Archive for February, 2014

TV Quickshots #15

February 26, 2014 2 comments

Downton Abbey (ITV; 2010-present)

A hit in its domestic country with Brit broadcaster ITV, English period drama Downton Abbey has proven phenomenally popular with American audiences who catch it on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. British audiences can mostly be counted on to situate such a frothy soap opera of conservative ruling-class historical apologia in its proper context. But the show is convincing proof that their Yankee cousins will buy into nearly anything of even a vaguely respectable British pedigree as richly nuanced serialized artistry. Downton Abbey is, at its heart, as frothy and sensationalistically-plotted as Stateside primetime soaps like Dallas, and every bit as addictively watchable. But lacquer on some stiff manners, posh Received Pronunciation, and a country manor house setting, and many viewers will greet it as a latter-day televised Forster or Galsworthy novel, despite its lower leanings.

Taking place about a century ago, Downton Abbey is set in and around the titular (and fictional) aristocratic estate in Yorkshire. Presided over by the locally-admired but generally inept and rusting hereditary Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Downton is a busy little world of shirt-and-tails dinners, fickle marriageable daughters, distantly-related male heirs, gossiping and squabbling servants, and a gradually encroaching and shifting social function. Incorporating historical events like the Titanic disaster, the Russian Revolution, women’s suffrage, the Irish independence movement, and World War I, the narrative and themes focus on a traditional ruling elite whose centuries-old position at the top of Great Britain’s socioeconomic pyramid is becoming gradually more precarious.

But the world(view) of Downton endures, and for all of his gestures towards historical progression, creator Julian Fellowes feels that preservation of the ruling class’ gilded status quo is right and good. No less than a Conservative member of the House of Lords (imagine a Republican U.S. Senator showrunning a fawning portrayal of honourable Texas oil tycoons, and you might get at the idea of his creative placement), Fellowes indulges the air of noblesse oblige with extreme fondness and patience, introducing hints of its eventual undoing only to provide narrative conflicts to be overcome by his aristocratic principals. When a genuine break with the traditional and the customary is achieved, it is only admitted with the expressed approval of the ruling elite. Maggie Smith’s barb-tossing Dowager Countess deigns to allow a talented but long-underappreciated county gardener win a flower show prize instead of awarding it to herself as she usually does, for example. This is a perfect example of Downton Abbey‘s strain of paternalistic conservative permissiveness of incremental social change. Only through the magnanimity of the haves can the have-nots share in any larger measure of the socioeconomic spoils.

This conservatism, with its very British emphasis on order and decorum, dominates the show. World War I breezes by, claiming minimal sacrifices from the great old house and its denizens and spurring plentiful platitudes about brave boys serving their country while non-servicepeople keep spirits up on the homefront. Newly-minted heir to the Grantham estate Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) seems to spend more time on leave at the house than he does in the trenches, and when Downton becomes a convalescent home for wounded officers, the family’s hardship at eating meals as table tennis goes on at the other end of the room is constructed as practically equivalent to the anguish of warfare.

Look behind the hints of ideology and the prim quasi-literary exterior, however, and Downton Abbey is really a slice of silly, manipulative trash entertainment. Plot and subplot supply lines are maintained mainly through constant eavesdropping and ineffectual confidences. “Can you keep a secret?” lady maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) asks her mistress Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently unaware from two-plus seasons of onscreen history that nobody in the damned house can. Someone is always listening in or about to waltz into a room when something of consequence is being discussed by others. When loose lips are not sinking proverbial ships, developments of convenience abound. The Great War arrives just in time to shuffle the servant ranks which were becoming unsustainably tense, as well as to provide independently-minded Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) an occupational outlet in the form of nursing. A perfectly-timed outbreak of the Spanish influenza removes Matthew’s devoted but soppy fiancee (Zoe Boyle) just in time for him to belatedly get together with longtime love interest Mary.

This is enjoyable potboiler material, but it’s a dime-store version of imperial-vintage British social literature distilled into episodic portions for modern tastes and attention spans. Eventually Lord Grantham is snogging the new maid, Sybil is running away with the Irish socialist chauffeur, and the servants are employing a ouija board to anticipate narrative developments. It’s got to be hard for even the most devoted Downton fan to fail to fess up to the fundamental pulpy goofiness of the whole enterprise, when faced with such evidence. Fellowes’ realm of romantic anachronism lacks the depth and subtlety of the great literature it is referencing, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the politically conservative but wonderfully frivolous Downton Abbey is not appointment television anyway.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Ender’s Game

February 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Ender’s Game (2013; Directed by Gavin Hood)

Orson Scott Card’s compelling late-1970s science fiction novel, once amusingly summarized as “Kids Accidentally Commit Genocide”, gets a handsome, (self-)serious, reasonably involving big-screen adaptation from South African writer/director Gavin Hood. The translation process preserves much of the material’s scope and moral dimension while scrubbing its less compromising elements and de-emphasizing its political implications, mind you. But the relative strength of the final product is notable given the long delays in eventual production, the downward pressures of Hollywood content policing, and the notoriously careful and outspoken nature of the narrative’s literary creator.

To properly discuss Ender’s Game and its themes and significations, rampant plot spoilers are inherently necessary. In addition to soliciting forgiveness for these, I’d ask for some tolerance of my attempts to analyze the particulars of the film’s adaptation of the novel, which despite my familiarity with its concept and themes, I have not read. Decades in the future, Earth is still recovering from the trauma of what was understood as a hostile invasion by locust-like extraterrestrials known as Formics. According to pre-packaged propaganda, the attack was fended off by the sacrifice of a brave pilot named Mazer Rackham, who detonated his payload into one of the Formic motherships and drove them off in a swarm back to their home planet.

In anticipation of another Formic attack that is consistently spoken of as being imminent, the best and brightest human children are being trained for battle strategy and warfare by a militaristic space agency called the International Fleet. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (the intense Asa Butterfield) is perhaps the most promising cadet in his or any age group in Battle School, defeating even his older peers at the war games that are the staple of their training and outflanking them physically and psychologically in the bully/bullied hierarchy of every school in every time.

Tested and challenged by his imperious superior and mentor Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender seeks to overcome the failings of his elder siblings, the aggressive Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and the empathetic Valentine (Abigail Breslin), by balancing the former’s ruthless application of force with the latter’s emotional intelligence. Or so International Fleet hopes, as they have singled Ender out as the likeliest candidate to lead a child-captained tech-fleet on a pre-emptive strike on the Formics’ home system. Gaining the allegiance and admiration of his fellow cadets and removing obstacles to his success such as antagonistic squad leader Bonzo (Moisés Arias), Ender builds a strong team, wins capture-the-flag-style battle-games in the space-dome arena of the orbital school, and hones his fleet command skills in anticipation of a final graduation game simulating an assault on the Formic planet.

As readers of Ender’s Game and its multitude of sequels will be aware and as fresh but astute viewers of the film will likely predict in the ramp-up to it, this climactic war “game” is no game at all. It’s a genuine assault under the cloak of a test exercise, and when Ender utilizes his battle arena stratagems to destroy all life on the Formic planet (living up to his heavy-handed nickname), it is revealed to be not a simulated but a real genocide. Having already met the very-much-alive Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley with Maori facial tattoos and a dodgy Kiwi accent) in the latter stages of his training, Ender is aware that the official version of the fightback against the Formic invasion is a propagandistic fabrication and that the Formics retreated like wounded animals after the blow to their homeship, like ants having lost their queen (although an ant colony without a queen doesn’t simply give up the ghost but continues toiling until dying out, but I digress). But Colonel Graff’s revelation of the boy’s leading role in wiping out an entire species is a further and greater disillusionment.

Published in 1985 at the height of Reagan America’s conservative sabre-rattling against the crumbling Soviet Union, Card’s novel was a distinctly unsubtle but nonetheless potent broadside against propagandistic Cold War discourse. Imagining a militarized future which brainwashed its children into becoming inadvertent genocidal warriors is no great stretch in speculative fiction; The Hunger Games has recently and lucratively turned our social concern for the protective space of childhood into a nightmarish cautionary tale of centralizing media and political control and of the concurrent spectacularizing of violence. Propaganda, militarism and a bureaucratic structure built on spin, deceit, and ideological framing can lead to great horrors, the self-identified moderate Democrat Card was saying.

This is a message of no less currency in the contemporary America of the War on Terror, with its indefinite detention, unconstitutional surveillance, and demonizing of foreign others and of domestic resisters alike. Hood’s adaptation gestures to the propagandistic hype and the institutional mistruths underlying the genocide, but deactivates the push-button associations to current affairs as much as possible. True, the fighters in the final assault are referred as drones, those robotic airborne precision-killers of the Obama Administration’s ceaseless covert war. But Card’s narrative reality of the unifying nature of the anti-Formic crusade holding political fragmentation and destabilizing planetary conflict at bay is glossed, or perhaps just saved for sequels that, given the milquetoast box office returns, may never happen.

There is much of this neutering of the source material, despite the general integrity of the onscreen product. The Formics are uniformly referred to as “Buggers” in the original text, emphasizing the ugly pejorative nature of the humans’ propaganda campaign (and perhaps crystallizing the publically anti-same-sex-marriage Card’s underlying homophobia in a symbolic association of Others). They are Formics alone in the film, reflecting a similar politically-correct shift by Card himself in the subsequent books in the series. Furthermore, Ender’s natural ruthlessness is diminished via the softening of his dispatching of the various bully figures aligned against him in Battle School. All of the boys he clashes with wind up dead on the page, but Hood’s film makes a particular point of recognizing that Bonzo, who bumps his head after trying to ambush Ender in the shower, survives at least, and that Ender is touched enough by the event to visit his injured rival’s hospital bed.

Not all of the changes and translations reduce the material’s affect, however. The animated “mind games” designed to test Ender’s mental acuity and moral compass are rendered a bit like PS3 cut-scenes, but rely hearteningly on symbolic connections to the textual themes without heavy-handed gestures towards enforced meanings. The expansion of the role of Ender’s sole female peer Petra (Hailee Steinfield) is sensibly done and never spirals into a conventional romantic subplot. Even if Ender’s Game is never quite exciting, can get enmeshed in the trap of its own sense of importance, and weakens its political applicability with progressive, corporate-derived sensitivity, it’s a solid, well-crafted vision of the material for the big screen whose failings are not those of artistic incompetence but of over-conscious self-censorship. It’s more a game than a real war, but what a convincing game it manages to be at most times.


Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Television Review: About a Boy

February 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

About a Boy – Premiere




Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Lego Movie

February 19, 2014 4 comments

The Lego Movie (2014; Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

The Lego Movie is a culturally-significant contradiction. The film stands up for creativity and individuality as expressed primarily through the titular mass-consumer product building-block medium. It protests against the dangers of corporate consolidation while boasting supporting and cameo appearances by DC Comics superheroes and other famous characters (Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore from Harry Potter) from the rights stable of Time-Warner corporate consolidation and beyond (Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, probably others I missed). It is anti-conformity while conforming to animated adventure tropes (and, to be fair, sending up more than a few as well). It makes an explicitly anti-corporate thesis statement while being visually constructed of literally thousands of corporate logos in every frame.

The Lego Movie delights in its contradictions, however, and that saves it from being swallowed up in them. It thrills at the suggestion of its own self-negation, repeatedly flips the concept of tonal or metaphorical consistency head over heels, and spirals off giddily in clever asides, inventive visuals, and boundless, wall-demolishing energy. Though its text self-consciously celebrates the disordered, nonsensical creative exhilaration of a child with only a Lego set and a limitless imagination, the construction and character of the text itself is the greatest celebration of that enervating impulse imaginable.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have been working towards something as chaotically hilarious and anarchically absorbing as The Lego Movie for their whole careers, from cult MTV cartoon Clone High through the glorious feature animation surprise Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to their recent (and I thought disappointing) live-action comedy hit 21 Jump Street. Their humour vibrates with rapid-fire wit, yes, but also the unfettered hyperactive verve of a child on a sugar high unleashed on an unsuspecting birthday party. One sequence of the movie involves an excitable 1980s-vintage astronaut Lego figure (Charlie Day) flying the interstellar craft he built at high speed, blasting everything in sight while exclaiming, “Spaceship, spaceship, spaceship!” It’s funny as heck, but it’s also a perfect exemplification of the similarly excitable and iconoclastic Lord/Miller creative approach.

Plotwise, the writer/directors pay lip service to narrative conventions of their chosen genre/form while gleefully upending them. Emmett (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in the urban setting of a universe constructed entirely out of Lego pieces. He and his fellow yellow-faced peons toil, consume, and follow the patterns set down by President Business (Will Ferrell), who simultaneously runs the government and the largest corporation in this particular world (speaking of consolidation). Working unreflectively off of a set of instructions that govern every moment of their lives, the Lego people commute to their repetitive jobs, buy overpriced coffee, cheer for the local sports team, watch and quote the same formulaic sitcom (“Where Are My Pants?”), and cheerfully enjoy the same chipper pop anthem, “Everything is Awesome” (performed by Tegan and Sara with a guest appearance from comedy-rappers The Lonely Island). “This is my jam!” one of President Business’ robot minions exclaims when he hears the song. “This is also my jam!” adds a second robot.

The robotic conformity and forced artificial happiness of the song and thus the entire society and culture is made blatantly obvious, and further emphasized by the herky-jerk movements of the singular Lego-mation method (masterfully, amusingly computer-animated to look like stop-motion). This stultifying order is enforced by President Business, who moonlights as Lord Business, an implacably evil controller of everything whose minions and secret police eliminate anything “weird” or unique or non-conformist, often with the help of a set of non-Lego “relics” which include chewing gum, a used Band-Aid, and a tube of Krazy Glue missing some letters from use. This last relic, dubbed the Kragle (all the relics have such high-fantasy magical-object names based on misreadings of their labels), is one Lord Business has special plans for: he intends to use tentacular nozzles and fastidious arranger-bots called Micromanagers (both mechanical beings straight out of The Matrix sequels) to spray glue on and then pose everything in his world to keep it from changing or moving or becoming anything that he hasn’t expressly allowed it to be.

But not everyone in the Legoverse is into following the rigid rules set forth from the pinnacle of a corporate tower (Lord Business’ is ludicrously towering). While stumbling around his construction site, Emmett meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks, a reliably fine comic actress), a freaky-creative outsider called a Master Builder who is in search of a relic that can neutralize the Kragle and free all Lego folk to, well, not conform quite so much. This Piece of Resistance (har) is found by Emmett and becomes attached to his back, which leads not only Wyldstyle’s free-spirited ilk but also Lord Business’ authoritarian subalterns (primarily Good Cop/Bad Cop, voiced by Liam Neeson, a split-personality secret policeman) to pursue him and the relic with the future of the Lego civilization at stake.


Why do I feel like Christopher Nolan never played with Lego?

Wyldstyle and Emmett escape the city in a dizzying, joyful action sequence of hand-to-hand claw-to-claw combat, chases, improvised vehicle construction, and explosions (which are made of Lego, as is water, clouds, etc. Everything is made of Lego). They hook up with a blind prophesizing wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, a deadpan cut-up) in an Old West set, are saved from a train crash by Batman (Will Arnett, whose self-aggrandizing cool-guy goth artist take on the character steals the show), and make their way to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a disorganized fantasyland of unlimited (and undirected) creative expression that is the refuge of the Master Builders and locus of the resistance against Lord Business. Together, they will enact that resistance, sometimes by unsettling the official conformity, sometimes by aping it, and finally by trespassing into a world that looks quite like our own.

Lord and Miller are back in animation again after 21 Jump Street and are at the top of their game, so this frequently very, very funny stuff, though describing why would consist of repeating the movie’s jokes and there’s already been enough of that in this review. The Lego Movie is a ball, but it’s also a parable of individual self-interest vs. collective action for the common good, like a lot of other recent animated films that seem pitched to prepare child viewers ideologically for the basic give-and-take between those two opposing interests which defines adult citizenship in a capitalist democracy.

As mentioned, The Lego Movie ultimately celebrates the intrinsic value of imaginative play and its extension into creative endeavours in maturity. But it also recognizes that at least some of the cooperative structures of Lord Business’ totalitarian conformity have some value, too, if only to channel creative impulses towards practical ends. To succeed in their quest, the Master Builders must teach Emmett to let go of his sheep-like tendency to follow the instructions and learn to create new objects from the blocks that make up the world around him, as they do so skillfully. But they also must learn to function as a team, which means compromising on their individual creativity and adapting it to the larger goal, and the natural conformist Emmett can teach them a bit about that.

The contradictions of the consumer capitalist system are therefore reflected and commented upon by The Lego Movie so effectively because those contradictions are also those of the Lego creative medium itself. Lord and Miller descry something pure and exciting in the idea of a child playing with Lego and deciding to deviate from the provided instructions and build something new and unique, even if it doesn’t look like what’s on the box. Surely there are some sales and marketing execs at the Lego Group who are working hard to sell movie franchise tie-in pre-designed sets who are mortified by this message. But The Lego Movie is a 100-minute ad for their products, and for other companies’ products as well.

It’s also, vitally, a statement of doubt concerning the wisdom of the corporate consolidation and assimilation that those execs would see as valuable while simultaneously, and also vitally, recognizing that treating Lego (or any other creative medium that can be construed as a consumer product) as a “piece of resistance” to corporate domination is to do much of the dominators’ work for them. The Lego Movie is rich in visual detail, humour, and prodigious imagination, but it’s also surprising rich in its depiction of the complex dance of position-takings, disavowals and implications that constitutes the creative process in the milieu of consumer capitalism. “Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” declaims the peppy chorus of “Everything is Awesome”. The lyric is a satirical jab at collectively-focused corporate conformity, but the collaborative nature of a wonderful animated film like The Lego Movie proves that it can be taken as sincere as well.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: No Highway in the Sky

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment

No Highway in the Sky (1951; Directed by Henry Koster)

Diverting enough for a movie full of men talking about planes, No Highway in the Sky also gives onscreen voice to rising anxieties concerning the increasing prevalence and deceptive safety of then-fresh air travel in the early 1950s.

Jimmy Stewart plays awkward, guffawing aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey, who toils mostly thanklessly for a British government aircraft research agency. Generally more at home in wind tunnels and with airplane schematics than with humans, Honey is nonetheless honourable and perhaps a bit too honest and decent. He’s a single father to a brainy daughter named Elspeth (Janette Scott) who’s more interested in books and knowledge than in dresses and baubles; the presence of a female authority figure in her life will go a long way towards reinforcing this gender-role discrepancy, and the subplot focusing on her and Honey acquiring such a feminine pole carries some of the period’s dated, traditional gender implications.

For a film about the cutting-edge air transport industry and the profound change it was affecting on Western civilization, No Highway in the Sky (based on the novel by Nevil Shute, best-known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach) is itself rather traditional, or at least doubtful of technologically-enabled progress in a classically Burkean conservative sort of way. Honey comes to suspect strongly that the crash of an airliner in Labrador is caused by fundamental flaws in the structural design of the airplane and catastrophic failure will surely result after a calculated number of flights hours is surpassed. Unable to prove this conclusively without extensive stress test being completed over time in his lab, Honey’s warnings fall on deaf ears and flights in the offending craft continue heedless of his doomsaying. I was waiting hopefully for a signature Stewart-esque line like “Your planes are going to go down in flames, you dithering limeys!”, but to no avail.

This leads inevitably to Honey going all Mr. Smith Goes To Washington on the doubting establishment, particularly when he finds himself on a flight of the flawed aircraft model in question after it had surmounted the fatal flight-hours ceiling. With only a movie star playing a movie star (Marlene Dietrich, her slow-burning glamour a laughable mismatch for the aw-shucks All-Americana of Stewart, though they do spark nicely anyway) believing him on board, he’s forced to take drastic measures to prevent what he feels to be an imminent disaster.

I’m not sure James Stewart is necessarily made for roles like this, but he sure liked to play them. It’s a valid enough position for his brand of down-home sensible uprightness, certainly, and his principled opposition to progress without a rigorously careful eye to security is emblematic of the conservative but empathetic America he’s often taken to represent onscreen. No Highway in the Sky may be a British film, but the presence of the clean-cut everyman actor from Indiana, Pennsylvania (he’s so American, his hometown shares a name with another state) aligns it inescapably with Middle America and that region’s skeptical approach to all things new-fangled or unfamiliar. This is the quintessential theme of social progress in America: a motivating urge to extend frontiers while obsessively preserving the established homestead of the status quo from any destabilizing upheaval.

With all that said, I’ve no real idea what Marlene Dietrich is doing in this film, exactly, although with this plot she could only be a movie star playing a movie star and hope for the best. The film itself takes a similar approach, and winds up as a slight amusement; this is no great or memorable work, despite its resonances. A final observation must also be reserved for the sensationalist release poster above, which is great. Prepare yourself, moviegoer, for spectacular, fiery air crashes… but not in this movie, there are no air crashes in this movie. For all that movie marketing has changed deeply, in some ways it remains basically, depressingly the same.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Room 237

February 12, 2014 3 comments

Room 237 (2012; Directed by Rodney Ascher)

Room 237, a documentary presenting a selection of interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, is not only about various perceived meanings of one specific movie but more broadly about how films create meaning. Even more than that, it’s about how viewers create meaning, how they read a film, and how a density of symbolically-charged images can direct those readings in many divergent (and sometimes dubious) directions.

Rodney Ascher’s documentary is unconventional but striking, and never as boring as a 90-minute film of unseen people speaking over a series of film clips ought to be. Intercut audio of Ascher’s interviews with his five obsessive Kubrick analysts forms the soundtrack to edited-together scenes from The Shining, other Kubrick films like Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, and seemingly unrelated films and archival photos to form a sound-picture diagram of interpretations provocative and wild, erudite and considered, tenuous and laughable. Visually, it’s made up entirely of borrowed and repurposed images, which seems meant to reflect Kubrick’s own dense web of charged symbols and ambiguous referents in The Shining.

The most prominent analysts, and the ones whose theories about the film’s meanings are most likely to be recognized by cinephiles and even more casual moviegoers, are Bill Blakemore and Geoffrey Cocks. Blakemore, an ABC reporter, wrote an essay for The Washington Post in 1987 discussing The Shining as a metaphor for the genocide of Native American peoples by European settlers. Film historian Cocks, for his part, understood The Shining as Kubrick’s heavily-veiled attempt to symbolically represent the deep psychic horrors of the Holocaust without tackling the subject matter directly onscreen, as he contemplated doing throughout his career but never did get around to.

Their readings are the most academically grounded, the most consistent and complete, and the most intellectually plausible of those presented. Cocks’ is more of a speculative stretch, often relying on fuzzy numerology, Jack Torrance’s German-made typewriter, and haphazard thematic and visual similarities to Thomas Mann novels and Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Blakemore’s reading, though it was sparked by a conspicuous can of Calumet Baking Powder, is internally consistent and compelling, greatly supported by the Indian-inflected decorative patterns of the Overlook Hotel, Jack’s reference to the “white man’s burden” and the memorable detail of the hotel being built on a Native burial ground. Blakemore builds up to a powerful thesis about historical memory and forgetting that centres on the legendary, terrifying, ambiguous image of blood cascading out of (closed) elevators, which he believes is both a literal reference to the hotel’s elevator shafts sinking down into the corpses of the graveyard beneath and a metaphor for the erection of a modern American capitalism superstructure on the widespread but disavowed denuding of the continent’s autochtonal population.

But Ascher gives a not-unequal portion of this cinematic soapbox to a charlatan on a wild goose chase and to a conspiratorial nutcase. Juli Kearns offers up a reading whose focal point is Theseus and the Minotaur, not an invalid reference point considering the literal labyrinth of the hedge maze outside the Overlook and the functional labyrinth of the jumbled, architecturally impossible interior rooms and corridors of the hotel itself. But her leaping-off point is a ski poster that she believes to resemble a minotaur when, in fact, it’s totally a guy skiing and not a goddamn minotaur, sorry.

Even more ridiculous is the theory woven by Jay Weidner, who understands The Shining as Stanley Kubrick’s artistically-obscured mea culpa for participating in faking the footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. You read that right, and if you see the movie, you will hear that right. The technical particulars of Weidner’s arguments have more to do with 2001, but he does link Danny Torrance’s Apollo 11 sweater into it, if you must know.

Ascher cannily titles Room 237 after the mysterious core of bizarre, unsettling psychic energy in The Shining, and it likewise stands for a vibrating interpretive engine of the film’s potential implications. All of the analysts agree that Room 237 is significant. John Fell Ryan, whose interpretations run towards the psychological and who interrogates Kubrick’s self-evident Freudian influences, sees it as a nerve centre of disturbing sexualized imagery. Cocks’ Nazi-centric numerology leads him to multiply the digits of the room number and get 42, as in 1942, the year Nazi Germany purposely embarked on the pitiless bureaucratic process of exterminating Europe’s Jews. Weidner ludicrously reads a word game with the room key’s tag hanging in the lock, meanwhile. The tag reads “ROOM No. 237”, and he breathlessly explains that the only two words that can be spelled with the most-visible capitalized letters are “room” and “moon”. I would posit insolently that they also spell out the word “moron”.

What does Room 237‘s obsessive chasing of interpretive clues down any and every available rabbit hole ultimately tell us about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? It tells us that meaning is not merely a matter of authorial intention but very much of audience engagement and understanding, as one narrator states near the documentary’s end. But plenty of films feature embedded ambiguity and unstable symbolism and have not inspired the disparate variety of readings that The Shining has. What makes this film so special when it comes to metaphorical discussion?

Maybe an answer to this riddle in the form of another interpretation can be ventured. Room 237 makes the recurrent, meticulously-arranged visual patterns of The Shining highly apparent, and every analyst wrestles with the schematic nature of Kubrick’s construction of the Overlook Hotel setting in their own way. It’s a self-contained haunted mansion of geometric patterns that gradually becomes a disorienting house of mirrors. Kubrick very carefully and deliberately establishes the layout of the hotel premises, first through the Torrances’ tour of facility and then through Danny’s Big Wheel rides through the halls. The repeating patterns on the carpets and decorative wall features become visual focal points, suggestions of an uncanny continuity that the film’s famous final shot suggests has consumed Jack while he has become disoriented and lost in the literal frozen maze as his sanity has inside the hotel.

Kubrick’s film is a series of patterns, repeating and melding into each other as the present and the past feed back into each other with the deepening of Jack’s derangement and of Danny’s preternatural titular mental gift. The key instance on which to conclude this consideration without firm interpretive closure is one pointed to with great intent in Room 237. As can be seen below, before Danny makes his fateful journey into Room 237, he plays with his trucks along the lines of a repetitious polygonal carpet design. Kubrick’s composition is deliberate and symmetrical, as ever, and when a ball rolls up to Danny to draw his attention from his toys, it travels straight up the passage of sorts formed by the rug pattern. But when Kubrick cuts to a shot of Danny standing up, the pattern has shifted: the boy, his toys, and the ball are now all contained (trapped?) inside the carpet’s polygon, and the passage appears closed. The Shining is a film of just such tantalizing symbols, opening up possibilities but then closing them, losing them, allowing them to sink into larger patterns. But a film of patterns is an irresistible territory to attempt to map, and the enthusiastic cartographers of Room 237 prove that conclusively, even if they cannot do the same for their various theories.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #14

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

The Hour: Season 1 (BBC; 2011)

Not to be confused with George Stroumboulopoulos’ CBC talkshow (and the Ceeb changed its name anyway, so no one would), The Hour recreates the threadbare mid-1950s at Britain’s public broadcasting giant. It’s 1956, and a team of young journalists have set out to mount a new sort of pointed, challenging, and intellectually robust news program on the fledgling medium of television. Ambitious female producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) will head the program under the stewardship of BBC vet Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser), who recruits upper-class product Hector Madden (Dominic West) to serve as on-camera anchor. Bel’s longtime platonic bosom-buddy and creative foil Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is eventually convinced to come on board as well, but it’s no easy task to keep the fidgety, anti-authoritarian iconoclast on task, let alone in check.

Current events throw this team a juicy softball in the form of the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Hungary and the precipitation of the Suez Crisis between Egypt, Britain and France over the ownership of the vital shipping canal. After some initial stumbles in tone and with Madden’s eager-to-please onscreen manner, “The Hour” begins to hit its stride by poking holes in the British government position on Suez. This is professionally dangerous, as Britain had laws against direct criticism of government policy on television at the time, but Freddy’s rabble-rousing lights a fire of journalistic bravery under his collaborators. At the same time, Freddy investigates an espionage plot involving MI6 and Soviet intelligence agents that leaves a childhood friend dead and may even stretch into the halls of the BBC.

Superficial comparisons to similar period-piece Mad Men dogged The Hour, but it’s much less concerned with the pressures of social convention or the culture of boozing, smoking, and humping that absorbs everyone’s favourite fictional advertising agency. Not that there isn’t boozing, smoking, and humping here. Freddy, Bel and Hector are set up in obvious romantic-triangle terms outside of their press activities. Bel and Hector feel a mutual attraction and begin an unwise but passionate affair (Hector is married). Bel and Freddy speak the shared language of soulmates, even if the sexual chemistry that the tension of the triangle relies upon fizzles and winks out in their case. The tension of Freddy’s paranoid subplot is sometimes similarly inert, although the exhilirating discomfort of the unprecedented rabble-rousing live broadcast in the sixth episode more than makes up for it.

The Hour is delightfully, sharply written and perfectly well-acted, and it was allowed only one further set of six episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled for low ratings. It remains to be seen, by this critic in particular, if further material could be desired or if two seasons are just enough, as they often are with quality British television product. Updates to follow upon viewing the second season.

Animal Cops (Animal Planet; 2002-2012)

This enduringly watchable authorities-shadowing documentary series on the activities of SPCA and animal control organizations in various cities across the United States is nothing too difficult or sophisticated. In cities like Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Detroit, animal control agents from SPCAs or other local humane societies work smartly and doggedly (har) to rescue abused animals from cruel situations and sometimes bring the offenders who placed the poor creatures into those situations to justice as well. Most commonly breaking up dogfighting rings and busting puppy mills, the agents also save cats from trees, raccoons from under buckets, horses from unsanitary urban stables, and empty out an extensive private menagerie of bears and even a tiger from unsatisfactory conditions with the aid of zookeepers.

There is a feel-good focus on rehabilitated animals becoming pets in loving homes, though not all of the rescued animals make it. There are frequent PSA-style promotions of the agencies’ activities built into the narration as well; their cooperation in allowing filming carries the price of mild propagandistic messages in their own favour, which is probably fair. Like TV-vérité stretching back to COPS at least, Animal Cops feeds on the viewer’s desire to judge their fellow humans and find them not only wanting but criminally so. Combine this with the feel-good element of cute, afflicted animals winding up happy and loved, and you have foolproof leave-it-on television.

But Animal Cops‘ simplicity of construction and conventionality of presentation does not prevent it from being one of the most penetrating and accurate portrayals of American urban decay in the multi-channel universe. Especially in slowly-crumbling cities east of the Mississippi like Detroit and Philly, the persistent mistreatment of animals is a marker of the cruel spiral of poverty and social deprivation in the richest nation on earth. This resonant undercurrent makes Animals Cops more than your average ride-along doc show, if only by a little.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half”: Meticulously Analyze All The Things!

February 7, 2014 1 comment

Skepticism really must be the prevailing sentiment when faced with print releases of Internet cultural phenomena. Though there is no quantifiable reason to understand book-form versions of popular Twitter humour accounts like The Tweet of God or Shit My Dad Says or popular blogs like Stuff White People Like as somehow inferior to the online originals, it’s tempting to make that precise judgment. It’s also entirely reasonable to question why anyone would pay for something in bulky codex form when they can get the same precise content for free on the web.

But as fundamentally outdated as literary publications might seem to net-savvy millenials, the book still boasts a cultural capital, a recognized currency with a wide spectrum of the population, that a website does not. To publish a book is still, for whatever it might be worth, widely considered to be the greater accomplishment than publishing a website. Even if many more millions of readers can casually surf to a site for free than will ever pay money to read the same precise content in a book, some thousands likely still will buy the book. And for any creative individual, the promise of renumeration is hard to resist and tends to overcome more ephemeral principles about new vs. old media (if these principles are even held). The promise of profit is a key consideration, always to be kept in mind when consideration the motivation behind any initiative in consumer capitalism.

Book Cover Final threeAllie Brosh recently compiled selections from her loopily brilliant comics/text blog Hyperbole and a Half into book form, and its bright construction-paper colours and purposely crudely-drawn figures do have a way of standing out on bookstore shelves. The book contains only the highlight stories from Brosh’s still-updated blog and those stories are readily available as easily-skimmed posts rather than on more tactile pages (albeit with fewer of her delightful drawings, in many cases). Still, the collection and binding of them offers a prime opportunity to consider Hyperbole and a Half in traditional critical terms as a work of literary artistic expression.

It may seem incongruous to even rhetorically place Brosh’s cartoonish drawings and neurotic prose on par with, say, Wuthering Heights, but at least Hyperbole and a Half boasts a healthy awareness of the ridiculousness of its narratives. The stories chosen for inclusion in the book are nearly evenly split between recollections of Brosh’s childhood, tales of the vagaries of dog ownership, and startlingly open examinations of her own psychological quirks and history of depression.

Brosh herself generally appears in the stories, drawn with pipecleaner limbs of hard black lines, a polygonal pink dress, pointy blond ponytail, and a white bug-eyed head bisected by a wide mouth. The lack of vanity apparent from this cartoon depiction of herself proceeds from the surprisingly unflinching honesty of the stories themselves. This frankness, in its turn, proceeds from the share-heavy nature of autobiographical (or autobio-graphic, to rehash a term I once coined in academic work for comics self-portraits) millenial cultural discourse, especially on the internet.

Yet Brosh’s meticulous analysis of the decisions of dogs, of the psychology that underlies behaviours and social conventions of people, and of her own emotional and mental processes is never uncomfortable in any soul-baring way. Lathering these examinations with thick, sweet humour certainly helps; it is very hard to read this book in public without laughing inappropriately, a situation which I can imagine Brosh writing/drawing about. The cartoonish amplification by simplification of the visual elements of her storytelling contrasts and effectively emphasizes the rational puzzling tone of her prose while also distancing the author herself from the embarrassing undercurrent of what is essentially a series of personal confessions of eccentricity, over-reaction, and weakness. So much constant, pitiless self-deprecation should be unsettling to experience. But instead it’s endearing, poignant, and cathartically hilarious.

Everyone who reads Hyperbole and a Half will have their favourite stories. Certainly those focused on Brosh’s depression have a moving gravitas that comes out of nowhere, and her descriptions of her reactions to unexpected events are complex psychological readings that Freud might even find worthy. The bizarre tales from her childhood (in particular “The God of Cake” and “The Party”) are laugh riots, as are the stories about her simpleton dog and her over-aggressive, over-emotional rescue dog. The most kookily inspired for me, though, has to be “Dinosaur”, an odd, serendipitous satire of horror-movie convention that involves a goose invading Brosh’s house and causing unimaginable terror. “Dinosaur” in particular makes a solid argument for Hyperbole and a Half in book form, as Brosh produces new art to illustrate the narrative in imagetext rather than the more spartan blog form of her original post of the tale.

While it’s certainly possible to consider and produce informed readings of the blog form of Brosh’s work, its adaptation to literature focuses and strengthens its effects and pleasures. Far from constituting mere amateurish drawings and neurotic outpourings, Hyperbole and a Half has been embraced and adored by a larger audience because its brazen, warts-and-all honesty pulls the reader closer even while its suffusion of humour disguises this encroaching intimacy. It’s so much more than silly pictures and funny words; it’s personal, entertaining, meaningful art.

Steven Biel’s “Down With the Old Canoe”: The Cultural Echoes of a Maritime Disaster

February 3, 2014 1 comment

Having come out on this blog nearly two years ago as a bit of a lapsed Titanic nut, discovering American academic Steven Biel’s wry and well-researched survey of the disaster Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster in an airport bookstore was a pleasant surprise. A completist run-down of the plethora of political and social interpretations, memorials, books, songs, movies, poems, art, propaganda, and other public reactions to the sinking of the largest ship then built on its maiden voyage in 1912, it demonstrates clearly and effectively that the dominate symbolic usage of the disaster in the subsequent months, years, and decades has been to uphold the traditional, conservative order of American society.

Biel shows, with voluminous quotations from period newspapers and periodicals and other print sources, how what he calls the myth of first-cabin heroism became the conventional American public discourse’s primary narrative framing of the death of 1500 people in the freezing North Atlantic over a century ago. The observance of the “rule of the sea” that dictates women and children must be saved first, leading to the upstanding self-sacrifice of many very wealthy, prominent male citizens, was praised to the rhetorical heavens and taken as proof of the ineffable value of political and social concepts from Anglo-Saxon racial superiority to patriarchal privilege to Christian moral fibre to the persistence of chivalric good breeding even amongst nouveau-riche capitalists.

Likewise, the selfless heroism of the men who stood aside (most of which, it should be noted, probably didn’t know that the ship was sinking as the lifeboats were being loaded and may well have acted with more of a self-preservationist instinct if they had) to let the weak be saved was taken as refutation of all manner of newfangled radical progressive ideas and movements. Ideologies like socialism and feminism were chief among them, proximal threats to the continuance of wealthy masculine privilege as they were in the immediate historical context of the event. Widescale immigration’s dilution of the WASP plurality also found expression in persistent if mostly unproven (and unprovable) eyewitness accounts of steerage passengers transgressing the boundaries of proper behaviour into panic and violence, only to be pushed back into their sinking bucket by the representatives of the white elite (sometimes with deadly force).

The Titanic disaster was an object lesson in the value of that elite, most bourgeois voices claimed in its aftermath. Progressive campaigns for greater equality of opportunity for the workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities were not merely irresponsible and destabilizing to society, they were also superfluous and unnecessary, this rationale held. Rich white Christian males are doing just fine running things and amassing an unequal share of the wealth, thank you very much; just look at how bravely many of them drowned for no particularly compelling reason!

Inconvenient facts such as more first-class men surviving the sinking than third-class women were hardly a ringing endorsement of the essential benevolence of the privileged American elite, of course. The conservative elite’s declared enemies on the ragged Left certainly noticed. Their perspectives are revealed in the book as being the least-clouded in the wake of the tragedy, bluntly insistent that it was anything but a tragedy, or at least a much smaller and less deadly tragedy than the ongoing people-grinding mechanisms of industrial capitalism. Joining them in the chorus of criticism of the rose-tinted memoriums were first-wave feminists harumphing at the patriarchal assumptions of first-cabin males who sought to protect their defenseless damsels in distress, social-concern Protestant ministers bemoaning the materialistic greed and secular hubris that made anyone think that a ship could be unsinkable, and anti-modernists remarking on the costs of the runaway train of technological progress. Biel even tracks down African-American blues lyrics (one of which gives the book its title) and “toasts” completely upending the racial superiority angle by having a black protagonist save himself from the sinking Titanic with no lack of ingenuity or coarse language.

What makes Down with the Old Canoe an excellent work of cultural analysis as well as of scholarly research is how Biel traces the discourse around the disaster decades after the sinking. He provides an astute reading of Walter Lord’s seminal and subtly modernist book A Night To Remember, which kickstarted a nostalgic cult of buffs and enthusiasts that kept memory of the ship alive until oceanographer Robert Ballard rediscovered the wreck on the ocean floor in 1985 (whose discovery, enabled by military-industrial cooperation, corporate self-promotion, and the sort of technological advancements that the sinking was supposed to have demystified, is dissected as a defining and characterisitic achievement of Reagan-era America).

What Biel finds is a gradual calcification of meaning around the event, the assumptions of the traditional, conservative consensus collecting and weighing down its cultural memory like so many barnacles on the ghostly shell of the great liner on the floor of the Atlantic. The Titanic enthusiasts he interviews and the publications they produce evince an unchecked sense of nostalgic yearning for the seemingly less complicated world that they conceive of as vanishing with the great ship. In their love of all things Titanic, the buffs find an outlet for their disdain for and rejection of the fundamentally diverse, post-modern, sexually liberated, pluralistic society that has emerged in America since the 1960s. Unable to act meaningfully to curb the progressive equalization of rights for women and minorities, they instead sink their identities into a bygone era where such equalization was kept firmly in check by a velvet-gloved male hand.

I read the latest edition of Down With the Old Canoe re-released in accordance with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, which included a new afterword tackling the massive cultural success of James Cameron’s epic Oscar-sweeping cinematic treatment of the disaster in 1997 (also the year Biel’s book was first published). What Biel finds most interesting about the film that now defines the event in the collective imagination is that in the hands of the openly liberal Cameron, the disaster becomes an exercise in female self-actualization for Kate Winslet’s upper-crust Rose through her whirlwind doomed romance with Leonardo DiCaprio’s bohemian free spirit Jack. 1500 people have to die so that one young woman can break free of the social chains that bind her. A small price to pay, at least in the movies.

But Cameron’s Titanic focuses on this angle in order to refute the conservative implications of the many previous interpretations of the disaster. From Billy Zane’s snobbish cad of a villain to the cameo appearances by multi-millionaires parading ridiculously on deck in coats and tails to “go down like gentlemen”, the upper crust is portrayed as superficial, obsessed with rules and appearances, and so out of touch as to guarantee their own demise in the unforgiving depths. To paraphrase Biel’s afterword to his superb compendium of them, cultural responses to Titanic have long tended to gaze back with yearning at “the good old days” before the ship sank and the world changed for the worse. Cameron’s Titanic saw this order as the “bad old days” and bid it good riddance while humanistically eulogizing the tragic sacrifices its exorcism demanded. Biel examines the cultural history of the disaster with a respect for the former, established perspective with the intellectual principles of the latter, revisionist view, and that is a major factor in its success as scholarship and as a fascinating read.