as in so much of the Tragically Hip’s work, is concerned with the animating dichotomy of Canadian identity construction, that of the country vs. the city, the rural vs. the urban. In 2011, as the Hip and their team conceived of and executed the Bobcaygeon show in celebration of some ephemeral, romantic notion of rural living, 81% of the Canadian population resided in urban areas. And yet so much of the traditional sovereign culture of the country – country music in Alberta, Group of Seven paintings of the Canadian Shield, beer ads, hockey culture, widely-recognized Canadian symbols like the beaver, the moose, and the Mounted Police – trade on the wilderness as the essential setting of national identity. Canada clings to its rural frontier self-conception even as its people increasing choose the community of the city.

The Tragically Hip’s music has often acknowledged and negotiated this cleavage between consciousness and reality of Canadian social construction, not merely in terms of population density but also in literature (“Courage”, invoking Hugh MacLennan, the coiner of the vaunted concept of “The Two Solitudes” to describe the gap between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians), language (“Born in the Water” is concerned with Quebec’s protectionist French language legislation), and sports (“Fifty Mission Cap”, embraced as a Leafs Nation anthem, probes the commodification of the superstitions that surround discourse over athletic competition). Furthermore, the band so often discussed as purveyors of Canadian identity have a demonstrated ambivalence to the rough jingoism of their flag-waving devotees, and Downie has often branched out into more international subject matter, setting his evocative lyrics in Vienna, the frigid North Atlantic, and the spooky forests of Russia on occasion.

But The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon strips all of that away and presents the Hip as they are and as they have long been: the pre-eminent Canadian musical heroes of the country’s centre-right, rural/suburban white hoser middle class. Keen finds and speaks to a fascinating variety of such fans in the film, and their insights into how the band’s music is received and understood and how the mystical appeal of “Bobcaygeon” is at the centre of the Hip mythos are often revealing and surprising. One couple shares the intimate details of their courtship and how the band’s music underscored their growing fondness; another couple shares a dream vacation to see the Hip in the Caribbean which included repeated encounters with band members; Bobcaygeonian locals tell of how the song has made their hometown instantly recognized across the country; a whole family of fanatical followers show off their collection of Hip-themed tattoos, including a teen girl with an eternal Downie lyrical gem from “Leave” on her ankle: “Change yourself into something you love”.

But the same insightful fan that so succinctly summarized “Bobcaygeon” and keenly diagnoses the Hip as the Canadian Rolling Stones (another group of highly-educated rock musicians who have struck a highly-successful proletarian pose) points to a telling and (for this critically-minded Hip fan) disappointing gap in the Tragically Hip’s artistic discourse. Showing off his shelves of rock n’ roll literature, he bemoans the lack of a definitive compendium on the band, or indeed the absence of much written material on them at all. There is even a literal empty space on his shelf, to be filled by a potential Hip book. The dearth of secondary texts on the Hip’s work has long been a frustrating reality. The best on offer is not a book but a website, the eloquent and intelligent A Museum After Dark maintained in spartan web environs by Stephen Dame (who also makes an appearance in the film). It’s the best source of critical analysis of Hip songs available, and even it throws its hands up at Downie’s inscrutable rock-poetry, choosing to mainly dissect his more specific references.

The Tragically Hip, however else one might choose to (over)think about them, are ultimately a highly professional, directly-focused live rock band. Especially with their ascendancy over Canadian video channels and radio stations faded along with their youth, gigs have become the main delivery method for their product, not that they ever forsook the live setting for other media. Whatever higher pretensions Downie’s lyrics may betray, he and his fellows are a working band above all, and Bobcaygeon settles into a limited concert-film groove in its second half, with full performances of “Grace, Too”, “Ahead By A Century”, “At The Hundredth Meridian” and other classics filmed at the much-discussed show.

Of course, the promised climax comes when the band plays “Bobcaygeon” in Bobcaygeon. But the actual impact is unclear; the constellations never quite reveal themselves, one star at a time. Perhaps it’s because, in this one limited reading of one specific example of the Tragically Hip’s work, Bobcaygeon itself is not essential. It could be any small town anywhere in the country, because it is not more than a symbolic representative of a romantic conception of rural Canadian life that could be filled by any other evocative place name. That the Tragically Hip chose to immortalize Bobcaygeon is neat for the town, but its greater significance is much like that of the band itself: entirely in the hands, brains, and hearts of their fans.

Categories: Culture, Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

May 12, 2013 5 comments

The Great Gatsby (2013; Directed by Baz Luhrmann)

Extravagantly-minded Australian film and stage director Baz Luhrmann has built a formidable (if divisive) career telling a certain sort of story a certain way. In his most critically notable and commercially successful films, the flickering-neon beach-noir William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and the frothy, manic Belle Époque musical whirlwind Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann constructs a showy, vivid tableau vivant of opulent dissolution and indulgent superficiality, the glittering, decadent excess of which he climactically brings crashing down like a shattering palace of glass with a theatrical dose of final-act melodramatic tragedy. The absurd heightened hyper-reality of his onscreen creations simultaneously magnifies and cheapens the narrative’s anticipated emotional impact; it’s an operatic effect, in both the figurative and the literal, intentional sense. It would not be outside the realm of possibility for Luhrmann to stage the spectacular crash of a multichromatic Mongolfier balloon into a mountain before cutting to a close-up of its star-crossed lovers in the basket, saying their heartrending final farewells. Indeed, this would constitute the definitive Baz Luhrmann moment, especially if it was accompanied by, say, a remix of a song by Phoenix.

When considered through the filter of his previous tendencies, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic novel The Great Gatsby seems purpose-built for Bazification, incongruous as the match of artist to source material may initially seem. The Great Gatsby is many things, but it is primarily a parable of what Rousseau (not unproblematically) erected as the fundamental dichotomy of modernity: the projection of the outer self in relation to the dimly-understood truth of the inner self.

Fitzgerald’s masterpiece crystallizes these competing ideas as an essential element of the modern American psyche, in particular in the quintessential New World individualist figure of the self-made man as represented by Jay Gatsby. Gatsby, the literary model of this social archetype, forges an ideal identity for himself that not only proceeds from wealth and privilege and the appearances of gentlemanliness, but is based entirely in the perceived value of those elements, subsuming the inner titular personal greatness of the man that only his close confidant and fictional biographer Nick Carraway witnesses. When tragedy makes its inevitable incursion and Gatsby’s immaculately-constructed “amusement park” (as Carraway calls Gatsby’s mansion) crumbles, the fall is all the greater for the lack of surviving substance behind the artifice.

The Great Gatsby should be juicy meat for Luhrmann to sink his teeth into, and both the sumptuous expressions of pride and the tense, uncomfortable fall that comes after it are imparted with bold strokes of broad drama. Carraway (a Tobey Maguire role if there ever was one) ventures into one setting of overwhelming lavishness after another as Luhrmann’s ambitious vision of Jazz Age New York City and Long Island is unveiled in the film’s early passages. Luhrmann’s camera sweeps over the steamy grey bustle of Manhattan where Carraway, a fledgling writer at Yale, tries his hand at bond trading, plunging from the pinnacle of a skyscraper down to our narrator at street level in one vertiginous moment (shot in native 3D, the picture uses the still-dubious technical trick more for depth of field than its does for such roller-coaster showcases). Later important urban rendezvous at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the electric splendour of Times Square and in a jovial speakeasy full of African-American performers are likewise swimming with furious detail.

When Nick travels across the bay from the West Egg cottage he rents to the old-money refuge of East Egg to visit his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband and his old college friend Tom (Joel Edgerton), a long, digitally-aided tracking shot pushes in on the neoclassical facade of their estate, with polo ponies prancing along the verdant lawns. Daisy’s first appearance sees her reclining on a sofa with a dreamy cascade of billowing white fabric bewitching Carraway. The first exorbitant party he attends at the magnificent castle of his neighbour Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), into whose glittering orbit and grand plans Carraway increasingly slips, sees the trademarked Luhrmann pomp and luxurious sheen placed on full, confident, playful display.

Vintage Roaring Twenties fashions choke the frame, golden booze sloshes in delicately-poised martini glasses, confetti falls in a steady stream, all set to a Luhrmannesque soundtrack of contemporary jazz stompers, reworked classical pieces, and pumping, anachronistic hip hop and indie pop selections from the likes of Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Ray, and Jay-Z (who also exec produces the film). At the orgiastic end of this revelry, Gatsby himself gets a delayed and slightly ludicrous reveal, the beaming, golden-locked DiCaprio toasting all and sundry in a tailored suit with bursting silver fireworks behind him. Goofy as the beat proves to be, it’s an appropriate association; is not Jay Gatsby, as a scion of the Roaring Twenties and indeed of fast-rising American capitalist dreams, a human firework, a flash of blinding light exploding above and astonishing all but twinkling and extinguishing before it reaches earth?

Wooo! I’m King of the World!!!

In between the city and the Eggs, Luhrmann paints the Valley of Ashes as a swart, sooty Purgatory between two American visions of Heaven (each with their own peculiar Hells), presided over by the spectacled eyes of an inscrutable deity stand-in known as Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (Fitzgerald’s prose is poetic, even mythic, but his symbolism is unsubtle enough for high-school English Lit class). Therein lies the struggling garage of George Wilson (Jason Clarke), whose wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is carrying on an affair with the brutish Tom, which Nick learns about on a trip to New York that ends in a debauched apartment party of boozy delusion. Tom may be a philanderer (and a white supremacist), but when Gatsby begins to circle Daisy, whom he fell in love with years before as a penniless army officer, the two Eggs are set to collide, with cracked shells to be expected all around.

The visual geography of Gatsby‘s setting is impressive and epic while also remaining scrupulously well-designed, organized and artificial. Known for his theatrical overlays to the cinematic format, Luhrmann constructs this whole elaborate, semi-historic landscape as his nearly-literal stage. His players are dwarfed by the surrounding decadence even as their dramas expand almost to bursting. DiCaprio takes on a second bloom of youth through the lens of Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan. Reunited with the director who made him a matinee idol Romeo in the mid-90s and portraying an iconic character defined by a warm core of hope, the years fall from an actor defined as of late by roles of perspiring, tortured, overemphasized intensity. When he is required to be tortured, as in Gatsby’s awkward, comic first re-meeting with Daisy in Carraway’s cottage filled with floral adornments or in a key later scene of revelation and confrontation in a room at the Plaza Hotel, DiCaprio plays it petulant, boyish, desperate to please, rather than defaulting to violent menace in the post-millenial Serious Actor template.

Mulligan is a desirable Daisy who doesn’t shy away from her character’s fundamental ephemerality. It’s easy to understand why this Daisy’s metaphorical manifestation is a green light across a stretch of water, flashing persistently but forever insubstantial and impossible to grasp. Edgerton plays the cad with a flourish, but sneaks in hints of pained emotion over his mistress’ fate (Fisher’s Myrtle has a broad comic swagger that one wishes was utilized more often). Elizabeth Debicki’s longeur and flapper-girl angularity make her a superb Jordan Baker physically, if not entirely in personality. Maguire, as implied, was formed out of whatever divine clay was at hand specifically to fill these sort of fresh-faced observer-narrator roles (though would not, say, James McAvoy been a fascinating substition, I wonder). There’s one deeply bizarre casting choice that could have caused more unproductive friction, but despite multiple dialogue mentions, Bollywood patriarch Amitabh Bachchan only has one brief appearance as suave gangster and Gatsby associate Meyer Wolfsheim. Based on notorious Jewish-American gambler Arnold Rothstein, a suspected principal in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, one might unreasonably wish that Michael Stuhlbarg’s compelling, refined version of the man from Boardwalk Empire could have been imported wholesale into the film, but it’s a middling point.

It’s a less middling point, mind you, to ask if Luhrmann’s favoured approach of spectacular elaboration and artifice proceed from being theoretically apt to depict Gatsby‘s narrative to actually achieving the difficult task of thematic translation from book to screen. Despite strenuous effort, visionary design, and the best of intentions, this is not a very great Gatsby on this deeper level. The pat framing device of having Carraway set down his account of the Gatsby affair as a form of therapy at a New England sanitorium (very, very far from canonical) doesn’t help, certainly. And the elaboration and artifice often really is too much; many viewers will agree with Tom Buchanan’s dismissive assessment of one of Gatsby’s parties as little more than “a circus”.

But for all of the opportunities it presents for the species of sweeping decadence that has become Luhrmann’s signature, The Great Gatsby proves to be less resilient to an excess of expression than even the Shakespearean tragedy the director once tackled. Baz Luhrmann cannot help but overdo everything in his movies. This tendency towards superfluity is often his greatest strength, but it lets him down when it counts here. His magnification of this defining American literary myth does not nudge it towards cinematic transcendence. Instead, it rushes this Gatsby into undermining and cheapening its own thematic impact. The curious affect of Fitzgerald’s book is that as grand and mythic and all-encompassing as it can be (and as its reputation paints it as being), it is also surprisingly intimate and personal, an inquiry on the nature of not just the society but of the self. Lurhmann’s film does not recognize that intimacy, or does not possess the facility of embodying it. Its overwhelming abundance becomes redundant before it can be properly thrown down by its tragic dimensions. There is a balance to The Great Gatsby, and it proves entirely too delicate for this particular filmmaker, in the end.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews