Archive for April, 2014

Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: Reactions to Public Racism in Contrast

April 29, 2014 Leave a comment

This afternoon the NBA announced that it has fined Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling $2.5 million and banned him from the league for life after the notoriously slimy character was recorded uttering racist statements to his girlfriend, including a now-infamous exhortation not to bring African-Americans to his team’s games as her guests, even if they happen to be famous former stars like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It was a strong response from the league, and one that may lead to a protracted battle with Sterling over compensation for the team he is now likely to be forced to sell (if 75% of his fellow franchise owners vote him out, that is).

Sterling is a loathsome reptile whose rights and actions, such as they are in legal ownership terms, were difficult to defend even before this latest episode exposing his bigotry. But a loathsome reptile with huge piles of capital can slide on through a lot of difficulties, and Sterling has done so in the past. For this reason, it’s surprising and indeed almost shocking that the hammer is being brought down so swiftly and powerfully by the NBA. Racism as blatant and as indefensible as that which Sterling has demonstrated is almost universally reviled but rarely punished by institutions quite this strongly, this deliberately and publically.

Golden State Warriors fans amusingly protest Donald Sterling’s derisive comments regarding bringing African-Americans to “his” games during a playoff game against Sterling’s LA Clippers

Still, a prejudiced old white man with millions of dollars being punished for open discrimination in this way is in many ways a necessary public sacrifice for a social system that still benefits from discriminatory practices in many ways. NBA players, often African-Americans from lower-income backgrounds, earn lucrative contracts and comfortable livings thanks to their athletic and genetic gifts, but the billionaires who issue their paycheques reap even greater financial benefits. To whatever extent the arrangement is mutually beneficial, owners are surely the greater beneficiaries. As Chris Rock put it, Shaquille O’Neal is rich, but the white man who signs his cheque is wealthy.

The NBA is a majority African-American league that is deeply associated with black urban culture in the public eye, and no doubt felt a responsibility not only to its players, its fanbase and to the wider public but also to the maintenance of its marketing image to make a muscular statement against minority discrimination. Indeed, one could be inclined to argue that the league’s second-tier status among the major North American professional sports leagues – behind the hegemonic NFL and MLB and ahead of the more niche-level NHL – could be at least partly due to lingering racial prejudice among white American (and Canadian) sports fans.

I won’t get into that any more deeply, but dismissive sniffs at the league’s often-cocky and individualistic “culture” might come from a similar deep place of historical white supremacy as equivalent criticisms of hip-hop or of African-American culture in general do as well. But the very structure of the league – wealthy white men becoming wealthier on the back of the labour of young African-American males – itself echoes the Southern slaveowning order, if not quite as much as big-time college sports (at least NBAers are making a not inconsiderable salary for their pains; college players earn not a cent until a sliver of a percentage of them go pro). And so the central, centrist source of authority replied to this irruption of open racial insensitivity much as the American federal government reacted to the fall of the slaveowning South after the Civil War: by punishing particularly visible perpetrators of the unequal socioeconomic arrangement (Sterling as latter-day plantation owner) while leaving the underlying discriminatory assumptions of that same system essentially intact.

An alternative reaction to public acts of racist discrimination was demonstrated this past weekend across the ocean on a football pitch in Spain. In the midst of La Liga giants FC Barcelona’s fixture against Villareal, a fan derisively tossed a banana at Barca’s mixed-race Brazilian right back Dani Alves as he prepared to take a corner kick. A sadly common and moronic gesture meant to equate a player of African descent with a banana-eating ape, such racist displays have lead to players walking off the field in protest and hefty FIFA-levied fines to home teams at stadiums where such incidents occur. Alves’ reaction was, as you can see below, more casual and yet more profound.

Cool as anything, Alves reduced a hateful act to an appreciative laugh. A moment of dark humanity becomes a moment of light humanity. Using humour or satire to exposes discriminatory structures has a controversial history (just ask Stephen Colbert), but Alves’ act of defiance in the face of another burst of international football’s simmering racist issue was so nonchalant and elegant (just like the on-pitch style of top footballers like Alves) that it has taken on a shade of the iconic. The video of the moment went viral well beyond the circles of the sport, and has inspired a meme of banana-consuming selfies from other footballers and fans in solidarity.

Alves’ non-protest protest echoes Henry Louis Gates Jr. theoretic framework laid out in the The Signifying Monkey. Gates delineates the African-American discursive practice of signifyin(g) as a deeply-rooted cultural form of rhetorical and metaphorical appropriation and recasting as commentary on social and cultural conditions. Distinctions are made between oppositional signifying, which challenges and negatively critiques, and cooperative signifying, which “encodes admiration and respect”. Although the Brazilian Alves comes from a very different cultural source than any African-American, eating some of the banana utilized as an object of prejudice constitutes oppositional signifying disguised in the non-confrontational form of cooperative signifying. The crude racist implication is that Dani Alves, as a person of colour, is a monkey who likes bananas. “You’re damn right I like bananas”, Dani Alves implies, “many humans do, so watch me eat some banana. Yum.” This is not to say that how Dani Alves handled a casual, unthinking racist act is better or worse than how the NBA handled a very widely-disseminated and considered racist act. But there’s more than one way to peel a banana.

Cliven Bundy and the Conservative Rejection of the Social Contract

April 25, 2014 Leave a comment

If you’re not familiar with the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the American government (specifically, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM), allow me to catch you up on it before making a few points about its broader applicability to modern conservative views of society.

As is summed up nicely by Andrew Prokop in a series of posts on Vox, Bundy has let his cattle graze on government-owned land adjacent to his ranch for 20 years. He has refused to pay the proper legally-mandated fees to do this, claiming that he owes the federal government nothing and will not abide by any of their laws. Finally, the BLM sent armed agents to confiscate the cattle from the federal lands. Soon, armed throngs of Bundy’s like-minded supporters (many of them with ties to militias) assembled and stood down the federal officials, who eventually backed down, returned the cattle to Bundy, and left the area.

Cliven Bundy: an anti-government conservative in his natural habitat

Bundy has long had a low-level buzz of support from Tea Party organizations and other social conservatives, who admit that his stance has no legal basis (you can wish that government doesn’t own and maintain land you want to use as your own, but that wish and a couple of bucks will get you little more than a cup of coffee). Still, his stubborn, principled stand in the face of government intrusion against his symbolically-charged rancher way of life is highly romantic to conservatives, so grounded is it in American conservative identity with the hardy, masculine-coded, self-reliant individualism that is imagined to be the platonic ideal of the Right. To many a conservative, he’s a genuine cowboy hero, standing up to a federal government that even moderate conservatives consider to be a disease that is hollowing out the cherished American soul.

If utilizing an armed mob to disobey governmental authority did not give his right-wing supporters pause, then Bundy’s candid and stunning (but perhaps not surprising) racist remarks about how “the negro” is worse off for no longer picking cotton for white slavemasters sent them scurrying away like rats fleeing a sinking ship. That bigotry against minorities, who have often required the government’s protection against the unchecked “individualism” (read: selfish appropriation) of icons of self-reliance like Bundy in the past, coexists with the man’s anti-government belligerence should also not surprise us. Racial prejudice remains a cancer on the American Right that at least partly prevents their government-shrinking policy platform from being taken seriously as anything other than re-entrenchment of institutionalized discrimination.

As Matthew Yglesias points out in another Vox article, ranchers like Bundy who claim to be discriminated against and who bemoan lazy moochers are themselves suckling on the government teat rather shamelessly. Bundy has gotten off scot-free for using government-owned land to feed his livestock for years; the big, mean government has literally subsidized this supposedly independent trailblazer for decades. Bundy is precisely the sort of parasite on public funds that Paul Ryan Republicans like to accuse, say, poverty-level recipients of social welfare of being. But he’s a crusty white man with a cowboy hat, so the same rules don’t apply to him.

The discernable theme of the Bundy stand-off is the erosion of the respect for the basic concept of the social contract among conservatives. Conservatism in the American (and Canadian, and Western European) context has long held a dim view of the Enlightenment understanding of the social contract as involving a trade-off of personal liberty for collective security. Thomas Hobbes’ genesis of the concept overemphasized the centralized absolutist power of authority, but of course his starting point in the early modern period was the endemic social violence that medieval feudalism was ineffective in curbing, not so far after all from his “brutish and short” natural state.

In our modern age, especially in capital-absorbed America, it is not physical security so much as economic security that is paramount in the minds of many; the former, indeed, is often understood sociologically to proceed from the latter. The social contract, in its broadest and most ideal form but also to a lesser extent in its troubled but vital applied form, should guarantee this security (I speak only of the domestic political sphere; international affairs is a whole other beast, linked inextricably with the national security state, the military-industrial complex, and the realpolitik balance of contrasting state interests). This proceeds from the classic liberal view that the unchecked desire for self-satisfaction pursued by the individual can only be diverted from anti-social infringement on the civil and property rights of other citizens by the collective agreements represented by the rule of law and legislation crafted by an elected government. For the record, I feel that liberal (as well as conservative) governments are far too integrated with corporate players for any clearly-demarcated opposition of this sort to be considered true any longer, but that is the classic formulation anyway.

The conservative view, on the other hand, is that government is an overbearing parent, forever proscribing the freedoms of the individuals that are its symbolic offspring (be they ranchers, regular Republican voters, or multinational corporations). Hobbes’ dark warnings about the natural state are disregarded; on the Right, the natural state of unmitigated pursuit of happiness can have only beneficial effects, and the government’s insistence on controlling the capital that results from it and diverting some (ever smaller) percentage of it to prevent inequality from becoming endemic is ultimately dishonest, harmful, inhuman.

In a sector of political discourse where a figure like Cliven Bundy can become a hero, the basic assumptions of the social contract must necessarily have been banished entirely. Law and order, and the social structure that they are apparently preserving, are rejected as tyranny wherever and whenever they do not re-enshrine the hegemonic privilege of a conservatively-minded white male elite. Collective interests shrink from a wider national project of communal improvement to narrow parochial conceptions of subcultural or tribal allegiances. Cleavages form between communities. Your fellow citizens is no longer your fellow but your enemy; collaborators become antagonists. Economic liberty trumps economic security.

The irony of Bundy, reliant as his herds are on government resources, holding such views is rich indeed. But it is also the active contradiction at the heart of the conservative movement’s ideological tenets, forever exposing the basic disingenuousness of their libertarian fantasizing. Until the social contract is wholly eliminated and economic competition reverts to the dangerous, ideal natural state that they seem to crave, their exhortations to liberty and individualism will continue to be compromised by actual conditions. With total elimination likely being impossible, eternal compromise is assured.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Le Pacte des Loups

April 22, 2014 1 comment

Le Pacte des loups (2001; Directed by Christophe Gans)

Upon reflection, this movie is probably the Frenchest thing I’ve ever seen.

Known in the Anglophone cinematic world as Brotherhood of the Wolf, Christophe Gans’ stylish, bizarre, exciting genre mash-up is a glorious clusterfuck of an entertainment, featuring 18th Century aristocratic costumage and elegant period châteaux alongside slow-motion martial arts fight sequences and an absolute classic movie monster that is what badass wants to be when it grows up. Among its cast are Monica Bellucci as a courtesan who is also a spy for the Vatican and Mark Dacascos (the future Chairman of Iron Chef America) as a Native American ninja. It’s dark and weird and inconsistent and full of ideas both compelling and disturbing. Basically, it’s totally bonkers, and you should see it for yourself.

Plot? Sure, but no promises made about it making a lick of sense. Told in a flashback narrative frame by a French aristocrat about to be hauled to the guillotine by a revolutionary mob, the film’s main events take place in 1764. In the province of Gévaudan in southern France, a wolf-like beast is killing and mutilating locals (we see one such peasant girl chased to her death through vividly gothic fields and a soaking puddle pit in an early sequence). Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), skilled warrior, Seven Years’ War veteran, royal taxidermist, is sent to investigate by the King. He arrives with his aforementioned Native American ninja Mani (Dacascos) in tow, and the pair promptly whup some brigand-ish soldiers preying on an old man and his daughter. This scene, a stunner of a staff fight in richly-shot mud and rain, is an early testament to Gans’ vision and to the wonderful cinematography of Dan Laustsen. This movie may be frothy overwrought nonsense, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.

Anyway, Fronsac and Mani become more and more deeply enmeshed in a convoluted web of secrets involving the beast, a semi-mystic secret cult devoted to it, and an aristocratic family which includes a fetching romantic interest (Émilie Dequenne) and her smug but sinister one-armed lion hunter brother (the exquisitely hyper-Gallic Vincent Cassel). There’s a plot to undermine royal authority and plenty of intrigue and killing and even some slo-mo exploding watermelons. Fronsac is asked to dress up an ordinary wolf killed in the region to convince the court that the threat is at an end, but the real monster is a steel-toothed behemoth that does not cease its reign of terror. Its big reveal sequence, in the midst of the splintering destruction of a country house, is a tremendous display of action-horror exhiliration that rivets you to your seat and your eyes to the blood-splattered screen.

Brotherhood of the Wolf becomes more complicated, bloody and downright silly as it goes on, frittering away some of the tension racked up so effectively in some of the earlier, borderline brilliant sequences I’ve mentioned. But the body count gets ridiculous and sensationalistic and there’s a thoroughly nasty and unprogressively-staged incestual sexual assault scene that does Gans no credit at all. There’s some undercurrents of science vs. religion, rationality vs. superstition in the Enlightenment context, but none of the intellectual or social-historical material is anything more substantial than window-dressing for the mayhem.

But lordy, what mayhem! When Gans has his cinematic mojo working, Brotherhood of the Wolf is superb stuff, even if it’s hard to overlook how goofy it is. The French seem to get this sort of pulpy mainstream mumbo-jumbo, though, and embrace it with an energetic fondness that American filmmakers and audiences can’t meet on its own terms in the same way. Head-scratching narrative details may fade, but the brazen, inspired images emblazoned onto the celluloid in this melting pot of generic bravado remain long after. A very particular delight, but one that genre fans might well find rewarding, if they take the time to seek it out.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: Top of the Lake

April 18, 2014 1 comment

Top of the Lake (BBC; 2013)

In the opening sequence of the first episode of Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s resonant anthology drama, a young girl rides her bike along isolated roads in the vast and forbiddingly beautiful landscape around New Zealand’s Lake Wakatipu. Leaving her bike, she wades waist deep into the freezing, ghostly water. Dwarfed by the enormity of not only the natural world but her social milieu, she is alone, wet, and shivering. Her fate seems of no cosmic concern.

Yet Top of the Lake is narratively and thematically driven by what happens to this girl, Tui (Jacqueline Joe). The 12-year-old is examined after being coaxed out of the water and discovered to be pregnant. She is interrogated by Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), lately arrived back to her hometown of Laketop, having left a long-term fiancee in Australia to see to her terminally ill mother. Tui is reluctant to share anything with the authorities, likely out of fear of her imperious father, a veritable local warlord named Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan). She soon disappears, and in investigating her case Robin uncovers terrible secrets lurking beneath the surface of the community as well as in her own past.

Top of the Lake shares many important qualities with recent television detective noirs like True Detective and The Killing. One could call it Southern Hemisphere Gothic without inaccuracy (if not without preciousness). Proceeding from a tremendously vivid sense of place and visual mystery (Adam Arkapaw, who also very memorably shot True Detective, is the cinematographer), this is a story of small-town perversion and evil, of awful, ugly truths buried in rich forests, drowned beneath glassy waters, and stranded on the slopes of the picturesque Remarkables mountain chain.

But unlike both of those aforementioned mysterious telenovellas, Top of the Lake is rooted in a robustly feminist perspective and exposes the self-contradictory sickness of patriarchal power in all of its terrible moral decay. Like the underaged Tui, Robin was raped after a local version of prom by a truckload of drunken yokels, her high school sweetheart and date Johnno Mitchum (Thomas M. Wright) helpless to stop them. She has been profoundly damaged by this experience in ways that she doesn’t completely understand, and the pathology bursts to the surface when the Tui Mitchum case hits snags.

Snagged it very often is, as Robin must contend with not only the uncompromising Matt Mitchum but also her chauvinistic, condescending commanding officer Al Parker (David Wenham), who often seems to be directing the investigation away from the Mitchum clan and towards tidier if less convincing resolutions. Mitchum and Parker are a dual-visaged Janus of discriminatory male power. Al Parker boasts that he directed a lynch-mob-style posse that exiled all but one of Robin’s assaulters years ago, and has a clearly established symbiotic power-sharing partnership with the volatile Mitchum, who is practically the uncrowned feudal lord of Laketop. Al flirts with Robin with creepy insistence, and generally uses and abuses his position of authority for very dark and immoral ends indeed.

If Al Parker is the super-ego of the local patriarchal unconscious, then Matt Mitchum is its raging, dangerous id. Well-armed and protected in a high-security high-peaked manse like a pharaoh in a pyramid, Matt runs a local drug trade ring, owns vast tracts of land, has an army of bikers at his command, and keeps pretty much anyone of consequence in his pocket. He’s threatening, seductive, and manipulative. But his show of strength and masculinity (marked aurally as well by his burly Scots accent) masks private insecurities and troubles, including erectile dysfunction with adult female partners and a twisted habit of self-flagellation while kneeling before his mother’s grave. He’s an imposing villain narratively and symbolically, but his every action and interest seems far too easy, far too obvious. Wenham’s Al turns out to be a monster of at least equal or greater consequence who is much more interesting in his social conventionality and integration.

Matt Mitchum is inherently heavy-handed and so is the way Campion and Lee have written him. Matt’s sons are even named Luke, Mark, and John, a clear reference to the biblical Evangelists. Without getting too deep into the biblical scholarship around the symbols of the Evangelists, Matthew is symbolized as a winged man or angel, emphasizing Christ’s human nature and the primacy of reason and man’s will is achieving salvation. Mark and Luke are symbolized by a winged lion and bull respectively, and the two sons who still live with Matt are indeed enforcers, lieutenants, servants of his absolute power. John, finally, tends to be figured as an eagle, and indeed Johnno was the one Mitchum boy who exercised his freedom to fly away from his father’s malevolent influence and continues to defy and oppose him. Although this is not a show particularly about religion in any way (Maori-derived spirituality crops up here and there, but that’s about it), this association connects patriarchy’s position of social and cultural authority to institutional Christianity’s similar position.

Campion and Lee do provide a social alternative to these patriarchal structures, contained and compromised though it may be. A patch of Mitchum’s land in a place suggestively called Paradise is sold for the use of a kind of women’s therapy commune (it’s also the land that his mother is buried on, so the matriarchal aura is strong there). The location and the women who dwell there play a role in the events of the plot, usually as a refuge or safe haven from trauma or violence; it’s the last place Tui is seen before her disappearance into the wilderness, and nurses Robin more than once in instances of both emotional and physical need. Even Mitchum can’t resist the commune’s pull, though he derides these “crazy bitches” in their modified shipping containers on land he feels should be his own; he is briefly involved romantically with one of the denizens (Robyn Malcolm), before his pathologies and hidden crimes banish her and the potential happiness she represented from his side.

The “patients” at this women-only recovery centre in the middle of nowhere answer to an inscrutable, grey-haired guru named GJ (Holly Hunter), who mostly sits in a fur-strewn armchair and preaches disillusionment. When she says anything at all, she scoffs at the very idea of the fuzzy new-age enlightenment that most of the women seem inclined to believe that they’re seeking. Her advice is gnomic and usually quite worthless when it’s parsed, but her community represents a stark and generally preferable alternative social structure to the unhealthy chauvinistic order that predominates under the watch of Al and Matt.

When a life is claimed in Matt’s gangster-ish search for his daughter in the woods, the memorial is held in Paradise, with a funereal pyre and a Björk cover as elegy. It’s the only place in this gorgeous but haunted landscape that such a human-focused moment is possible. Top of the Lake envisions a symbolic location where the imposing and dangerous natural world chokes off human decency and agency, its landscapes inherently inhuman and therefore its crusty patriarchal order equally so. Even if feminine community has its own issues, it’s presented here as a favourable alternative to the homosocial sociopathy that rules Laketop and, by implication, the wider world as well.

Categories: Reviews, Television

PopMatters Television Review: Fargo

April 15, 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.

Fargo – Premiere



Categories: Film, Reviews, Television

A Mullet in the Wind: The Retirement of Ryan Smyth

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

After an even 20 seasons in the NHL, aging Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth has announced his retirement and will play his final game in the league Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Probably the team most’s iconic and popularly beloved player of its post-championship-dynasty period, Smyth hailed from Banff, Alberta, loved the Oilers growing up, and was legendarily hit by 1980s Oiler scoring star Glenn Anderson’s car while working at a hotel in his hometown (they were later teammates in one of Smyth’s first seasons and one of Anderson’s first). Even if he was not an Oiler for his entire career (he was painfully traded away in 2007, only to demand a trade back in 2011), Smyth is identified with the team and the city and its perceived work ethic and tenacity as no player has been since local product Mark Messier in the Cup years.

Edmonton Oilers v Ottawa SenatorsFollowing hard on the heels of the trading of fellow longtime Oilers (and 2006 Stanley Cup Final run principals) Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, Smyth’s retirement cuts the final tether connecting the last great Oilers team and this motley current crew of massively talented but perenially disappointing young players. As steady and effective as Horcoff could be, as exciting as Hemsky’s sublime bursts of skill were, they were neither of them the folk hero that the man known as Smytty (hockey nicknames leave much to be desired) became locally. In a town with a self-image tied in with tough, dirty oil field labour and other related proletarian overtones, Smyth was the exemplar of on-ice spade work and grim, gutsy determination that has come to define not only Edmonton’s conception of “good” hockey but Canada’s as well. His defining on-ice moment for many fans came during the second round of the 2006 playoffs, when he lost three teeth to an errant puck but returned in the same game to set up Horcoff for a triple-overtime winner (the only decent video of the lost teeth incident features some tacky and uninformed Chris Pronger hate, but there you go). It’s a moment out of old-time, smash-mouth hockey lore; had the Oilers gone one win further that spring and won the Cup, the teeth would have ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame (who knows, they still might, though their former owner may not).

Despite this lunchbucket reputation, Smyth was a tremendously skilled player as well, topping 400 goals and 850 points for his NHL career. He was a scorer in his heyday, a power play specialist (tied for most PP goals all-time for the Oilers, topping the list with one more against the Canucks would be a sweet finish) and not a puncher or grinder. The tenacity and tolerance for punishment that characterized his front-of-net office on the man advantage were often emphasized, but the excellent hand-eye coordination and anticipation to screen goalies or deflect shots or bang home loose pucks before defending opponents could beat him to it testified to a high level of skill and ability. If his hard-working rep brought him closer to his fans, his gifted talents separated him from and set him above them. Like all great hockey icons, Ryan Smyth could seem both larger-than-life and just like the men and women rooting for him from the stands or the barstools or the couches.

For my part, I well recall persistent Smytty in-jokes among myself and my Oiler fan friends. His habit of scoring shovel-in goals from in close to the net (this one from the 2006 Finals is an object lesson; how did it go in?) inspired the running joke that he scored every goal with his head like a soccer striker. His flowing hair likewise lead to a nickname that never shook itself from my head: Mullet in the Wind. Now, with Ryan Smyth’s career nearly at its end, adapting the lyrics of a famous Elton John musical elegy to the departed to include this phrase is indeed a tempting final tribute.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

The Fall of the Parti Quebecois and the Globalized Belle Province

Monday’s night decisive election victory for Phillippe Couillard’s Quebec Liberals, who won enough seats to form a majority government at the expense of Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois, is certainly important and epochal. If you follow the conventional wisdom of punditry, the result is also indicative of the death of separatism and the sound and heartening rejection of xenophobic siege mentality fear-mongering in Canadian electoral politics. Let’s not look away from analyses in the same spaces from not so long ago, however, viewing media mogul-turned-political candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, the catalyst of revivified sovereignty and muscular, French Republic-style opportunistic targetting of ethnic and religious difference, as a qualified champion that the PQ could ride to victory at the polls and maybe in a future referendum on separation as well.

Separatism is not dead in Quebec, of course, although the PQ’s ownership of the brand is in some degree of doubt. More cynical observers might venture to opine that separatism was always a dead letter, a sort of long-dormant volcano whose imposing massif has been employed to extract the commitment to any number of safety precautions and protective measures from those living within its blast radius. Separation was always the nuclear option of Quebec political identity, a deterrent making the political, social, and corporate hegemons of Anglophone Canada reluctant to proscribe the province’s differences too aggressively. With support in Quebec no longer as vital to forming a federal government with the growth of the west (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have done mostly without it), separatism is leverage for Quebec interests in the national sphere.

Photo by Jacques Boissinot/CP

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and his wife greet supporters after gaining a majority in the Quebec election on April 7, 2014

That’s one interpretation, and it seems to have increasingly been the one favoured by conflict-averse citizens in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Sovereignty arguments helped to strengthen linguistic and cultural protections in provincial legislation even as increased economic interdependence with the rest of Canada and the world continued bringing capitalist prosperity to Quebec, which no longer looked inward but outward. Separatism was a word not spoken; if the PQ still saw it as an ultimate goal, a coherent-enough social and philosophical ideology has been built up around it. State sovereignty was, perhaps, no longer as necessary due to a cultural sovereignty, a sovereignty of the collective Quebecois consciousness.

As the narrative is already telling us, the famous right-wing capitalist Péladeau (his Mussolini-admiring father founded Quebecor, corporate parent of the odious, reactionary tabloid froth of Sun Media) stated bluntly that he wanted Quebec to be a country and the air went out of the Parti Quebecois balloon like he had taken a pin to its skin. How ironic that it was a capitalist icon who brought to light the now-arcane-seeming tribal resentment so long sunk in darkness. Ironic why? Because the national and international consumer economy engagement and integration that business tycoons like Péladeau shepherded into independence in the province has created a social atmosphere uncomfortable with the idea of the kind of radical social and political upheaval heralded by separation.

If Canada has any sort of character feature that defines its people or (at least) its dominant institutions, it’s a fundamental unwillingness to avoid rocking the boat at all costs. Much of the Harper Conservatives’ success at mainstreaming its essentially unfriendly, un-neighbourly belief-system and the policies proceeding from it can be put down to the party machine’s effectiveness at selling themselves as the stable stewards of growth and profit while painting opposition parties’ challenges to its imperatives as near-revolutionary overthrows with dire consequences on economic stability. As conservative Canada has been defined by its ability to make money and by its promise of prosperity and security to its citizens, so has Quebec.

Language and “distinct culture” aside, Quebec is no outlier in global consumer capitalism but a willing and often very successful participant. The uncertainty attendent to the concept of separation from Canada (especially in relation to economic questions) is mostly seen as undesirable, just as the adjustments to government that would be a vital part of levelling the playing field in federal economic concerns are feared and villified by comfortably affluent suburban Conservative voters. This follows the lead of European nationalist movements to some extent, some of which are pursuing measured political means to achieve structured self-reliance while others accept levels of cultural distinction within historical political unions. What Quebec has found is what many formerly rigid nationalist movements have found, and what Canada as a whole has found: making money is more important than gaining self-determination over your cultural and political identity. They all may be wrong about this, but it’s what seems to be the overriding desire. And it’s what we can take out of the defeat of the Parti Quebecois in this election, if we’re looking at it in a certain light.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Captain Phillips

April 5, 2014 4 comments

Captain Phillips (2013; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The true-to-life story of the hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates and the taking of its captain as a hostage provides the fodder for this latest taut, hyper-realistic thriller from English director Paul Greengrass. Despite a clarity of vision, a high level of technical craftsmanship, and extremely effective lead performances, Captain Phillips is hamstrung by the diminished dramatic punch resulting from widespread knowledge of its ripped-from-the-headlines narrative. It also becomes a ham-handed exercise in United States Navy hagiography in its final hour, as the audience’s rooting interest is cynically directed into the camp of the military-industrial complex working to secure the titular hostage.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the Vermont-based captain of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000 ton container ship en route from the Port of Salalah in Oman to Mombasa, Kenya in 2009. Well aware of the dangers of pirate attacks in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa, Phillips’ fears prove to be prescient as his ship is pursued and eventually boarded by four young Somalian men armed with AK-47s under the command of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Phillips and Muse test each other’s mettle in a contest of minds and wills which eventually leads to the pirates departing the Maersk Alabama on a lifeboat with $30,000 in cash and Phillips as a hostage in hopes of greater ransom rewards. Unfortunately for the pirates, the first successful hijacking of an American vessel since the early 19th century sets the superpower’s military might into ruthlessly efficient action. Muse is captured, his fellow pirates are shot dead by Navy SEAL snipers, and Phillips is freed to return to his family and pen a bestselling memoir of his experiences. Apologies for spoiling anything, but the public record tells us as much.

For an American public stung by the ambiguous Bush Administration misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan which the new President Barack Obama was quietly winding down early in his first term, the swift and successful resolution of this pocket crisis was a positive shot of morale for a nation whose self-image is never far from the battlefield, literal or figurative. Greengrass’ film, shot in the shaky-cam cinema verité style that the acclaimed director crafted into his trademark on the last two Matt Damon-featuring Jason Bourne movies and United 93, is similarly a cinematic caffeine jolt. Its stark, bloody-minded realism and finely-tuned technical construction should ratchet up its tension as it goes on, but as the inevitable, acknowledged endgame approaches, Captain Phillips becomes less tense, indeed at times kind of boring.

The strong naturalistic acting cannot be faulted for this curious tedium. Even though he’s never anything but recognizable, Hanks often vanishes into the credible ordeal of Phillips. He’s not performing, he’s being; his blubbering, near-helpless response on the Navy ship after being rescued interestingly shades the resourceful heroism he showed during the crisis with heavy emotional vulnerability. The naturalistic effect is amplified by surrounding him with Abdi and his non-professional-actor henchmen, who mostly do not speak English onscreen but never fail to convey every tone and emotion required, from danger to desperation to pain and even longing. Abdi in particular is an impressive natural with an unpredictable swagger that invests his thin frame with considerable menace.

What ultimately handcuffs Captain Phillips is the political ramifications that it can’t help but represent. The script by Billy Ray (who also penned the screenplay for The Hunger Games) prefaces Phillips’ voyage into deadly danger with a conversation between him and his wife (Catherine Keener) in its opening scenes. Speaking of their children’s career prospects, Phillips tells his wife that it’s an uncertain and ruthlessly competitive world in which their offspring are coming of age. Out at sea, he’s faced with a much harsher manifestation of those unforgiving forces at work in the global economy, but Ray’s script suggests not-so-subtly that it’s all connected in a long unbroken chain of haves and have-nots.

Muse shares with Phillips his endearingly simplistic materialistic dreams of America, of moving to New York and buying a car (Abdi himself moved from Somalia to Minneapolis and worked as a chauffeur). And he does get to America, but only to stand trial and while away the next few decades in an Indiana prison; the irony registers itself ever so briefly on Abdi’s face as he’s told officiously about his coming fate. When they first take over the ship, Phillips tries to placate the pirates by claiming that the Maersk Alabama is transporting food to Africans, but Muse scoffs at the West’s uneven, ineffective aid, which has neglected his homeland and left it a chaotic, violent feudal state divided between warlords. “We’re fisherman,” Muse insists to Phillips, but outside forces have depleted the stocks on which they rely for their subsistence and so they must cast their lines in murkier waters.

Captain Phillips can’t buy completely and effectively into its globalization critique angle, however. Greengrass and Ray sketch the social issue outline but never fill it in. What occupies the space instead is an authoritarian martial wet dream of three warships and a crack team of Navy SEALS pitilessly bringing down the blow of the American big stick onto frightened, desperate, destitute foreign teenagers with guns. The filmmakers are clearly aiming for a celebratory fist-pump from the audience when the masculine mastery of the U.S. of A is established beyond doubt, and the box office returns seem to confirm that they got it (Captain Phillips more than quadrupled its modest budget in worldwide box office takings).

True, what happens onscreen is what happened in the Indian Ocean in 2009, and fidelity to true events is a laudable mantra to Paul Greengrass in a way that it rarely is to Hollywood filmmakers. But there’s a grim, joyless march of inevitability towards the desired result that lessens the engagement. The ratcheted tension is never greater or more compelling than when the pirate skiffs are chasing down the container ship, but its rapid dissipation in the closing act could have been compensated for with a sympathetic turn. Had Greengrass turned his tightly-wound thriller into a tragedy in its final movement, it might have constituted a more compelling accomplishment. As it is, the hammer blow of the powerful against the powerless is carried on the level of an action climax. And it is neither fun, exciting, or enlightening in the final analysis.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Eagle vs Shark

April 2, 2014 1 comment

Eagle vs Shark (2007; Directed by Taika Waititi)

A sort of more adult, even more deadpan New Zealandish Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs Shark is a rare, odd bird of a romantic comedy. The central couple of shy girl Lily (Loren Horsley) and awkward but obnoxiously overconfident nerd Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) either never really fall in love or stumble their way closer to it than they realize by the film’s conclusion. In truth, the affect of the whole film is so flattened (purposely and amusingly) that it’s quite hard to tell how they end up feeling about each other.

Both Lily and Jarrod are poorly-socialized loners in an unnamed New Zealand city (Wellington, probably, which is where it was partly shot). Lily moons over the mulleted video-game shopworker Jarrod from her post at a fast food counter. She learns of an animal dress-up party that he is hosting and invites herself, dressing as a shark; Jarrod is done up as an eagle, and lo and behold, that non-sequiturial title is explained. The party is a pretty hilariously sad affair, mostly attended by regulars of the gaming store and organized around a video fighting game competition that is intended to be an ego-stroking victory lap for Jarrod. Lily, whose gaming handle is “Dangerous Person” (an even funnier joke in one of those glorious Kiwi accents whose cadences are so well-adapted to deadpan humour), defeats all comers but stares distracted at Jarrod in the final showdown, allowing him to win handily. They kiss, have halting, brief sex in their costumes, and apparently become an item.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Jarrod is kind of an unreliable and self-involved idiot, though this only slightly dents Lily’s enthusiasm for him. He stands her up for a date and then excuses his actions by telling her that he needs to return to his hometown to kill a bully who tormented him in his youth. Perhaps not expecting Lily to believe that his revenge mission is real, he nonetheless accepts her offer of a ride to the town with her and her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck), who does bad impressions of over-quoted famous lines from movies the whole way there.

Lily becomes acquainted with Jarrod’s family in the town as he “trains” for his battle to the death and taunts his absent target. She pushes his withdrawn, wheelchair-bound father (Brian Sergent) around town, feigns interest in the unsuccessful line of self-designed athletic apparel constantly worn by his sister and her husband (Rachel House and Craig Hall), and plays with his barely-acknowledged daughter. She comes to like them almost more than she likes him, obsessed as he is with his sure-to-be-unfulfilling quest for revenge, which impresses her little. Even as he tries awkwardly to push her away, she clings on, preferring the newfound sense of familial closeness to her solitary life in the city. Lily also learns of a past family tragedy whose lasting trauma serves to explain many of the eccentricities and pathologies of this particular clan.

Waititi symbolically underscores the strange, uncertain fits and starts of Lily and Jarrod’s relationship with cute snatches of stop-motion animation featuring two anthropomorphic apples, set to the music of New Zealand indie-pop band the Phoenix Foundation. The message seems to be that lonely souls can find companionship even through adversity and misunderstandings and that sometimes what we call love is nothing more than a simple and non-passionate arrangement of mutual benefit. There’s a bittersweet note to this indie farce that gives it some measure of emotional integrity.

Considering its not-exactly-sterling lasting reputation, the Napoleon Dynamite comparison may not do this movie many favours. Certainly the kitschy lower-class production design of Eagle vs. Shark suggests that of the rural Idaho of Jared and Jerusha Hess’ quirky comedy hit. Big Sky country and Middle Earth down under turn out to have more in common that you might have guessed, though the latter’s famously spectacular scenery trumps the wide horizons of Idaho pretty handily even in a modestly-shot film like this. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here for those whose sense of humour is tuned to the right frequency, and plenty of potential irritations for those who aren’t. Perhaps Eagle vs Shark‘s greatest service is to prevent anyone who watches it from making a bad movie-dialogue impression ever again. If this eccentric and often delightful New Zealand comedy accomplished nothing more than that, it could still be considered at least a modest success. As it is, it clears that bar by more than a little.

Categories: Film, Reviews