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Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Encounters at the End of the World (2007; Directed by Werner Herzog)

As it is in his habit to do as a filmmaker, Werner Herzog prefaces his Discovery Films-backed documentary about Antarctica by outlining his peculiar perspective on scientific questions. Encounters at the End of the World will not be another film about “fluffy penguins”, Herzog narrates in his fantastic, inimitable Bavarian tones, although it does feature penguins (albeit mysteriously disoriented ones waddling away from their colony to certain death). Indeed, as he tells us, among his favourite scientific conundrums is why intelligent animals such as chimpanzees don’t enslave inferior creatures such as goats and “ride them into the sunset”.

No, this is not your usual Antarctic documentary film. All of the conventional elements are there: the endless snow-covered expanses, the hardy, well-adapted native species, the echoes of the exploratory golden age of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, the elegant sculptural formations of undersea ice. Herzog, employing a soundtrack of monastic-style chants and reverberating folk-guitar picking, emphasizes the strangeness of this frozen continent, its unsettling permanence and eternal alterity from human civilization. But he also demonstrates a keener interest in the scientists, labourers, and seekers that populate this forbidding landscape than previous documenters of the Antarctic region have, which should not be surprising considering Herzog’s well-established artistic obsession with man’s existential place in the face of an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile natural world.

As a thoughtful Slavic gent introduced as “Philosopher, Forklift Driver” expounds upon for Herzog’s camera, Antarctica’s McMurdo Station settlement seems to attract a certain breed of traveler/dreamer who look to leap beyond the margins of the map. Herzog does show an interest in the activities of these non-permanent residents, but shows an even greater interest in the residents themselves. Barely off the plane from New Zealand, he meets a former banker from Colorado who once escaped machete-wielding mob justice and now drives “Ivan the Terra Bus”, the largest vehicle on the continent. A journeyman plumber shows off his abnormally-shaped hands, which are evidence of his descent from the Aztec royal family. A cell biologist dives beneath the ice to study (and discover henceforth unknown) micro-organisms, watching 1950s sci-fi movies about giant ants and jamming on electric guitar in his free moments. Another scientist speaks volubly about tracking icebergs the size of Britain, another relates her many perilous experiences in the African interior. A linguistics PhD tends a greenhouse in McMurdo, and his rambling digression on dying languages earns the open scorn of the narrator Herzog.

Herzog gets opinionated about Antarctica in odd spots fairly often, in fact. He bemoans the depressing, muddy industrial settlement at McMurdo while also deprecating its modern comforts like a bowling alley and a yoga studio. He quite nearly welcomes a classic Antarctic wind-and-snow squall, complaining that he detests the sun’s rays “on my celluloid and on my skin”. As a filmmaker who has now produced cinematic work on every continent and in often highly difficult conditions, you’d think Werner Herzog would be beyond allowing environmentally-related irritations from showing in his work.

But as it was for Shackleton (whose preserved hut Herzog visits and compared to an abandoned supermarket, with its century-old canned food), Antarctica can still be a confounding and frustrating place. Much of the affect of Encounters at the End of the World is derived from Herzog’s exhibition of the elements that make the bottom of the earth so frightfully inhospitable for humans, and how humans stubbornly attempt to overcomes those elements. Another team of scientists study seals, fat, beatific beasts that lollygag on ice floes while the humans monitoring them struggle to breathe through frostbitten lips and press their ears to the ice to listen to the animals’ alien sonic emissions. Some beings are better adapted to the harsh climes, at least.

Herzog films a survival school that he has to attend before venturing forth from McMurdo, focusing particularly on a zero visibility exercise in which the participants wear buckets over their heads (with silly faces drawn on the buckets in Sharpie) and follow a lead line to locate the instructor standing by a nearby outhouse. They become hopelessly lost, the line tangled, the team turned in circles, the instructor never found. It’s a sequence full of metaphorical absurdism, redolent of not only man’s hubristic efforts to tame the hostile Antarctic immensity but also of man’s efforts to find existential meaning in a harsh world, instead becoming disoriented and waylaid until it’s too late, like the demented penguin.

Late in this remarkable film, Herzog and his camera visit a team of physicists who launch enormous scientific balloons into the atmosphere to measure the movement of neutrinos. These basic subatomic particles underlie all matter in existence and are constantly, invisibly active all around us, but, the physicist tells Herzog, don’t really seem to do anything. This model of frantic activity with basically no deeper reward echoes Herzog’s evident view of human endeavor as one of lively, magnificent futility. This is an existential construction that is only magnified in the vast void of Antarctica, this gaping Herzogian abyss at the end of the world.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #8

December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Back by total lack of demand, it’s nobody’s favourite search engine term aggregation mockery post! Picked out ten good ones this time for your conspicuous dearth of enjoyment.

why does walter in the big lebowski like structure so much

Because the world’s gone crazy and he’s the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?

did allen iverson use physical prowess

That is a subtly important element of success in athletic competition, I would say.

norway bitches

The new Jay-Z/Kanye West single, built on a fiendishly catchy hardanger fiddle sample.

who in arcade fire is a mormon

I tells ya, that Donny Osmond is everywhere.

what farm in bob caygeon did tragically hip played

This one neither dispels the persistent stereotype of Hip fans as barely-literate hoser proles nor the lingering belief that the band’s famous ballad is actually about a guy named Bob Caygeon in whose body astronomical cohesion is achievable.

film about a psychopath killer meeting a girl at a bar and having a one night stand at her apartment singing “daisy i think i’m crazy”

Good pitch, friend. Did New Line Cinema option it?

will there be a second lone ranger movie

I’m not certain that you fully appreciate how these things function, friend.

meth prices how many seasons in breaking bad

I think he/she snuck in everything after the first two words just to throw off the cops.

ideological home of hockey

*whistle* That’ll be five minutes in the box for unsportsmanlike psychoanalytic deconstruction!

cloning rosslangager

I think one is enough, honestly. Maybe more than enough.

Film Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

December 17, 2013 6 comments

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug (2013; Directed by Peter Jackson)

Even as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy inaugurated a new era of CGI-heavy fantastical blockbusters in Hollywood, it could still be said to stand apart from what followed, distinctly above them. The films were, for those on their wavelength at least, special. Their blend of grand moral sincerity and imaginative bravado was considerable. Most importantly, they were not merely conjured by movie magicians but felt into onscreen being. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien gave his Middle Earth a measure of lived-in reality by building it from the bones of language up, his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lineage of words suggesting characters, relationships and plot points, Jackson’s Middle Earth was conceived and created from the production design up and out. Appearances of different cultures and locations suggested the emotional affect; indeed, the imaginative depth and breadth of the production constructed and deepened that affect.

A similar method was pursued for The Hobbit prequel trilogy as Jackson and his team have returned to their conception of Middle Earth a decade after the original films. Despite the many attractive qualities of opening installment An Unexpected Journey and its white-knuckle thrill-ride of a sequel The Desolation of Smaug, something is falling short, and I’m settling on it being in this very department. I don’t mean, precisely, that the imagined realms of The Hobbit movies are not “faithful” to Tolkien’s imagined realms. That term and the prudish, near-marital convention of moral loyalty that it implies has no use in any discussion that I want any part of on the given subject.

The point I mean to make is that The Lord of the Rings films, for all of their not unradical departures from the canonical text (no Tom Bombadil, Elves at Helm’s Deep, Arwen subbing in for Glorfindel, etc.), demonstrated an imaginative depth that delved deep into the same culturally-rich creative deposits that Tolkien likewise mined for his literary material. Look at the Art Nouveau sinuousness of the Elves, the squared geometry of the Dwarves, the Italianate white stone of Gondor, or Rohan, seemingly excavated directly from the Anglo-Saxon hoard of Sutton Hoo. These are obvious visual examples, but serve to emphasize the overall affect that those films’ depth of creative design (not merely visual but narrative and emotional and intellectual) produced; even if mass audiences did not pick out the specific aesthetic influences, their compliance was persuaded by the unconscious familiarity of this world’s appearance. Just as Tolkien’s literary trilogy drew upon deep-seated European mythology and language to craft a believable and compelling vision of a mythic proto-Europe, so Jackson’s cinematic trilogy drew on not only Tolkien’s material but also on the history of the art and design of Europe (and beyond) to achieve a similar veneer of imagined reality. The Hobbit films, meanwhile, delve only as far as those Rings films and rarely much deeper. In The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson stood on the shoulders of a giant. In The Hobbit, he pulls a prosthetic recreation of those shoulders out of storage and plants himself on them again, expecting us not to notice the difference.

This preface is not intended to dismiss The Hobbit films in general and The Desolation of Smaug in particular, but to place them in their proper context. Taken in this context, The Desolation of Smaug is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, full of thrills and wonder and yearning and cultural particularity. It’s more unabashedly fun than An Unexpected Journey ever allowed itself to be, and not nearly as beholden to the textual canon of Tolkien. These two defining features are not unrelated, and may even share a certain causality. This is certainly the most liberated and playful Peter Jackson film since before his immersion in Middle Earth, and the liberties he and his collaborators brazenly take with the source material surely must be a major reason for that.

After a tangential depiction of the first meeting between Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a familiar inn in rainy, muddy Bree in which the wily wizard convinces a paranoid Thorin to rally his people to take back the inner-mountain realm of Erebor from the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), we pick up the story where the first film left off. Gandalf, Thorin, twelve other colourful dwarves, and putative burgling hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) are on the run, staying just ahead of a pack of warg-mounted orcs led by the vicious Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), who took the head of Thorin’s dwarf-king grandfather and wouldn’t mind having the grandson’s noggin as well.

They flee their pursuers into a series of episodic locales, all with their specific dangers and peculiar character. They first hightail it into the oversized wooden hall of a “skinchanger” man/bear named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who scares off the ninnyhammer orcs by generally being gigantic and ursine. He feeds Bilbo and the dwarves some honey made by bees the size of kiwi fruit and sends them on their way to the forbidding boughs of the great forest of Mirkwood on the back of his ponies. It’s a perfunctory sequence that accomplishes little more than, say, the sojourn with Tom Bombadil in the first book of LOTR excised from the film of The Fellowship of the Ring. But then Beorn is a badass who will surely provide some stupendous orc-mauling in the Battle of Five Armies in the trilogy’s closing film, and he doesn’t sing quite so much, so he still makes the cut.

If I don’t get second breakfast soon, you’re gonna see me get really mad!

Gandalf abruptly dumps the party on the edge of the greenwood, mercurial and unreliable as wizards are wont to be in this world. He’s troubled by portents of doom whispered into his cortex by his ethereal elf-queen telepathic buddy Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, whose voice alone appears in the film), all concerning a gathering dark power mustering in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur at the south of the forest. Gumshoe Gandalf promises to meet his companions at the Lonely Mountain, but scuttles off to some near-inaccessible tombs high in the northern mountains (nine of them, to be foreshadowingly precise). From thence on to Dol Guldur to investigate the true nature of the frightening figure known as the Necromancer, who gathers and sends forth evil beings of all stripes to do his bidding (and might occasionally appear as a flaming eye; you might get the gist of where this is going).

Fortunately for Thorin’s company, Azog is one of those summoned to his Master’s side. He leaves off their trail for the moment, deputizing his son, another hulking orc named Bolg (Lawrence Makoare, a veteran of hero orcs in the Rings trilogy), to hunt them in his stead. But even the orcs know that Mirkwood ain’t nuttin’ to fuck with, and they seem to hold the wiser counsel, as Bilbo and the dwarves become hopelessly disoriented and lost beneath the bewitched canopies of the sorcery-infected woods. Even as Bilbo climbs above the highest branches to catch a reinvigorating glimpse of an autumn sun and fluttering blue butterflies (a gasp of wonder at last), a more menacing shadow descends below. Jackson is fond of contrasting light and dark in this way, and his digital animators craft a swarm of creeping spiders to cocoon the befuddled dwarves for imminent feasting. But the crafty Bilbo, armed with his magic invisibility ring and biting dagger (christened Sting as it slays the hissing arachnids), manages to free them, even if the Ring begins to suggest its capitalization by driving him to unforeseen anger, violence, and possessiveness.

The company’s liberation segues straight into new captivity, however. A guard detachment of the Wood Elves who dwell in Mirkwood wipe out the remaining spider brood, captained by the hot-blooded ginger-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the son of the Elf-King, Legolas (Orlando Bloom, looking older and seemingly sporting different contact lenses). But they transfer the dwarves directly into the dungeons of the King, the imperious Thranduil (Lee Pace, cribbing notes from Tom Hiddleston’s Thor and Avengers villain Loki). He nurses a grudge against Thorin for the loss of some coveted white gems to the usurping dragon, and Thorin nurses that grudge right back for Thranduil’s failure to aid the dwarves in the face of the monstrous worm who stole their home. So no royal pardons for these prisoners, much to the consternation of The Dwarf Who Is Smart (Balin, played by Ken Stott).

Mind you, they’re not all Negative Nellies in this woodland realm, which is manifested as a sort of moonlit Pre-Raphaelite Ewok village. There’s some dialogue referring to a potential romantic frisson between Tauriel and the princely Legolas, though you wouldn’t know it from Bloom’s performance, in which the concept of love confuses him as thoroughly as the concept of death did in Fellowship. Even though Tauriel is the rare elf who can match Legolas as an acrobatically creative warrior, she’s Just Not That Into Him either. Indeed, she seems more smitten of The Dwarf Who Smoulders (Kili, played by Aidan Turner), who isn’t too diminutive and stinky for his sort and tells her nice stories about runestones and starlight. Her fondness might even motivate her to defy Thranduil and follow the dwarves beyond her people’s closely-guarded borders.

Are we sure they aren’t out to reclaim their lost home in SPLASH Mountain?

But first the dwarves have to get beyond those borders, or indeed out of their cells in the elven dungeons. Trust clever Bilbo for that, skulking about with the Ring on and devising a plan to escape the sylvan halls in empty wine barrels. A glorious bit of vintage Freeman physical humour takes them through a trap door and into a fast-flowing river, whereupon the showcase action setpiece of the film begins before steadfastly refusing to end. A thrilling flume-ride running battle rushes downriver, the dwarves hacking at Bolg’s pursuing orc battalion while Legolas and Tauriel balletically slice up the evil buggers with blades and arrows.

The multi-dimensional fight through Goblintown in An Unexpected Journey had some of this sequence’s gleeful abandon, but the barrel chase is pure, giddy, geeky Action Jackson at its finest. It’s really almost too much of a good thing, and stretches on nearly too long with a few too many gags that are simultaneously cute and grotesque (one orc is pinned unsettlingly to an overhanging log like a collected insect; Legolas surfs on a dead body and then stands on the heads of the barrel-riding dwarves while creating a few more corpses). But its delightful peak is fantastic, featuring the barrel-bound Dwarf Who Is Obese (Bombur, played by Stephen Hunter) flipping out of the rapids and bouncing over rocks, logs, and orcs before bursting through the wooden frame into a dervish of spinning blades.

Despite an injury to formidable warrior Kili (He Took an Arrow in the Knee), Bilbo and the dwarves give the orcs and the elves the slip, and pay off a shrewd bargeman named Bard (Luke Evans) to spirit them away to whatever safety he can provide. What he provides is shelter in his home in Lake-town, the nearest surviving settlement to the Lonely Mountain after the coming of Smaug and maybe The Desolation of Smaug‘s most compelling location. True to the design heritage of Jackson’s production team, Esgaroth simultaneously invokes the snow-bound wooden architecture of pre-imperial Russia (also suggested by the onion-dome-like helmets and fur-trimmed uniforms of the city guard) and the grim, canal-hugging traders of the Late Medieval Netherlandish lands.

The Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) broods in his Late Renaissance chambers, a corrupt but wily political animal who sees in the promise of a returned King Under the Mountain a rich opportunity to stave off civil unrest (or worse, elections) and consolidate his local power. The noble Bard, descendant of a Lord of Dale whose city in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain fell to ruin when he failed to slay the marauding dragon with a stylized black super-arrow, fears dire consequences for his town if Thorin awakens Smaug, but shelters and helps the dwarves until they are embraced and outfitted by the authorities for the final leg of their quest and he is arrested for sedition.

Oh dear, I’ve just touched some dragon poop.

Bilbo, Thorin and about half of the dwarves (a few stay behind with the wounded Kili in Lake-town, where Bolg’s marauders expect to find them) continue to Erebor at last, gain ingress to their great halls by dint of more riddle-solving hobbit cleverness, and send their burglar in alone to snatch the Arkenstone, a shimmering gem that promises to rally their people to their cause. More physical comedy in this most stressful of situations follows from Freeman; his dedication to the character of a neurotic British bourgeois fusspot in the face of high-heroic situations remains as true to the written Bilbo as can be, despite the films’ other departures. His nervous shrinking as the true scale of his scaly foe is revealed (and Smaug is indeed irrepressibly massive) emphasizes grandiosity with comedy; it’s another of the film’s great delightful beats.

Bilbo parlays with Smaug (Cumberbatch is blessed with a fine, resonant voice and utilizes its full range, and one fancies that certain visual ticks of his mannered acting are retained by Weta Digital’s artists in the dragon’s expressions) and it’s well-enough done, even if the comedy of manners and peril that animates their exchange in the book is diminished by Bilbo’s treasure-sliding pursuit of the Arkenstone. A genuinely radical departure follows their iconic conversation, as Thorin and the dwarves fashion a trap for the dragon employing their intimate knowledge of their vast ancestral halls, utilizing their towering forges in particular. The sequence seems distinctly second-rate, however, falling well short of the barrel riding for sheer goofy thrills, even if it grants the dwarves a more active role in attempting to rid their realm of the dragon.

As The Desolation of Smaug reaches its sharp cliffhanger ending, it comes time to judge the film and our reactions to it. Critical consensus has it as a superior and more entertaining second chapter after the disappointing opening installment, while early box office receipts indicate that audiences are not responding to it with their dollars as enthusiastically as they did for the commercial hit An Unexpected JourneySuch totalizing classifications (better than, worse than, as good as) only tell us so much. This is a different sort of film, more episodic in narrative construction and more reliant on the imaginative flourishes overlaid by Jackson onto the solid frame of Tolkien’s story and characters.

Yes, there’s a tacked-on fiery dragon-battling finale and a spurious but not wholly tacky Elf/Elf/Dwarf love triangle, and the actioned-up proceedings in general still depart from Tolkien’s scholarly foundations more than ever seems necessary or even prudent. But The Desolation of Smaug is a full-bore entertainment, and a brazen one at that. It demonstrates Peter Jackson fully engaged at fiendish play in the cinematic sandbox for perhaps the first time since The Frighteners, and treats the supposed sanctity of its source material with a bluff disregard that is almost refreshing. This ain’t your older sibling’s Lord of the Rings; heck, it isn’t even the younger Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It’s wackier, weirder, less consistent and less majestic. It’s a furious, fleeting doodle where the earlier trilogy was a careful, permanent etching. The approach is not entirely unworthy of Tolkien’s lighter hobbit’s tale, after all. And as The Desolation of Smaug continues to prove out, it’s not entirely unworthy of filmgoers’ appreciation either.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Iron Man

December 15, 2013 4 comments

Iron Man (2008; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a naturalistic, witty superhero origin story, with a natural, witty hero of an actor at its centre. This is Robert Downey, Jr.’s film, make no mistake, and derives much of its easy charm from its lead, whose derailed career the film’s success launched into the stratosphere. You like Downey’s cavalier, sarcastic, self-involved engineering genius millionaire Tony Stark from the opening moments, or at least like to dislike him. It’s only when he’s encased in the iconic metal exoskeleton and spitting out the occasional dry action-movie one-liner that this goodwill flickers and wanes. But when left on his own, he works some intelligent levity into the pulpy gravity of the superhero proceedings, often while holding one-way conversations with assembly-line robot arms.

The tech is neat, the action well-packaged, the Big Social Themes imparted with just the right comic-book-ish lack of subtlety. Stark’s near-fatal shrapnel injury is sustained not in the Vietnam War as in the comics canon of that period, but while promoting new arms provided to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. There’s still a Good Indian vibe about the noble, thoughtful Afghan doctor (Shaun Toub) who keeps Stark alive by mounting a compact electromagnet on his chest to hold the lethal shards out of his heart, sure. And Stark’s eventual choice to entrust only himself with the tremendous power and weapons-grade potential that the glowing engine on his chest possesses is a metaphor for the arrogant elitism at the core of America’s supposed populist democratic ideals.

If the film has a failing of structure and affect rather than merely ideology, it is in its climactic section, and has everything to do with Jeff Bridges as the treacherous Obadiah Stane. Known for his relaxed affability (he is the Dude, after all), Bridges makes an excellent coiled-snake-in-a-suit for 2/3rds of the film, masking his unsavoury intentions with that magnanimous grin of his. But Bridges flames out when asked to be a cornball megalomaniacal supervillain in a metal war suit, as he is in the final battle. All that angry shouting and malevolent violence is, well, very unDude.

It’s an unfortunate off-key conclusion to what at least started out as one of the most well-crafted comic narratives yet committed to screen. Of course Iron Man benefits not only from a star with quirky charisma to burn but from the clear and compelling narrative arc granted it by the superhero origin story. These can be difficult stories to get right, but are consistently greeted by popular audiences as the most satisfying narratives of the genre, with the rare exception of a villain-driven spectacle like The Dark Knight (released the same year, it could be Iron Man‘s dark mirror).

As the cinematic arm of the superhero comics genre begins to expand, evolve, and flex its newfound muscle with greater creative confidence, however, the privileging of the origin story may begin to diminish. As The Avengers demonstrated, congregating established characters in a single gigantic blockbuster does big-time box-office business, although it took multiple films (this one and its sequel included) to set the stage for such success. Overall, though, the origin story provided in Iron Man constitutes some top-notch blockbuster matinee entertainment on its own stand-alone terms. Audiences were exhorted to get their popcorn, and they most certainly did for this film and for two subsequent installments (so far).

Categories: Film, Reviews

Art, Deception and Oppression from the Same Brush: Michael Frayn’s “Headlong”

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment

On its surface a comic novel drawing from an enduring mystery in the history of art, British novelist Michael Frayn’s Booker-shortlist Headlong is also more deeply a book about the ease of moral corruption and how human drives and desires rush us into wrong more often than they point us along the path to right. The title refers most particularly to a detail in an imagined lost masterpiece that his protagonist comes to feel encapsulates the artist’s social and historical context, his aesthetic impact, and irrefutably proves the work’s provenence. But it also describes the heedlessness of the protagonist’s quest to uncover the truth about the painting and his helpless determination to possess it for himself, if only briefly, before exposing its henceforth-unknown existence to the fine art world.

Frayn’s protagonist is Martin, a young academic who relocates to an English country cottage with his equally young art historian wife Kate and their newborn daughter at the onset of Headlong. The rural sabbatical has a specific purpose: the mercurial Martin has proven to be too easily distracted from writing a planned book, spiralling off into intellectual and scholarly tangents instead of focusing on the vital professional and financial project that it is hoped he will be able to hone in on in the country. The book itself might even be a tangent, or at least the neurotic overthinker Martin (tendencies that delightfully dominate Frayn’s narrative prose) suspects that his wife suspects it is. Ostensibly based in philosophy, Martin nonetheless is chasing a field outside his immediate expertise and in Kate’s realm: he fancies himself a budding art historian as well (an expression of his fondness for her that manifests unwittingly as competition with her), and his book purports to tackle the dry-sounding topic of the impact of nominalism on early Netherlandish art.

Martin’s willingness to pursue intellectual will-o’-the-wisps and become inextricably mired in a morass as a result is thus well and truly established. Predictably, rather than hunkering down to write, Martin becomes obsessed with a painting he glimpses only briefly in the decrepit country seat that neighbours his cottage. Once the impressive estate of the noble Churt clan, Upwood has fallen on leaner days under the unsteady stewardship of current master of the house Tony Churt, a rugged outdoorsman who has more interest in dogs and hunting pheasants than in the artistic family heirlooms strewn about the manor. He’s already sold many paintings to make up for the funds he’s squandered in a variety of ill-conceived schemes, and is receptive to Martin’s offer to broker the sale of more such works.

Martin knows less about selling art than he has made himself learn about analyzing it academically, but his amateuring dealing is all part of an elaborate scheme to get his hands on his true object of desire. The tantalizing painting that he is shown at the end of an uncomfortable dinner at Upwood is, Martin believes, a lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel was a prominent painter in the mid-16th century Netherlands whose masterful landscapes and detailed scenes of peasant life, at once satirical and empathetic, have made his small surviving body of work among the most admired and priceless in European art. Though Martin cannot be 100% certain of it (and never does manage to prove it, even to himself), he comes to believe strongly enough that the oak-panel painting he examines in Upwood’s breakfast-room is not merely a lost Bruegel but the missing sixth painting in the master’s famous cycle of seasons of the year, The Months (most of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).

With reluctant academic, emotional, and financial support from the doubting Kate, Martin plots to raise enough money from selling a massive Baroque Italian painting of the abduction of Helen of Troy for Tony to purchase the supposed Bruegel along with a couple of other Dutch canvases for himself. Keeping his suspicions of the painting’s true provence from the Churts, he will then belatedly “discover” that it covers the missing months in Bruegel’s cycle and achieve notoriety and riches in selling it on to a public institution. Unfortunately, the process of pulling off this con requires not only escalating falsehoods but a painful stretching of Martin’s pecuniary means, of his relationship with Kate, and of the bounds of the law. It will also lead Martin into what increasingly resembles an affair with Churt’s dissatisfied younger wife Laura.

This modern comic pastoral is juxtaposed with Martin’s researches into the Netherlands of Bruegel’s time, which he hopes will uncover some clue, some scrap of evidence that the painting is an authentic Bruegel (and therefore valuable almost beyond measure). Entering unwisely into a dynastic political union with Habsburg Spain in the late 1400s, the Low Countries became a central front in the post-Reformation tug of war between Catholic monarchies and dissenting Protestant nobility. By the time Bruegel was at work in what is now Belgium’s Flemish region (his career roughly covered the 1550s and 1560s, though reliable biographical information is scant), Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II were brutally repressing Calvinists in their Dutch territories through inquisitorial practices, mass arrests and execution, and occasional indiscriminate massacres. Protestants responded with widespread iconoclastic riots, destroying relics, icons, and works of Catholic art in churches throughout the country. Cycles of persecution and retaliation lasted for more than 80 years, until the Dutch Republic emerged from a protracted war and became one of Early Modern Europe’s economic powerhouses by the middle of the 17th Century.

Although a major patron of Bruegel’s was a cardinal and inquisitor who pulled the strings of the Spanish imperial domination of the Dutch, Martin believes that the artist embedded details in his work that would have been easily recognized as commentaries or even satires of the social and political situation in the country at the time. Perhaps naively, he comes to believes that if he can connect the scene depicted in the supposed missing Bruegel spring painting with historical details, it will prove it to be genuine. Even if Martin’s conviction that a chain of academic interpretation can stand in for definitive attribution is a bit silly from an art expert’s perspective, the fact that the telling detail he seizes on (too late, as it happens) is one reflective of violent repression and terror visited upon the populace by the authorities is telling.

Martin does some bad things in the service of what he feels to be the higher purpose of art, but nothing nearly as terrible as the horrors visited upon the Netherlands under Spanish rule. And yet, out of that fire came the eternal masterpieces of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; indeed, with his creations supported by the reign of terror’s mastermind Granvelle, Bruegel was, in a way, a part of that terror, a collaborator, one of his own people’s vicarious executioners. Martin and Kate discuss the relative value of art and of human life at one point in Headlong, and the novel suggests that humanist leanings may not be so accurate in valuing a person over a painting. Martin is wrong to do so, and Frayn is clear enough about that, in his dissembling comic way. But Headlong also suggests that the same irresistible current that carried Bruegel – who painted what could not be painted, as a contemporary put it – to creative pinnacles also sweeps Martin along in crafting and executing his fabulously inventive but morally reprehensible deceptions in order to possess a piece of artistic eternity. And so, more troublingly, it carried (and still carries) the powerful towards oppression of the powerless. The same river waters carry us all, inevitably, to the same deep unknown sea.

Categories: Art, History, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Man of Steel

December 6, 2013 1 comment

Man of Steel (2013; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Probably the most consistently satisfying feature of Zack Snyder’s lavish re-launch of the Superman franchise is its impressive, insistent bigness. From the extraterrestrial pinnacles and shimmering organic technology of Krypton in the prologue to the epic architecture-smashing demi-god fisticuffs that occupy the movie’s later acts, Man of Steel does not leave its overweening enormity to chance, nor does it reconcile its problematic implications. So impressive in scope is Man of Steel that its motions towards a more intimate soulfulness and character-based emotional integrity feel rote and underheated.

This impression of the film as a thumbnail sketch of the sort of epic superhero origin story its scale aspires to is further supported by the unconventional, nonlinear nature of its narrative construction and pacing, at least in the first hour. The backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is imparted in contained, tenuously-connected vignettes, moving back and forward in time and space. His birth and escape as an infant from dying Krypton, enabled by his forward-looking parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) and nearly prevented by the grim super-soldier General Zod (the ever-intense Michael Shannon), might be the purest science-fiction-style telling of Kal-El’s alien beginnings ever committed to film, all operatic drama and CGI bombast and high-flown technobabble uttered to floating robot servants.

Further flashbacks depict his adoption by the rural Kansan couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both wonderfully naturalistic) who found his pod after it crashed to earth and his gradual process of growing up and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities and their social consequences. Young-adult Clark becomes an introverted Wolverine-esque drifter, laying low at his plain-spoken adoptive father’s counsel, working on fishing trawlers and in northern small-town bars under fake names as he tries to conceal his godlike powers. He occasionally fails to adequately normal up, saving oil rig workers from fires, chivalrically trashing a waitress-fondling jackass’ freight truck, and pushing his foundering school bus out of a river as a teenager.

It’s a version of Superman tailored to contemporary tastes, which tend to privilege heroes of all stripes that are moody, introspective, reluctant, and flawed. Clark begins to lose some of his hermit tendencies when a Kryptonian scout ship is found encased in Arctic ice and a hologram of his alien father informs him of his off-world origins and provides him with his iconic suit as a physical embodiment of his inheritance. A more public emergence is forced upon him, however, by two figures. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, a much better casting choice than she’s ever allowed to prove herself to be) traces him back to the Kent family farm, discovering his secret identity before he even properly has one. Then, in a more dire development, General Zod and his eugenicist followers are led to Earth by the lost son of Krypton’s activation of the frozen ship.

Zod demands that Kal-El turn himself in to the General’s custody. After a long night of the soul (which includes a blithely unironic confession to a priest that includes some blatant Christ-figure framing of Supes in front of a stained-glass window depiction of Jesus), he does, only to discover that Zod plans to terraform his adopted planet into a new Krypton. This process won’t be a pleasant one for humanity; a dreamworld nightmare vision of Superman slipping beneath a sea of human skulls prefigures the genocidal likelihood, and the New York City proxy Metropolis bears the brunt of the initial destructive power of this endeavour.

The inter-Kryptonian punch-ups and related widescreen action setpieces that this conflict deems necessary are impressively staged, conceivably “badass”, and shot with Snyder’s rare sense of corporeal clarity. But they are largely without moral consequence, even when they belatedly become openly about morality. The sheer inevitability of the romance between Clark and Lois is also not effectively rendered into a rapprochement that is not telegraphed or rushed. Cavill, though gorgeous and equipped with a triangulated masculine physique that appears nigh-on impossible, seems faintly ashamed by the Byronic hero Superman that David S. Goyer (writing the script with a story assist from Dark Knight trilogy auteur Christopher Nolan) places, Atlas-like, on his shoulders. He does better giving subtle humanizing colour to the classic stand-up all-American superhero, working with uncomplaining dedication to render this Superman as less of an übermensch, as the film would generally have it.

When Superman’s internal struggle externalizes, Man of Steel is undeniably entertaining blockbuster gristle. But the audience’s doubts grow as Clark Kent’s diminish. Without much investment in or engagement with the considerable comic-book cult around this foundational superhero to go on, it’s hard for me to say how Man of Steel rates as an adaptive text. This Superman is certainly not as resistent to large-scale collateral mayhem as the morally upright protector of humanity has tended to be; great swaths of both Smallville and Metropolis are laid to waste as he awesomely fights off his Kryptonian foes. Certain details of his Kryptonian origins and his Kansas upbringing (especially the manner of Jonathan Kent’s death) have shifted slightly, it seems. And of course Lois being in on Clark’s secret identity before it’s even required is a pretty massive canonical change whose dramatic implications are likely to ripple out into sequels, where her collaboration in protecting his secret might prove more narratively rich than a bizarre inability to recognize the square-jawed overman behind the thick nerd glasses.

The übermensch stuff is pretty resilient, though, and merges uncomfortably with the Christ poses (there are some literal crucifixion tableaus, the stained-glass visual association, the wandering in the wilderness, the trope of the saviour sent from above, and knowing references to his age of 33, to name just a few). Smashing a surveillance drone does not make this conception of Superman any less of an embodiment of authoritarian elitism; Christopher Nolan is creatively involved here, after all. Although his two father figures, on Krypton and on Earth, diverge on how this incredible boy should approach his inescapable specialness, they converge on the undeniable impression that his superiority would make on inferior beings. He will resemble Nietszche’s shining ideal of enlightened man, of that they agree. How the world will handle his example is less certain. How Man of Steel handles his example is made clear enough: Superman stands apart from humanity but ever above it. Man of Steel is this Superman’s movie, sure enough. It stands above humanity, and far too apart from it.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Waiting On The Breakdown: Breaking Bad – Season 5

December 3, 2013 5 comments

The final season of Breaking Bad was widely hailed as a cultural event, but it’s far from the series’ peak-level material, sacrificing thematic cohesion and sociopolitical applicability for neat narrative closure via shocking violence. This should not be surprising to dedicated viewers, as the show had been migrating from the study of a moral decline with social critique elements to a New West gangster noir with Bryan Cranston’s iconic anti-hero Walter White as the morally and physically doomed Caesar figure. With some questionable turns and vaguely unsatisfying conclusions, it’s not certain that Breaking Bad ended with the accumulative power that its complex and intriguing saga retained for four previous seasons.

The fifth and concluding season of the show follows hard on the heels of Walter’s assassination of his meth lord boss Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a retirement-home bombing. This act frees him from Fring’s increasingly oppressive control over him and his meth-cooking, allowing Walt to collaborate with longtime partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Fring’s erstwhile jack-of-all-dark-trades Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on their own operation to manufacture and distribute Walt and Jesse’s trademarked blue-tinted, nearly 100% pure product.

This stream of the narrative represents the continuation and indeed the culmination of Walt’s economic progression from responsible penury to dangerous entrepreneurial dabbling in the drug world to wage slavery in a major shadow corporation to final big-dog status at the head of a major operation. Breaking Bad did once find time to consider the harsh social costs of meth use and addiction, but has long since dropped the subject for the violent twists of a gangland storyline emphasizing the constant taking of masculine measure. Even the critique of American health care that was foundational to the show’s concept has long since faded, though it did bubble up again in the third and fourth seasons with Walt’s drug earnings secretly funding Hank’s recover from a cartel hit that Walt directed his way. With these themes slipping into the background, Breaking Bad‘s most thorough and absorbing theme in its closing hours was unquestionably its expansive dark-mirror metaphor for the vagaries of American capitalism.

Deprived of the state-of-the-art meth lab in the basement of a laundromat owned by Fring (Walt and Jesse burned it to cover their tracks after Fring’s death), our non-heroes strike a deal with a pest control business to take their new lab mobile. Cleverly setting up their equipment in houses quarantined for fumigation, the cooks make their product and get out with the homeowners none the wiser. The exterminator cover brings in a new accomplice, a deceptively clean-cut American kid named Todd (Jesse Plemmons) who becomes ever more inculcated in the business and brings a chilling, uncompromising unpredictability and dangerous associations to bear. He’s instrumental in a daring train robbery to acquire a new methylamine supply (a suspenseful caper that may well have been the season’s high point), as well as a shocking murder to keep it secret. His associations come in handy when Walter decides to off the Fring’s toughs in prison that Mike has been paying not to testify to the feds (after Walt semi-accidentally offs Mike).

Todd’s menacing Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his white power gang prove that the extermination business is not just a cover, but quickly move beyond Walt’s ability to control them. They back the tightly-wound Lydia (Laura Fraser), Fring’s former methylamine supplier, in a massacre to take over the blue meth’s distribution arm, and then kill DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) in a desert shootout that frees Walt from custody but also relieves him of most of his meth-trade millions and condemns the long-suffering Jesse into meth-cooking servitude for the gang. All of this precipitates a climactic endgame that brings Walter, his family connections sundered, his cancer returned, his meth empire out of his hands, to a desperate encounter with his deferred fate.

The shattering of Walter’s family bonds happens, ironically, after he attempts to retire from the business that made him rich but also morally crippled him. The turning point is somewhat controversial for being a bit too slight: over at the White abode for dinner, Hank finds a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the washroom signed by murdered meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) to “W.W.” This single drop overfills the cup of Hank’s suspicion, and he realizes that Walter White is not merely Gale’s lab partner but also “Heisenberg”, the shadowy mastermind of the meth trade that he has hunted for months on end. It’s a neat little device, and a flashback to a conversation that Hank and Walter had about the true identity of W.W. (Boetticher scrawled a similar dedication in his lab notebook) cinches the connection. But it is odd that this detail sets Hank after Walter rather than other seemingly more telling ones.

Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, coming into her own in these last episodes) stands by him when his true nature is exposed, to an extent; she’s so deeply implicated in his money laundering scheme that to do otherwise would be to self-incriminate. But after Hank’s death, which Walter does not claim credit for but does not effectively deny engineering either, all ties are cut. Walter is relocated by an agent of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to a cabin in snowbound New Hampshire, and even his once-worshipful son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) won’t engage with him or accept his attempts to send money. At this low ebb, Walter sees his former friends and scientific business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessice Hecht) on Charlie Rose disavowing his role in the founding of their lucrative firm, Gray Matter.

This last insult, this erasure of the greatest achievement of his respectable life, spurs Walter into a final acceptance of his achievements in the meth underworld. In his final meeting with Skyler, he finally admits to her that he did it all not for the good of his now-broken family, a rhetorical feint he constantly returned to in justifying his actions, but for himself, for his pride, ego, and sense of masculine self-fulfillment.

This is the thematic message that resonated most strongly as the credits rolled on the series finale, of a mutated modern form of capitalist competition that can only be effectively conquered by circumvention of the rules of society and of basic morality. The message itself is shared with many recent notable American TV novels, from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men to The Wire to Deadwood and beyond, no doubt. Breaking Bad was a narratively absorbing, cinematically-scoped, character-driven drama that explored well-worn themes of contemporary American society and culture. If it stood out from the other television luminaries mentioned, it was on the basis of its particular approach to those visual storytelling elements rather than any unique or groundbreaking thematic or metaphorical incisiveness. Breaking Bad had a tone and an aesthetic vision all its own, but not necessarily one that placed it above all others.

Categories: Reviews, Television