Archive for March, 2014

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?