Archive for March, 2014

Film Review: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

March 28, 2014 1 comment

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009; Directed by Werner Herzog)

Difficult-to-pigeonhole German auteur Werner Herzog’s odd post-Katrina moral allegory is handcuffed by awkward attempts at reproducing crime genre elements and language, second-rate production values, and a mouthful of a title that needlessly references a movie it has basically nothing to do with. But it produces worthwhile bursts of off-the-wall inspiration, mostly due to Herzog’s favouring of tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturial tangents and his lead actor Nicolas Cage’s very peculiar performance as the titular corrupt drug-addict cop in a near-lawless post-disaster Big Easy.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is fundamentally a B-movie. Herzog embraces the unsavoury pedigree that this classification implies, while Cage paints masterfully in the palette of the trashy lower-level cinematic crapfest that his post-Oscar-winning career has virtually single-handedly kept on life support. Cage is Terence McDonagh, a coke-snorting New Orleans detective who earned the titular rank reluctantly saving a prisoner from a flooded jailhouse after Hurricane Katrina. The choice to help the man afflicted him with lifelong chronic back pain, and Cage shuffles through the movie hunched over and just slightly physically twisted. He’s rather more morally twisted, ripping off his drugs from the evidence room, placing large bets on college football with a bookie (Brad Dourif), abusing his position to manipulate and bully the public to score more narcotics and other favours, and mooching off of his sort-of girlfriend, a prostitute named Frankie (Eva Mendes).

All of this aside, McDonagh is good police, as they might have said on The Wire. He investigates the brutal drug-trade-related murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants and bravely tilts at a powerful and seemingly untouchable drug lord called Big Fate (Xzibit) that is his chief suspect. McDonagh’s other entanglements begin to trespass onto the case, however, and he is soon juggling the demands from his bookie to pay his debts, from his police superiors to answer for his rogue procedures, and from the hired thugs of the cocksure son of a major developer whom he confronted for beating up on Frankie (a very funny Shea Whigham) that is now extorting money from him in revenge.

McDonagh is nasty stuff, make no mistake, even if screenwriter William Finkelstein gives him a humanizing scene or two with Frankie and a sterling silver spoon from his youth. A grimy and uncomfortable scene in which he steals a young clubbing couple’s drugs and forces the boy to watch as the girl has sex with him rises to the near-baroque heights of human monstrosity that Herzog delved into in his best-known fictional features, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But more often Herzog seems to be dabbling in hard-boiled material that is not his forte, especially when it comes to African-American urban culture, where the movie is on near-pantomime-like footing. One feels that this should be less slapdash in its depiction of human corruption and more fantasmagorically nightmarish in its imagination of an altered social reality.

Cage does better with this dodgy material (he has seen a lot of it, recently, after all). He’s in some roiling, torturous purgatory between the sort of unintentionally hilarious scenery-chewing that has made this once-acclaimed actor into internet meme fodder and a performance of genuine integrity and ambiguous verve. Indeed, Cage seems at times to be channeling the bearing, the left-field eccentricity, and the edgy unpredictably of his director, whose gnomic, inscrutable Bavarian-accented image has become more well-known than his often-challenging and transcendent films.

That said, The Bad Lieutenant is not much worth the effort, except for two sequences of trademarked head-scratching loopiness from Herzog. In the first and most bizarrely memorable, McDonagh hallucinates a pair of iguanas on a table during a surveillance stakeout. His colleagues dismiss his insistence that he can see them, but what might have been a throwaway drug joke becomes something infinitely stranger. Herzog cuts in a minute or more of shaky, out-of-focus close-ups of the lizards, their impassive reptilian visages, their scaly skin, and scores it with Johnny Adams’ 1968 version of “Release Me”. Animals have long fascinated Herzog, be they grizzly bears or squirrels or demented penguins. This film features dogs, an aquarium of marine life, and a roadkill alligator whose juvenile offspring gets a similar sympathetic close-up as it skulks away from an accident scene.

The iguanas return for a later cameo in the other deeply weird moment in the film: after a tense and bloody standoff between criminal belligerents ends in a bloodbath, McDonagh encourages Big Fate’s henchman to shoot one of their deceased rivals again because “His soul is still dancing.” This soul is made material in the form of a head-spinning breakdancer, whose rhythmic movements collapse into immobility with another gunshot. But first McDonagh watches this souls dance for a bit, a deranged but blissful smile on his face. Even in a mostly unremarkable piece like this, you can never wholly discount Werner Herzog, never turn away lest he pull out such an instance of inspired lunacy. What does it mean? Beats me. But that soul sure can dance.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: True Detective – Season One

March 22, 2014 7 comments

True Detective – Season One (HBO; 2014)

One hesitates when faced with the task of writing about HBO’s buzzy bayou crime drama True Detective, which has already had so much digital ink spilled about it that finding new and worthwhile things to say (even at the end of its run) seems a total folly. Yet it’s a testament to the richness, depth, and tantalizing symbology that novelist Nic Pizzolatto’s neo-Southern Gothic twist on the hard-boiled serial murder mystery genre is imbued with that it could support such a weighty pile of discussion, speculation, praise, criticism, and internet meme-ry without collapsing. That the show’s narrative and even thematic conclusions proved more conventional and less fascinatingly obtuse than early episodes may have promised does not far reduce the compelling nature of the eight-episode ride True Detective provided to willing viewers.

It’s difficult to properly discuss either those narrative or thematic elements of True Detective without entering deeply into plot-spoiling detail, so like most things that are difficult, I won’t even try to do that. The first season of True Detective (future seasons will focus on different characters, locations, and cases, anthology-style) follows the forking paths of a 17-year murder investigation by two Louisiana State Criminal Investigation Division (CID) detectives. It begins in 1995 (although Pizzolatto is fond of philosophically opining that nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends). Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are called out to a field beneath a sprawling old tree in rural Louisiana to process a bizarre and disturbing crime scene. An unidentified young woman is dead, her body arranged ritualistically facing the tree in a crouching position surrounded by cat’s-cradle-like twig latticework totems, a pair of stag antlers strapped to her head, stab wounds on her belly, and a spiral symbol drawn on her back.

The investigative effort to find the woman’s killer will cost the men nearly two decades, not to mention their jobs, Marty’s stable family life, Rust’s mental health, their sense of moral equilibrium, and quite nearly their lives. The sprawling rhizomatic case will encompass obscure symbols, revivalist preachers, billionaire politically-connected church leaders, drug-dealing biker gangs and meth cooks, missing children, Mardi Gras rituals, and a sinister “Yellow King” inhabiting a castle of nightmares called Carcosa.

Much of True Detective‘s appeal can be put down to the acclaimed duelling lead performances of Harrelson and McConaughey. Their names are literalizations of their contrasting natures. Marty Hart, though he affects the assumptions of mainstream masculinity redolent of the hero cop, is in fact governed by roiling emotions and desires that he is wholly out of touch with and poorly-equipped to negotiate. This leads him to make a total mess of his life, distancing himself from his intelligent wife and his daughters before fatally wounding his relationship to all of them with two unwise pleasure-seeking affairs with younger women. Though he affects the devil-may-care pose of the tough-as-nails alpha male, he does not have the stomach for the harsh realities of his job, and witnessing depraved treatment of children in particular leads him to look away from key evidence, make rash and costly decisions, and eventually leave the force entirely.

Hart clashes and sparks with Rust Cohle, his partner from Texas with a dark past of narcotics undercover work, a meticulous intellect and investigative eye for details and connections, and an aloof, philosophical, and misanthropic approach to his fellow human beings. His name suggests stubborn earthiness and flinty decay, and in the hands of a lesser actor (or writer) Rust Cohle could have been a crabby downer. But McConaughey, who won a Best Actor Oscar in the middle of True Detective‘s triumphal broadcast run, is blazing bright at the moment, and his trademarked Texan drawl sharpens even as it drifts into abstraction here. His quasi-academic expostulations on religious belief (which he deeply disdains) at the beginning of the third episode cap a series of ragged sage lectures that leave the less intellectually-curious Marty amusingly befuddled, in the mode of the car conversations meme linked above. These speeches drop away as the case becomes hotter and as Cohle becomes more disillusioned, but his oddball savant aura never loses the glow they imparted. Still, despite their opposing viewpoints and the considerable friction in their relationship, Hart and Cohle are eventually the only people who can understand (and simply stand) each other, and each needs the other to purge the stain on their lives that the unresolved case has left.

The earlier episodes of the serial are framed by the unreliable-narrator device of interviews conducted with off-the-force Hart and Cohle in 2012 by State detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) concerning the events of 1995 and later of 2002, when the partners fell out and Cohle quit the State CID. Cohle, who pursued the case with a particular obsessiveness, treats the cops and their leading questions (they believe he could be a suspect in what is now clearly a series of murders) with casual disdain, smoking and drinking in the interview room, carving human silhouettes from the empties, and engaging in the sort of philosophically nihilistic tangents that so frustrated his former partner. Not only Cohle but Hart and Hart’s ex-wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) all wilfully mislead the detectives with versions of events often drastically different than those shown in the scenes from the periods being discussed.

In addition to destabilizing the certainties of the narrative with this device, Pizzolatto dots his jagged plot with red herrings, unexpected (and unexpectable) turns, and tantalizing but never-expounded-upon symbols and literary references. The showcase clues and stings that tend to end episodes on fascinating highs often turn into dead ends or insignificant detours in the early minutes of the following installment. A twig latticework “devil’s trap” in the backyard playhouse of relatives of a long-missing girl connects her to the antler murder, but a graphic video later establishes the connection without a doubt; an illegal shakedown of a doughy sheriff (Michael Harney) on Marty’s boat yields nothing useful beyond another hint at the official cover-up that Cohle paranoidly suspects. Most notably, a tremendous, intense, and technically-masterful sequence (embedded at the end of the post) of an undercover heist that Cohle must escape with a biker gang hostage in order to make a big break in the case leads to a false tidy conclusion that directs the detectives away from the larger target for another 12 years.

Pizzolatto’s recurring but abtruse symbols cluster insistently around one key point of reference in particular: Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, a pioneering work of supernatural horror in American literature. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe and in turn inspiring H.P. Lovecraft’s similar but more developed Cthulhu Mythos, Chambers’ stories referenced the titular, shadowy, macabre king as well as a ficitional play about him whose subject matter and language drives anyone who reads it to madness. The fragments of the play that Chambers presents include references to the King in Yellow’s strange and sinister realm Carcosa (where “the shadows lengthen” and songs die) as well as an important snatch of dialogue: “You, sir, should unmask.” All of these details are dotted throughout True Detective like breadcrumbs, converging at the last in Cohle and Hart’s climactic face-off with the serial killer in his own dank Carcosa.

If these signs and symbols don’t wind up signifiying as much as imaginative fans hoped they might, then perhaps that was the point; the fault may not be in the stars, but in ourselves. What Lovecraft plucked from Chambers’ haunting sketches for his ever-expanding Cthulhu Mythos is the power of suggestion carried by eerie, vague symbols in the horror reader’s mind, the likelihood that whatever terrible reality they can imagine will be far more terrifying than any that a writer lays out for them. True Detective‘s plot becomes more contrived and more conventionally generic in both its implications and its results as it drags on; this is especially true of the Marty-Maggie-Rust triangle and the choice that sunders all three in 2002. Pizzolatto, for all of his literary references and novelistic social detail and lovely turns of phrase in dialogue, is hardly immune to the unsavoury, conventional sensationalist elements of the genre. His previous TV writing work was, after all, for AMC’s tonally similar but increasingly lamentable The Killing.

But True Detective is both a more entertaining and infinitely more artistically significant piece of television than the American adaptation of a moody Danish murder mystery whose unflattering example it works very hard not to emulate. This is not only down to the quality of the writing and performances, but stems from the manner in which practically everything presented onscreen through the eight-episode run becomes a symbol of a society not merely in decline but one actively denying a long and ongoing catastrophe. A thematic staple of the Southern Gothic genre, indeed perhaps its foundational metaphor, is that the fundamental moral degradation of the society of the American South is manifested as fresh corporeal degradations with deep symbolic roots to the lamentable past. A system of dehumanizing and exploitative slave labour is the foundation for a class structure based on aristocratic privilege, is defended in a failed rebellious war, and then is romanticized as noble by subsequent generations. Southern Gothic, from Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, represents the irruptions of the past’s disavowed horrors into a derelict present. Ghost stories are more plentiful in the South, you might say, because the ghosts there are more restless for being unburied.

true-detective1As Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic Monthly article on the landscapes of True Detective makes clear, however, the haunted past of Louisiana is not far away but terribly close and contemporary and immediate. The first season was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and their exquisite and striking composition of Louisiana’s locations and landscapes are the real revelation, both aesthetically and symbolically. The settings are alternately dilapidated and voided; homes and offices are either bursting, Borgesian archives overflowing with detritus or have become ruins by abandonment or due to their destruction by hurricanes; in either case, their function is dubious. Cohle calls the planet “all one ghetto… a giant gutter in outer space”, but he might as well have been talking about the blasted but rugged-beautiful scenery of the Pelican State and its profound and resonant existential swirl. The jawdropping epic tableau of the second episode’s final scene, seen to the left, is like a stark symbolist painting metaphorizing not only the Louisianan but the American condition: a ruined church with its roof caved in, its steeple and stained-glass window staring across wetlands towards the ominous industrial skyline of a petrochemical refinery.

The landscapes and settings of True Detective, its truest and greatest accomplishment, have a deeper signification linked to the recurring image of the spiral sign. The spiral becomes a motif in the dialogue too: “Time is a flat circle,” Cohle says, and it soon becomes clear that much of the show is constructed as a visionary literalization of that philosophical nugget. Cohle espies these spirals everywhere (he’s a synesthete, by the way, and sometimes has quasi-hallucinatory waking visions), but most notably as he and Hart approach the broken-down church and a murmuration of birds fleetingly coalesce into one. He sees another more vividly detailed spiral in the domed chamber of Carcosa before the King in Yellow attacks him, a galactic-cloud universe with shades of green. Indeed, Carcosa itself, a seeming Civil War-era stone fortress filled with creepy, poky twig sculptural patterns (an embodiment of the core of Southern Gothic), is just such a shape. Cohle navigates it in a rough spiral pattern until reaching the psychic and physical horror of its centre, and his escape and recovery from what occurs there dispels just enough of his enlightened pessimism to allow in glimmers of hope, like flickering star points in a black night sky.

The bridge between Carcosa’s climactic nadir of evil and the denouement’s pillowy landing of cold comfort is a vital series of panoramas of the various locations of the narrative’s horrors. These landscape shots seem almost to spiral back through time and space to the great tree in the isolated field where the girl with the antlers was found, but we travel to them through neither time nor space. They are the final thesis statement of True Detective‘s existential view of time as a flat circle, where places play host to traumas and then endure beyond the scope of those events, containing their memory but letting it fade with disaffection. It’s a circle that connects damaged cops and mothers and career criminals and crooked leaders and murder victims and lost girls and psychotic killers and all the rest of us frightened sentient mammals and offers no special regard for any. Our precious distinctions and desires and anxieties sink into the sprawling bayou of time and drown, leaving no intelligible sign of their presence in this everchanging gutter in outer space. Only in memory, the history in our heads, does anything linger, and that too is finite. Just as Lovecraft’s mythos suggested monstrous inhuman forces that operated heedless of human agency, so True Detective gestures to similar implications. That all of these profound meanings and dark hints intermix in the generic stew of True Detective speaks to the rare power and resonance of this rare television series.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

March 19, 2014 4 comments

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

The massively successful second installment of the four-film franchise of Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian novel series opens with an image of its heroine in still, watchful contemplation. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) crouches on the edge of a body of water, arrow cocked in her ever-present bow. The expression on her face is at once reflective and haunted, vigilant and suspicious. Lawrence’s Katniss is at once inscrutable and transparent (“I’m an open book,” she later tells a fellow Games Victor), a cipher and an independent free spirit. And as Catching Fire begins, she’s inadvertently become a symbol of resistance and potential revolution against the oppressive authoritarian rule of Panem’s elegant, Machiavellian head of state, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

2012’s The Hunger Games climaxed with Katniss’ clever gambit to jointly win the titular Games, an annual televised competition that pits children from Panem’s twelve Districts against each other in deadly arena combat, with her fellow District 12 Tribute, sensitive baker’s boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss and Peeta threatened to kill themselves by consuming poisonous berries, leaving Panem’s marquee cultural event without a champion, and the creative-class fascist subaltern Gamemaker blinked first, declaring them both Victors. Now ensconced in Edwardian row mansions in District 12’s mostly deserted Victors’ Village, Katniss whiles away her hours hunting in the woods with her longtime best friend and potential beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth), while the lovesick Peeta whiles away his hours longing after Katniss.

Unceremoniously plucked from this pensioned boredom, Katniss and Peeta are taken on a Victor’s tour of Panem’s districts by their minders, District 12’s only previous Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and the ludicrously-attired social butterfly from the decadent Capitol, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Intended as a propagandistic victory lap for the state’s massively popular mechanism of control buttressed by the added human-interest angle of Katniss and Peeta’s famous for-television-only romance, this tour instead becomes a focal point for discontent and displays of public protest linked to Katniss’ perceived rebellion against the Capitol’s locus of power in the previous Games. She nurturs no overt revolutionary ambitions, hewing instead to self-preservation and protection of her loved ones, but her disarming emotional honesty entwined with Peeta’s low-key yearning for justice proves to be a lightning-rod for increasing popular resistance.

It must not be a very resilient system of social control that can be so destabilized by small displays of kindness and love, to paraphrase something Katniss says to Snow in a pre-tour meeting between the distant adversaries. Snow puts up a good front of power, but also recognizes the threat posed by Katniss to his rule and conspires to neutralize it. On the suggestion of his new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, ably overcoming the single silliest fantasy name in a series chocked full of them), Snow saturates the state-controlled media with juxtaposed tableaux of vacuous celebrity news and open crackdowns on dissent, contrasting fashion-focused tidbits about Katniss’ impending enforced nuptials with Peeta with floggings, executions, and brutal raids on seditious elements in the Districts. Screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn impart Collins’ bald associations between the frippery of consumer capitalism’s celebutainment machine and the more sinister machine of totalitarian oppression with just that sort of stark directness, even if they leave certain last-act plot twists underdeveloped.

Like most of the state’s schemes of narrative-shaping, though, this clumsily heavy-handed approach is guilelessly defied by Katniss, who intervenes along with Peeta and Haymitch to stop Gale’s public flogging by Head Peacekeeper Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit), whom he attacked to save a defenseless old woman. This incident convinces Snow that the fame and influence of the Victors is too dangerous. To eliminate it (and hopefully Katniss, too), Snow and Heavensbee conceive of a special twist for the 75th Hunger Games: its Tributes will be drawn solely from previous winners of the competition, and the inevitable cull of popular favourites will climax with an engineered death for the Girl on Fire that will not only kill off the person but discredit the revolutionary symbol as well.

There are so many familiar appealing figures in this convention-replicating set-up to the Games that it almost seems a shame when the stadium bloodbath commences and the non-participating characters drop away. Sutherland is all silvery submerged menace; he employs plenty of uniformed thugs to maintain his power, but that doesn’t mean this suave sophisticate is one of them (Mustapha Mond of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is an obvious frame of reference). Hoffman and Harrelson are thesps of much greater skill than this material requires, and barely need to try to hit and even exceed their marks (watch this in concert with Harrelson’s much-praised, complex recent turn in HBO’s buzzy thiller series True Detective and you’ll see what I mean). Lenny Kravitz’s fashion guru mentor to Katniss is smooth as silk and effortlessly empathetic once again.

All photos from the studio of Panem’s answer to Annie Liebowitz, Olympia Shutterblink

But of course, the representatives of the Capitol’s flashy self-indulgence shine brightest with over-the-top comedic brilliance. Banks’ very funny Effie flits across the screen in a series of increasingly flamboyant costumes, including a dress and fascinator ensemble constructed entirely of monarch butterflies that clearly illustrates her inherent nature. But Banks cannily sneaks in a tone of emotional fondness for her Tribute charges and even mildly defiant solidarity with their resistance to the system that has furnished her with untold bangles. Even more delightful is the return of Stanley Tucci’s spectacular ivory-toothed media sycophant Caesar Flickerman, a spangled grotesque of supremely unctuous proportions, like an over-coiffed Weimar-era German cabaret club emcee whose services are retained by the Nazis.

This overwrought satire of image-conscious excess falls away when the Games begin and violent, action-packed self-seriousness takes over the film for its final hour. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to his starlet) places and moves his camera effectively, jettisoning Gary Ross’ shaky-cam depictions of the in-arena slaughter in the first film. The Games stadium this time is a thick jungle (many of Catching Fire‘s locations were filmed in Hawaii) surrounding the central supply-stash of the Cornucopia at the hub of a clock-like lake. Fiendish death-dealing dangers descend like biblical plagues on the hour: a poisonous fog, a drowning tsunami, a vicious pack of babboons, and most vitally a towering clump of trees struck by lightning at midnight. Katniss and Peeta soon find, to their surprise, that they have plentiful allies in this edition of the Games, including a muscular pretty-boy with a trident (Sam Claflin), a volatile ax-wielding riot grrrl (Jena Malone), and a pair of tactical geniuses (Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer). Climactically, an elaborate plan involving superconductive wire and the lightning-rod tree will collapse the distinctions between the hyper-controlled Games and the revolutionary atmosphere in the nation outside its walls, effectively declaring the revolution officially launched before the credits roll.

In Catching Fire, Collins’ blithely unsubtle tapestry of genre pastiches continues to confound well-demarcated ideological readings. Tea Partiers viewed the series’ stark social picture of a decadent urban elite exploiting a slave-like rural proletariat as expressing distinct solidarity with conservative, salt-of-the-earth (read: white) Americans’ perceived culture-war struggle against their multicultural big-city liberal oppressors, just as progressives saw in it a reflection of Occupy Wall Street’s contrast of a privileged 1% with a struggling 99%. The Hunger Games‘ imagined social construction of Panem is probably more properly understood from a Marxist class struggle perspective, with a commodity-obsessed bourgeoisie draining the labour capital of a downtrodden proletariat without any meaningful rights (the influence of Marx’s stark social distinctions on the contours of modern American conservative thought is much underappreciated). Season this concoction with a sprinkling of Horkheimer and Adorno’s later contextualization of Marx for the 20th century mass-consumption “culture industry” and a dash of steely authoritarian iron-fist oppression and you’ve got Collins’ particular dystopian recipe.

What makes The Hunger Games so singular as a genre piece, however, is the shifting multiplicity of the Games’ implications about the nature of hegemonic power and the malleability of its iconic heroine’s embodiment of (but not necessarily conscious adoption of) the values of political rebellion. The Hunger Games are usually read in a facile manner as a sensationalist reality-TV-style distraction from the harsh conditions of the lives of most of Panem’s citizens, combined with a opportunity for the Capitol elite to assert status distinctions by sponsoring in-game favourites. Haymitch even states this interpretation directly to Katniss and Peeta after they spark a disturbance in the predominantly African-American District 11.

But there’s much more to the Games than this, as President Snow openly recognizes. In the first film, he impressed upon his then-Gamemaker that the chance of becoming a Tribute and possibly a Victor is an escape tunnel of hope for citizens of the poorer quarters of Panem. Even if well-trained inner-District Careers tend to dominate the competition, the possibility of victory and improvement of their material conditions are meant to deactivate the potential disobedience of the underclass through the aspirational hope of rising in the social order.

Where have you gone, Leni Riefenstahl, our Aryan Nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

Moving beyond stated textual explanations of their function, however, the Games strongly communicate two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory symbolic and ideological messages about the nature of hegemonic state power. Originally conceived of as a response to the destructive rebellion that the regime put down 75 years before, the Games answer the interrogatory about a repeat of the uprising with both a promise of security and a threat of pitiless crackdowns. By staging lethal minors-on-minors violence as entertaining spectacle, the state emphasizes its near-omnipotent ability to protect its citizenry from such horrors in the real world, a yearly celebration of the end of resistance to its edicts that also narrativizes how that resistance is kept at bay. By the same token, demonstrating the state’s facility and willingness to stage the slaughter of children by other children for the purpose of mass distraction constitutes an implicit threat of neutralizing force to potentially seditious elements. Discursively, the Games broadcast the message that the power of the state will keep you safe from social instability and will do so with brutal violence if necessary.

The stark and obvious fascism of Snow’s regime leaves it inherently vulnerable to Katniss’ simple, unarticulated individual agency. Katniss is the literalization of the lightly-delineated Marxist concept of spontaneous revolution; she is the symbolic mockingjay for the fomenting rebellion not because she purposely adopts its aims but because she embodies its ideal end result of liberated independence. Katniss doesn’t especially want anything beyond survival and protection of those close to her; she famously can’t decide between opposite-sex objects of affection Gale and Peeta, and doesn’t grant the matter of settling her romantic affairs the vital importance often expected of a female lead. She certainly doesn’t intend to reinforce the discriminatory norms of Panem’s social system, but her resistance is personal rather than mass-ideological, subtle, natural disobedience to authority figures as opposed to conscious participation in a planned coup d’état.

This, at least, is the impression that proceeds from Lawrence’s performance, based in the young star’s preference for listening, observation, and wonderfully, visibly thinking before (and during, and after) her actions. Collins’ novel is grounded in Katniss’ perspective, giving full access to her inner monologue on events in her world, and absent a suffocating voice-over narration, this effect cannot be replicated on a movie screen. Lawrence the director recognizes what he’s got in Lawrence the actress much more keenly than Ross did in the first film, and he lets his star’s exquisite reactions approximate the literal glimpse into her character’s thoughts provided on the page. This makes her defiance of authority more potent and indefatigable for being an essential feature of her personality. Witness the contrast of Malone’s prickly Johanna and her outspoken thumb-biting to the establishment to Katniss’ quieter but more effective resistance for proof of this. Johanna flips off and cusses out the President in her pre-Games interview and reiterates her derision for the state during the competition, yelling her disdain at the arena’s dome-sky as if denying an absent and unacknowledging God. But Katniss responds to the state’s abuses as they arise, skillfully exposing them for the disproportionately cruel overreactions that they are.

She also has a powerful, wordless riposte to that malevolent, oppressive power structure, firing an electrified arrow into the artificial heavens like a stoic Greek war sprite toppling the gods from their Olympian perch with a makeshift thunderbolt. Francis Lawrence cannot resist suffusing the aftermath of Katniss’ destruction of the game infrastructure with blatant Christ imagery, bathing the prone Jennifer Lawrence with a shaft of divine crepuscular light from the hole she has torn in the industrial skin of this simulacrum and arranging her in a crucifixion pose as she is lifted by the rescue ship. But Katniss is more quiet, non-violent messianic revolutionary than placard-hoisting, conspiratorial feminine Lenin (Lenine?), at least in the film of Catching Fire. But the final shot of this film, its ambiguous cliffhanger ending referencing The Empire Strikes Back, suggests a hardening of the rebellious resolve of Katniss Everdeen, no doubt to the detriment of the authoritarian regime that made itself her enemy long before she conceived of becoming its enemy.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“The Bear Went Over the Mountain”: A Precise Shambolic Satire

March 17, 2014 Leave a comment

The satirical targets of William Kotzwinkle’s wonderful comic novel The Bear Went Over the Mountain can be a bit prosaic and specific, but its shambolic charm and unswerving commitment to the surprisingly resilient running jokes that constitute its backbone of humour carries it through.

A repeatedly published, sometimes bestselling author who lives on a remote island in Maine, Kotzwinkle quite obviously adapts plentiful personal experience to satirize the simple and bizarre lives of rural folk, the modern anxieties of urbane city-dwellers, the obscure interests of academics, and the sycophantic odyssey of the book promotion tour. Kotzwinkle begins with Arthur Bramhall, a frumpy and undertalented University of Maine English professor holed up in a shack in the Maine woods trying to write a cynical but hopefully lucrative rip-off of a romantic mass-market best-seller. Unfortunately, just as he finishes the manuscript, his cabin burns down and he loses his only copy. Pouring his frustration and loneliness into a passionate replacement novel called Destiny and Desire, Bramhall completes it with great toil and pride. Paranoid about this much finer piece of work being lost as well, Bramhall hides it on the edge of his property bear-went-over-the-mountain-cvrbeneath a tree.

Bramhall has terrible luck, though. His stashed masterpiece is spotted by a bear native to the area. Thinking it might be food (this bear is always thinking of food, because he is a bear), the bear checks out the briefcase. This bear can read a bit and he recognizes in his limited ursine way that the book has potential. So he steals some clothes, makes his way to Manhattan, and sells the manuscript to a big-city publisher. Inventing a human-like name for himself (Hal Jam), the bear finds that his natural animal instincts make him surprisingly well-adapted to success as a vigorous male writer in 1990s America.

This book requires a touch of suspension of disbelief to buy into the bear’s rapid rise in American society, but it’s much more focused on everyday humour of observation than these required fantastical assumptions might suggest. The people that the bear meets and who facilitate his rise invariably interpret and understand the bear’s limited qualities and simple, gnomic verbal statements through their own lenses. The bear’s OCD literary agent admires his rugged disregard for social rules (he imagines him as a new Hemingway, an impression reinforced by the bear’s request to be served a raw female salmon with “lots of eggs” in a fancy restaurant). His homosexual editor misreads statements about stealing food for a frank confession of same-sex desire (“I wanted his meat”). A fellow bestselling author of books about angels see in the bear a kindred spirit and a muse; a right-wing evangelical preacher tries to use the simple fellow to jumpstart a presidential campaign; and he reluctantly “ruts” with a Hollywood professional woman questing after the movie rights to his hit book.

Hal Jam’s book tour is a riot, as he demands a constant supply of cheese snacks, attacks an assistant producer when alarmed before a television appearance, and marks his territory in various luxury hotels. His personal style is distinctly tacky (he enjoys clip-on ties and novelty telephones, because he is a bear) and he fills his Manhattan pad with cakes, pies, and jars of honey. He impresses a self-important literary critic at a party with a haunted phrase “I’ve heard the howling of the dogs”; the critic thinks it’s a profound statement about the nature of contemporary literature, but in fact the bear just had a run-in with some canines in Washington Square Park (other animals see through to his true ursine nature better than humans do).

As long as The Bear Went Over the Mountain is focused on the bear, it’s brilliant stuff. Kotzwinkle contrasts the bear’s adventures of gradually-advancing human-ness with Arthur Bramhall’s rural search for new inspiration for a book while he becomes increasingly bear-like, however, and the latter’s activities are less interesting and much less funny. Bramhall’s chapters are shorter than the bear’s, at least, and they do lead narratively to a courtroom confrontation over the ownership of Destiny and Desire. But the reader is definitely eager to see what the bear has got up to now while working through the Bramhall sections.

This is because Kotzwinkle’s bear is a genius comedic creation, both a mirror for modern American insecurities and a memorable fish-out-of-water figure imbued with a proud and bumbling grace. The bear listens always to his primal urges, and this makes him endearing to and successful in a society that imagines itself to be based on the pursuit of those basic urges and in the liberty requisite to their pursuit. But in Kotzwinkle’s well-modulated satire of American society and culture, human Americans have set up a forest of arbitrary obstacles to their happiness. It takes a guileless character from the actual forest to overcome these obstacles.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

March 14, 2014 5 comments

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Gleeful, impassioned, amoral, and at the very least a full hour too long, Martin Scorsese’s uncompromising and divisive film adaptation of the largely unapologetic memoir of an irresistible Wall Street opportunist’s meteoric rise and dramatic fall demands full attention. It’s a rudely, scabrously hilarious satire with the overflowing baccanalian excess of a farce that many critics who really ought to know better took at face value. Deride The Wolf of Wall Street for glorifying its characters’ base choices if you will, but this is a movie that presents its moral horrors without patronizing judgments. It employs scathing clarity rather than stern indictments, and if viewers make up their minds to consider the exploits of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to be heroic rather than deplorable, then that’s more of a damning statement of their own perspective than of Scorsese’s failure to telegraph one for them.

Scorsese dives right into the deep end of this cesspool of indulgent debauchery with a tableau of its soggy, demeaning nadir. He slo-mos a scene of the primally aroused employees of Belfort’s stock-trading firm Stratton Oakmont engaging in an office betting frenzy around a game of dwarf-tossing. Plentiful misdeeds are to follow, yes, but the frenzied, callous depersonalization implicit in this act (later contextualized in a managerial discussion of hiring little people for this precise activity that is darkly hilarious in its blithe disregard for the prospective projectile’s humanity) cuts to the heart of the point being made about the financial industry’s practices by Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter (showrunner of Boardwalk Empire). Businesspeople who can reduce their fellow humans to diminished objects for pleasure will not flinch at exploiting their customers in their profession. This habit of dehumanizing is foundational to a realm where very real people are reduced to a set of assets to be moved dexterously from their side of the ledger to your own. Scorsese can’t wholly deny the cowboy appeal of Belfort and his cadre of slick upstarts thieves, but that doesn’t mean that his movie considers them anything other than despicable leeches.

A reasonable portion of The Wolf of Wall Street depicts Belfort’s ascension to billionaire heights, followed by an unreasonable portion depicting his pinnacle of dionysian excess and subsequent downward spiral. As a fresh-faced young turk, he accrues vital Wall Street experience at L.F. Rothschild in the months before the Black Monday crash of 1987. His boss and mentor, Mark Hanna (also the name of the Republican Party’s premier financier boss at the turn of the 19th Century), is played by Matthew McConaughey as a smooth, casually inhuman weirdo and drug addict who teaches the young Belfort a vital lesson about how projecting an air of supreme self-confidence can reliably part even the most resistent clients from their money all too easily (and also tells him to begin masturbating twice a day).

Out of work following the firm’s collapse and with a wife (Cristin Milioti) to support, Belfort takes a job selling penny stocks alongside haggard proletarian types in a Long Island strip mall. Even though the stocks represent nearly worthless companies (Scorsese drolly cuts to a tool shed carrying the namesign of one such company as Belfort hardsells its huge potential on the phone), a broker can make a much larger commission on these “pink sheet” stocks if they manage to sell them: 50% when compared to a single-digit rates for the more prestigious blue chips. Belfort quickly sees the earning potential of this niche in the industry and impresses his fellow penny-stock traders before founding his own company (the invented, WASPy-sounding Stratton Oakmont) on these not-entirely-legal principles. Soon, Belfort and his cronies are laughing all the way to the Swiss bank (literally; Jean Dujardin plays an obsequious banker who helps them hide their ill-gotten millions in the neutral mountain republic).

Belfort soon meets and becomes entangled with a spectacular blonde called Naomi (Margot Robbie), whose attractiveness is summed up by one of his crew with outlandishly offensive succintness: “I would let that girl give me AIDS”. Divorcing his first wife, he marries and has kids with Naomi and her indulgent spending habits dovetail with his own pleasure-seeking expenses, requiring ever-greater initiatives of profit-seeking greed to fund their lavish lifestyle (enormous mansion, Manhattan penthouse, yacht with a helicopter landing pad, etc.). Unfortunately for Belfort’s continued freedom of exploitation but fortunately for social and legal sanity, Stratton Oakmont’s brazen violations attract the attention of the FBI, and a top securities fraud agent (Kyle Chandler) is soon nipping at Belfort’s heels.

DiCaprio caps a fantastic year of recaptured youth as the heedless Belfort. Whatever else one might have thought of Baz Luhrmann’s baroque Great Gatsbythe one-time matinee idol with thespianic golden-boy chops was back in full bloom, and DiCaprio’s longtime collaborator Scorsese (it’s been over a decade and five features since they first teamed for Gangs of New York) taps into this rejuvenated youth for his brazen amoral lizard of a protagonist. Jonah Hill shares many high points as Belfort’s unpredictable sidekick, Donnie Azoff, including the messy and uncomfortable near-choking conclusion of the film’s tour-de-force sequence. The peak of this scene features a brilliant extended display of physical comedy from DiCaprio, as a high dose of quaaludes severely impairs his character’s physical capacities at a country club just as he realizes that he must rush home to prevent the exposure of his massively illegal activities.

One of the film’s strongest undercurrents is that of class, and how socioeconomic background preconditions behaviour and desires. Belfort is from Queens, as is the Italian-American “Queen of Bayside” Naomi and most of his Stratton Oakmont executives, whom he recruits from among the Long Island drug dealers he was acquainted with in his youth. His dad is a ballbusting blowhard; Rob Reiner plays him, coming full circle from his younger days as the hippie foil to Archie Bunker to portray a version of the Bunkeresque suburban cut-the-crap bigot patriarch himself. But like the straight gangsters of some of Scorsese’s classics, the smooth and unlawful operators rise from relative modest origins to dizzying heights of ill-gotten wealth. Both their methods of gaining such riches and their unwisely excessive consumption once they achieve it are metaphoric microcosms for American capitalism in general, but are also suggested to be direct results of their lower-class set of experiences and priorities.

I’ve said that the depiction of the sociopathic hedonism of Belfort and his minions takes up too much of the three-hour running time of The Wolf of Wall Street. The overwhelming flood of this material sparked criticism that Scorsese, Winter, and DiCaprio were glorifying or celebrating the financial rapine, drug abuse, misogyny, homophobia and discrimination of their subjects. Art only glorifies if it’s propaganda, and The Wolf of Wall Street is no Triumph of the Will; it maintains a healthy ironic distance even if it only very rarely goes for out-and-out condemnation. It’s true enough that many of the drug-fuelled orgies of disruptive pleasure could be cut from the film without sacrifice the thesis, but as they remain, the picture takes on the absurdist satirical overtones of Boccaccio or John Kennedy Toole. What might have been a mere skewering of Wall Street irresponsibility becomes, like most of Scorsese’s films, a grand and vicious dismemberment of the illusionary structure of lofty American social ambitions. The Wolf of Wall Street could have accomplished this without quite so much dissolute detail, but it wouldn’t have accomplished it quite so nakedly and aggressively. And how much less American would that have been?

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Henry V

March 10, 2014 1 comment

The Hollow Crown – Henry V (BBC; 2012)

As my analysis of the previous films in the The Hollow Crown series anticipated, the BBC’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy of plays builds towards a fever pitch of heroic nationalistic triumph in Henry V. The closing narrative of the four-play arc quickly dispels the ambiguity and conflicted doubt about the impossible weight of the crown that roiled so eloquently in the speech of Henry V’s predecessors in Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2.

The Prince Hal who balked at the burdensome responsibility of kingship to revel in proletarian taverns has grown into a monarch of supreme self-confidence who overmasters the fields of battle, of rhetoric, and ultimately of romance as well. Henry V is the victory lap of an indefatigable king forged in the crucible of late medieval power politics and in the opposing interests of Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff, the literal and figurative father figures (respectively) whose most useful qualities Henry V (played again with nearly arrogant poise by Tom Hiddleston) synthesized into his shooting-star reign of foreign military conquest.

Henry V commences with the expression of doubts about the young king’s mettle, but these are all external; he never doubts the reach of his own arm. A herald of the Dauphin (Edward Akrout), the heir to the throne of France, conveys a mock tribute to Henry consisting of a chest full of tennis balls. Although we know that Henry is already contemplating a continental campaign in pursuit of a claim to the French crown, this jesting slight at his expense gives him a convenient excuse to invade France. He replies with the most sabre-rattling set of tennis analogies ever unleashed and raises an army of conquest to spite the snobbish French aristocracy.

Considering the confident proclamations of Harry the King and the successful siege of Harfleur, the pro-English propagandistic trajectory of Shakespeare’s adaptation of the history of Henry V’s campaign makes it a little unclear how exactly the great commander’s forces wind up greatly outnumbered and compelled into a battle he may not have longed for just outside a tiny village named Azincourt. Of course, as both history and one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays has made inescapably widely-known, Henry V and his ragged band of Englishmen win the day (largely thanks to the use of longbowmen). Shakespeare exaggerated the discrepancy in numbers between the English and French armies to make the unlikely-enough victory even moreso, and imperialistically surrounds his hero-king with regional representatives from across the royal realms, actual and claimed.

Although only the Welsh captain Fluellen (Owen Teale) is prominently featured in The Hollow Crown version, the tone of nationalistic fervour around the campaign (especially in contrast to the hated French, the photo-negative opposite of all that the English conceive of themselves as being) is quite preserved. The martyr’s end of the most prominent English noble casualty, the Duke of York (Paterson Joseph), accomplishes retroactive unifying of fractious historical and regional interests as well as providing a hint of post-modern (if historically laughable) multiculturalism in this particular version. A century following the divisive internecine power struggles of the War of the Roses, the Bard hearkened back to a Duke of York dying nobly in the service of a king from the House of Lancaster, a representative of the ever-restless and rebellious North defending national interests with his life. In The Hollow Crown, this Duke is even played by a black Briton, which despite the historical inaccuracy is a nod of the head to a modern, multiracial Britain (non-white men also appeared in the earlier Hollow Crown films).

But let’s not get bogged down in the supporting figures on the sidelines. The king runs this show, and Hiddleston’s Henry V assumes every role required of him and others besides. Every mask he dons suits him, and he moves from one aspect of idealized masculine kingship to another with the masterful command of one of Elizabethan stage’s star actors. He is as heroic in war as he is charmingly hesitant in the comical wooing of Catherine of Valois (Mélanie Thierry), promised to him as his future bride in the post-Azincourt negotiations with the beaten French King (Lambert Wilson). The common touch learned from his Eastcheap education from Falstaff and his circle does him credit, as he moves disguised among his men the night before the great battle to gain the measure of their morale; he even refrains from punishing one such soldier for an unrealized insult to the clandestine king.

But Henry is not afraid to get his hands dirty to consolidate his power, either. Although his exposure and execution of traitors at Southampton is left out of the early acts as an instructive object lesson in his newfound cold calculation, this king does forbid looting and wasteful foraging by his army in enemy lands (no wonder they were hungry and demoralized on the eve of battle; unpaid and scantily-supplied medieval armies relied on such activities to fill their purses and their bellies). When one of his old acquaintances in Falstaff’s circles, Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), is caught red-handed stealing from a church and good Harry sees him swinging from a tree branch, the king not without feeling but not moved to special treatment either. There are rules, firm lines of demarcation between the king and his subjects now, and though he will inspire and lead them, he is now inescapably above them, as it must be.

This vision of the role of the King of England is symbolized most clearly in The Hollow Crown‘s staging of Henry’s famed St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Compare it with two prominent previous film adaptations of the speech, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 take on the material. Olivier’s rich vocal performance rises and falls even as it tips into Received Pronunciation haughtiness, providing its own unique music (there is no score, only the voice of the king). Henry, in plain period dress (and with his ridiculous yet historically accurate haircut), walks among his troops, making occasional eye contact, speaking to all but also to each, predicting a collective memory of glory instead of a brutal, violent end. Olivier, also the director, shoots the whole speech in a single take and never once cuts to a close-up, as the camera approaches the speaker no nearer than a 3/4s view and mostly keeping the speechifying figure and the army pressing around him in medium range, with a subtle pullback as he finishes. Henry ends the speech standing on the bed of a humble cart that nonetheless elevates him above them like a campaign pedestal. The nationalist politics of the speech had to have been impossible to ignore in 1944, as Britain strove against Hitler’s war machine. When he closes with his final flourish to a mass cheer, the populism of the king’s appeal is undoubtable, but he remains above and apart.

Branagh’s pompous proclamatory tones, on the other hand, are more cornily theatrical and spittle-flecked. The visual composition is very much influenced by Olivier’s, and Branagh likewise sets himself as Henry among his men, this time arrayed over a small ridge, even employing a cart-as-platform in what must be a direct homage to the 20th Century’s great Shakespearean actor and filmmaker. But his speech contends with a stirring, memorable score from Patrick Doyle which emphasizes the mythic quality of the words. And Branagh’s vision is even more inclusive than Olivier’s. There’s much more cutting, from wider shots of the army around the king to his own impassioned face to the rapt visages of supporting characters listening with attentive admiration to this rhetorical tour-de-force from their leader (watch for a young Christian Bale as Boy). The climaxing cheer is much the same, but there is a note of togetherness, of the collapse of boundaries achieved by the shared sacrifice of war, that Olivier’s more class-conscious mounting of the material does not admit.

The Hollow Crown‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech sequence constitutes a radical break from these populist interpretations, though it also likely represents a more true-to-the-text staging. Hiddleston’s Henry V delivers the famous words not as a mass pep talk to thousands of foot soldiers but as a sincere but muted encouragement to his aristocratic captains. His speech begins with brave rhetoric in reply to the Duke of Westmoreland’s expressed wish for more troops, arguing that the determination of the men who remain to fight makes them preferable to an army twice the size. He asks Westmoreland to “proclaim it… through my host” that any man who cannot face up to the horrors of battle should say so and leave freely.

Taken as rhetorical framing by Olivier and Branagh, director Thea Sharrock views this line literally and her onscreen staging reflects that reading. Westmoreland must proclaim Henry’s words through his host because that host is not there listening to those words, only his generals are. “We happy few” are indeed quite few, not the scant hundreds aligned against France’s impressive thousands but barely a dozen representatives of the ruling elite (faithful to the Elizabethan stage, which would not have been able to contain the armed multitude). Henry speaks not in throat-scraping oratory but in a mild if passionate conservational tone. It’s an inspirational speech not for the 99% but for the 1%; not an amplified crowd-pleaser from the hustings but a composed parlay with the chaps down at the club. It’s a fair interpretation of the Shakespearean text, and fits with the approach of the rest of The Hollow Crown. In an epic tetralogy focused on the difficult role(s) that a king is expected to play, this scene and Henry V in general finds a solid conclusion: a king must rule, must impose his will upon his subjects from above them.

Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2

March 8, 2014 1 comment

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (BBC; 2012)

Although William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 are chronological narrative sequels to Richard II, they are its continuation to a much greater extent in thematic terms, an interpretive angle that is especially evident in the adaptation of the plays for The Hollow Crown television film series. Comprising the elder years of the titular king who deposed the titular king of said previous play, the Henry IV stories feature a jaded and belligerent monarch (Jeremy Irons) defending his precarious usurped crown from rebellion while attempting to coax his immature son and heir (Tom Hiddleston) away from low associations and into the more serious role of a future ruler. But they also present the modes and styles of kingship of Henry IV and Richard II as opposing traps that the young man who would be Henry V must nimbly avoid. Prince Hal (the embryonic Henry V) must also assimilate and adapt the useful elements of these models to create a potent new hybrid conception of monarchy that the tetralogy-closing sequel that bears his name demonstrates most floridly.

Henry IV is likewise (and much more prominently) a psychodrama over the fate of Prince Hal’s kingly unconscious. Young Hal is pressured throughout both parts by a pair of father figures to choose between them and the elements of his psyche that they represent. His actual father the king is the superego, lurking in his drafty, greyscale stone palace, grasping tenaciously at power and legitimacy with a grim and humourless determination (“Heavy is the head that wears the crown” and all, and Irons’ skull is a veritable ton of bricks). Hal finds this oppressive milieu of duty and obligation absolutely stifling, and responds to its imposition with flight. Much to the chagrin of the elder Henry, his heir retreats often to a sack-soaked tavern in Eastcheap to rabble-rouse in the company of a dastardly troupe of ne’er-do-well commoners under the impish direction of the corpulent personification of the id himself, Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).

Both the kingly superego and the tavern-dwelling id tempt and urge the annointed Hal to follow their example, although Falstaff realizes his beloved protégé’s fate leads to the throne of his father and only hopes his rule includes generous patronage to good, true Jack Falstaff. King Henry’s expectations of Prince Hal are play-acted on the tavern’s humble stage in a well-known scene, and The Hollow Crown‘s version of it is a centerpiece of the production. Hal plays the king, while Falstaff plays Hal, and ironies and foreshadowing abound in the dialogue between them. Hiddleston provides his first great thespianic moment of the series with a dead-on, hilarious impersonation of Irons’ iconic imperious tones, and Beale is moving in the scene-closing beseechment to the king/the prince not to banish Falstaff, lest he banish all the world (Falstaff contains multitudes, and that’s not another fat joke).

The tug of war reaches its apotheosis in the climax of the aforementioned rebellion, lead by the Earl of Northumberland (Alun Armstrong) and his fearsome warrior son Harry Percey, a.k.a. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong, real-life son of Alun). The king’s forces overwhelm the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal kills Hotspur in single combat, thus overcoming the vigorous, warlike proxy-heir figure that Henry IV idealized and urged Hal to approximate. The dissembling coward Falstaff, who watches the clash of heroes from behind a tree, stabs and drags Hotspur’s corpse and grubbily takes credit for the kill. Hal is superficially amused and lets Falstaff have the glory, but Hiddleston plays it as an epiphany of disillusionment with the lusty, witty knight-vivant from Eastcheap.

Those familiar with the text are aware that Hal reconciles with his father in Part 2, taking the crown before the old man dies before convincing him that it was a statement of a resigned yet resolute acceptance of his duty to the throne rather than an impatient and ungrateful power grab. The new King Henry V then haughtily rejects Falstaff when his remaining father-figure begs for acknowledgement during the coronation procession. Beale (the greatest stage actor of his generation, or so says Wikipedia) is heartbreaking in this much-anticipated scene, although his brief, wordless, shattered cameo in Henry V conveys just as much pathetic sadness and tragedy with less emotional pomp.

Falstaff has been embraced as the most richly beloved of Shakespeare’s characters due to his id-ish characteristics: his earthy desires, shameless appetites, and self-aware, self-effacing wit. A modern Western culture that reifies fun, spontaneity and “living in the moment” even while it imposes its strictures on such impulses with an iron will has made Falstaff a tragic but irresistible mascot of its moral imperatives. It’s little wonder that Shakespeare was convinced to bring the character back in a lighter comic vein in The Merry Wives of Windsor; his repudiation of this raging personification of the id is harsh and cold, even if also true.

But Falstaff’s sacrifice was not in vain. The superego of Henry IV does not conquer the id of Falstaff wholly and entirely in the conflict over the persona of Henry V. Instead, the erstwhile Prince Hal becomes neither the forbidding, glowering monarch that his father was nor the lying, cheating, whoring, boozing hedonistic whirlwind that Falstaff was. Henry V melds the former’s command with the latter’s empathy, shrewd performativity, and common touch, and his triumphs in the fields and the castles of France in the tetralogy’s closing chapter proceed from the lessons learned from both (with a measure of Richard II’s sublime majesty thrown in as well). As Henry V will show, this pragmatic mediation of superego and id results in a masterfully-modulated ego of potent kingship that blazes with brief nationalistic martial fervour.

Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Richard II

March 6, 2014 2 comments

The Hollow Crown: Richard II (BBC; 2012)

A handsomely-mounted and textually-faithful set of television film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, The Hollow Crown was a high-profile 2012 Cultural Olympiad production of the BBC. Insomuch as any version of the Bard’s work both resonates with the great English dramatist’s language and themes and reflects the assumptions and anxieties of the time in which it is produced, The Hollow Crown explores and illuminates not only the nature of kingship but the contours of top-down power in the British national historical context. Discussion and analysis of the films will proceed here in three parts.

The series of four films commences with Richard II, the underappreciated opening movement of this historical-propagandistic tetralogy. Political legitimation of the Tudor dynasty through theatrical narrative and symbolism was a consistent undercurrent in Shakespeare’s work: Macbeth embedded flattering references to James I’s mythical descent from legendary Scottish royals, Henry VIII ended with jubilation at the birth of the future Elizabeth I and nary a word of her imperious father having her mother beheaded. Richard II, the narrative of the overthrow of a monarch, has always sat a bit uneasily in light of this explanatory paradigm. A performance of the play was infamously commissioned in advance of the Earl of Essex‘s attempted coup in 1601, which would have overthrown Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch.

Revolutionary implications aside, Richard II is a work torn between its political and aesthetic loyalties, as The Hollow Crown version demonstrates. The thoughtful, complex speechifying on the nature of kingship and power is all gifted to the play’s titular monarch, who’s really the only character in the play of any linguistic interest or consequence. Played here by Ben Whishaw, Richard is ethereal and mercurial, a king of refined, almost angelic beauty and exquisiteness. Flouncing about in verdant woods and billowing white-draped pavilions encircled by a retinue of pretty male favourites, Richard is spoken of and indeed portrayed as a ruler of divine majesty but tragic miscalculation and detachment whose focus on cultural sophistication and well-groomed magnificence (Whishaw’s hair shimmers like blown glass, and his vestments are white robes out of Lawrence of Arabia) neglects the requirements of ordinary Englishpeople, mismanaging the realm and overtaxing its subjects to subdue Ireland in another of a series of ill-fated medieval imperial wars.

In a near-comic scene of dripping water-torture revelations, Richard lands on an English beach upon his return from Ireland to learn by degress that usurper Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) has raised an army to depose him and that practically all of his putative supporters have allied with the future Henry IV against their king. Henry was the father of the legendary military hero-king Henry V and part of the Lancastrian line descended from John of Gaunt (played, all too briefly, by the always-great Patrick Stewart) that would sire future Richard-deposer Henry Tudor (Henry VII, founder of the dynasty in its final years when the play was written in 1595). Propaganda-wise, the author had considerable impetus to put forward the muscular man-of-action Bolingbroke as a legitimate and even preferable ruler to the indecisive and capricious Richard, celebrating the century of Tudor rule and anticipating a stable male-headed state to succeed the fading feminine Elizabeth.

But Richard earns Shakespeare’s artistic sympathy and gradually the audience’s as well. His rambling, sometimes hilarious stalling in the scene in which he’s asked to relinquish his crown is evidence of the fickle inconstancy that preconditions his removal. But Richard outflanks Bolingbroke and his allies symbolically even as they have their way with him in the arena of temporal power. He becomes a martyr, a tragic figure of considerable pathos, even if Shakespeare’s text and director Rupert Goold’s visuals trowel on a overthick layer of Christ imagery as the narrative reaches its conclusion. Whishaw, mercurial to the hilt, achieves a powerful contrast with Kinnear, who despite a stiff-lipped nobility also possesses a thickset frame and gapped teeth that make him seem more bus driver or dustman than king. The strong implication is that something sublime seeps out of the English crown when it is taken from Richard by Henry, and the arc of the next three plays in the tetralogy traces the new line’s efforts to reconstitute that lost sublimity in the form of heroic nationalism.

Film Review: Munich

March 3, 2014 1 comment

Munich (2005; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Munich is a fascinating, difficult film that, apart from the expected and perfunctory child-in-peril scene, barely feels like Spielberg. It’s mostly hard and unflinching and there’s not much in the way of a sugar-coated feel-good ending to tart up its less savoury and more morally troubling implications, as in so many of his films. But then this approach matches the overriding theme of the material and its applicability to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, be it three decades ago or today.

As is the case with many contemporary thrillers focusing on clandestine intelligence operations and pitiless politically-linked espionage and assassinations, Spielberg’s tightly-clenched depiction of the sweatily emotional internal conflict experienced by Eric Bana’s Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and his team of assassins hunting down and dispatching the Palestinian perpetrators of the confinement and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular German city humanizes and thus normalizes the sadistic moral evils of their state-sanctioned actions. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek’s observations on Zero Dark Thirty and its treatment of torture, portraying state-supported black ops as something that flawed, imperfect human beings engage in before returning to their routine, normalized lives drags a rightful moral taboo into the mainstream discourse of Western liberal democratic society. It’s the classic statement of the Overton Window, and if Spielberg isn’t moving it himself he’s showing how it can be moved without anyone really noticing or effectively objecting.

As you might well imagine from this reading, I don’t feel that Spielberg is entirely in control of the images and ideas he deploys at all times in Munich. This is a common enough occurence for America’s great populist auteur, who should be praised for seeking out grand and challenging themes and meanings just as he should be criticized for allowing his inborn instincts towards entertainment and sentimentalism to make a hash out of them. The flashbacks to recreated events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 are pitched manipulatively and do not maintain a firm, coherent link to the events that constitute the film’s plot. They are a needless revivification of a trauma that haunts all who remember it, nowhere more so than in the practically laughable juxtaposition of images of the massacre with Avner making perspiring, dark, aggressive love to his wife.

Still, there’s an unquieting ambiguity about the events in the film and their connection to the haunting traumas of history. Why is it called Munich when it is not set there and takes place well after the terror that went down there in 1972? Because this story, like all stories of the modern nation of Israel, spiral off inescapably from things that happened in the first city of Bavaria, not so much in 1972 but in 1923 and thereafter. The massacre was made all the worse for Israelis and Jews the world over for occuring in the supposed-reformed and liberalized incubation chamber of the National Socialist ideology that conceived of and executed the Holocaust, itself the proximal post-war impetus for their long-overdue winning of a homeland of their own at long last. Nazism did not cause the Munich massacre (indeed, a progressive overreaction to lingering perceptions of goosestepping German militarism convinced Olympic organizers to relax security at the Games). But it was undoubtedly situated in its root structure, inescapably feeding into it.

The unforgiving covert violence that Avner and his team are expected by their superiors (Geoffrey Rush represents this perspective most belligerently) to enact without flinching is not about restoring order or preserving security, those specious official justifications of secret illegality so familiar to us in the War on Terror era of unconstitutional surveillance and indefinite detention. It’s almost openly about revenge, about exorcising the lingering ghosts of an inutterably painful past as aggressively as possible. But aggression and hate preconditioned this historical haunting and they will not dispel it. In its most blazing moments (and they are few) Munich is very much about how Israel became the nation it is, and how an uncompomising response to centuries of traumas beyond the control of the Jewish people engendered a system of unswerving control that has subjected the counry’s internal minorities to discrimination not wholly dissimilar to that which it was founded in order to avert. Israel is ideally about the comfort and closure of belonging, but it’s likewise inherent defiant and zealous in not only its erection but in its pursuit of self-preservation. Munich wonders, if not quite out loud, if the latter quality has fatally infected the former.

My own reading of Munich (and of Israel) aside, it is evident that critics and commentators on the left and on the right were unsatisfied with how the film refused to consistently reflect their ideological assumptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict back to them. The ideologues didn’t find what they were looking for here, in short, and one has to kind of admire the film for that, whatever its other failings. If it has any sort of unifying message (and that’s a big “if”), it’s that deep, complex social problems can’t simply be killed away and the ghosts of past suffering do not find peace through warlike activity. It was derided by some observers on those grounds (mostly by those on the Right in American and Israel who think such deep-seated divisions and traumas can be solved by force alone) as wishy-washy liberal pacifism, but this is not a pacifist movie by any stretch of the imagination. What kind of movie is it, ultimately? I’m not so sure that’s ever properly clear, but it certainly is a good one, everything considered.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #9

Edging ever closer to double digits on total installments of this regular feature mocking the online masses and their head-scratching search habits. Ten prime examples of these habits this time around. Aren’t they special?

peter jackson excessive

Hey, PJ lost a bunch of weight and he’s living a healthy lifestyle now. No more second breakfasts, let alone elevensies.

southern gothic and noblesse oblige

These are two of my favourite words/concepts together in one lovely, snobbish phrase and for this I thank you, anonymous searcher.

who is the man in the suit that beats up llewyn davis

If you just watch to the end of the damn movie, you’ll find out. Was this you, mother?

candy falling from the sky

Yes, please. Unless this is a new Katy Perry single, then no thank you.

sexy girls on snowmobiles

What exactly do you find when you google that? Pretty much what you’d expect, though not as much as you might hope for. This is the most tasteful and relevant result. Lookit that sexy Moto-Ski!

snow bunnydwarf shoulder prosthesis in the desolation of smaug

What a curiously specific and trivial line of inquiry. Maybe this was a WETA Workshop grunt sensitive about the reception of his work.

why does looper not have automatic weapons

Obama! *shakes fist*

violence and aesthetics and sport

Oh my.

www. threatening monologues- gangs of new

This website does not actually seem to exist, which is unfortunate since if there was a site called Threatening Monologues aggregating all of the great tense and aggressive monologues of the movies, it would be pretty amazing. Lots of Tarantino, one would imagine. As it is, it may have to become a regular blog feature.

russell westbrook slash fanfiction

Stop and take a look at yourself, Western culture. What have you become?