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James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”: Nuanced History with Moral Conviction

June 28, 2014 1 comment

There is perhaps no event more vital to the process of approaching an understanding 0f the history and nature of the United States of America than the Civil War. More than the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration, or any of the wars of the 20th Century, the War Between the States (re-)formed the fundamental social, political, and economic conditions of a nation that, though not even a century old as an independent state when the war ended, would not even a century later dominate the global stage.

In his mighty, comprehensive, and blazingly morally forthright history of the war and its little-appreciated prelude, historian James M. McPherson discusses the Civil War era as a practical second American Revolution. This rhetorical framing of the conflict was commonly employed contemporaneously by both sides: the Confederacy identified their perceived struggle against a tyrannical government imposing what it took to be unfair constrictions upon their fundamental rights with that of the Founding Fathers against the dictatorial powers that a distant British King exerted over his colonial possessions, while abolitionists and their pragmatic converts in the North came to see the Union’s quest to quell the rebellion of the Southern states as a completion of the formative revolution, a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s mantra of equal rights for all expanded to include the Founding Fathers’ notorious blind spot of black chattel slavery. But McPherson demonstrates in meticulously researched detail how drastically and irrevocably the Civil War erected the modern American state with its bureaucratic institutions, industrial commerce, and other particular domestic variables that define the nation to the present day. It was not solely the demolition of the Southern slave system (and much of the South itself along with it) that wrought these changes, but the Northern war effort in general.

This is not to say that Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era makes the argument that the Civil War was not fundamentally a conflict over the enslavement of African-Americans, as many Confederate-sympathizing Lost Cause narratives of the war have made it their intention to advance. Indeed, Battle Cry of Freedom is notable for its insistent, persuasive habit of considering other catalysts for the intractable conflict but ultimately, fatefully circling back to the grand disagreement over battlecrymcphersonslavery as the core principle that could not be reconciled. McPherson finds slavery dragging down the American project at every turn, animating every contentious public debate or socioeconomic division that presaged the war. The urbanization and rapid industrial growth of the Northern states set their interests at odds with those of the agrarian, aristocratic South, with its millions of unpaid labourers, export-reliant economy, and highly concentrated wealth. Westward expansion threatened to stall over the expansion of slavery; every new state admitted to the Union in the 1840s and 1850s went through a painful debate over whether slavery would be allowed under its aegis or not, erupting to violence in the case of some (like Kansas). Compromises by both of the main pre-war political parties, the Southern-leaning Democratic Party with its Jacksonian championing of states’ rights and distrust of centralized power and the more progressive and economically protectionist Whig Party, would always fail to defuse tensions. Divisions over the slavery question broke the Whigs and elevated the flegdling pro-commerce, anti-slavery Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to power, a political shift that was the final straw for pro-slavery Southerners. No lingering doubt is admitted, especially for the Southern Confederates whose descendants argue for alternate motivations for rebellion; when it comes to the war’s casus belli, it’s the slavery, stupid.

McPherson elucidates the vital pre-conditions of the war with admirable completeness, an approach which is extended to the account of the war itself that takes up most of its 800+ pages (military history abounds, if that’s your sort of thing, though it is always grounded in the larger political and social ramifications of the battles and troop movements). His book’s most useful accomplishment must surely be this focused but nuanced comprehensiveness. It must be one of the most altogether convincing historical studies ever produced, and what it sets out to convince the reader of, beyond any reasonable doubt, is the tremendous, cynical, self-centered wrongness of the South’s defense of slavery.

The aphorism that history is written by the victors has been proven thoroughly backward in the case of the Civil War. Apologia for the Confederacy’s position of fighting to defend their inalienable rights to buy and sell human beings like livestock simply because of the colour of their skin were being produced almost immediately after the Union won the war (some written by high-ranking Confederates like Jefferson Davis, who would surely have been drawn and quartered after defeat by, say, the British). The hijacking of Reconstruction and the re-assertion of white supremacy through the rise of the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation, and housing discrimination enacted in social, economic and political circles what Lost Cause mythologizing spread in the wider discourse: the systematic marginalization of African-American emancipation.

The South lost the war, and was probably always going to in the long run; McPherson delineates how, despite the early military successes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the best that the Confederate States could reasonable hope for was to fight the numerically and manufacturily superior North to a costly enough stalemate to compel political change to a more accommodating administration and perhaps convince European powers (like Britain, the most lucrative commodities market for the South’s slave-processed cotton) to recognize its independence. It also lost much of the peace (the economic deprivation that underscores Southern redneck stereotypes began with the devastation of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army’s scorched-earth march through the South), but the preservation of the arrogant core values of the antebellum South has carved out an unchallengeable fiefdom in the American cultural identity. It has also, 150 years later, rather ironically swallowed Lincoln’s Republican Party entirely, reducing a party whose economic opposition to slavery begrudgingly swelled to an inadvertent crusade of moral righteousness at a crucial moment in the nation’s history to a greedy, prejudiced pack of inward-gazing proto-authoritarians clinging to failed and disproven ideas while construing every expression of opposition to their ideological strictures as treasonous decadence.

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates praises McPherson’s seminal tome on the Civil War for refusing to “entertain Neo-Confederate dissembling”. Coates sees history books like Battle Cry of Freedom as instrumental in reclaiming the narrative of the Civil War in specific and of America in general, for African-Americans and for progressives but truly for all Americans. Placing the uncomfortable implications of the system of slavery firmly in the past has long been the preferred approach to dealing with such traumas in American public discourse. It’s a statement of the extent to which the depth and breadth of these crimes have been dissolved by the on-flowing stream of history that a tome that treats the white supremacist slave order of the antebellum South as the long-running system of moral repugnance that it was is worthy of laurels. But for its depth of scholarship, argumentative force, and moral clarity, Battle Cry of Freedom more than earns those laurels as the definitive single-volume history of the American Civil War.

Film Review: The Fog of War

June 25, 2014 1 comment

The Fog of War (2003; Directed by Errol Morris)

The subtitle of Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary is Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. But one of these enumerated lessons resonates more deeply than any other, and even contradicts some of the other ten: “Rationality will not save us”. Above all else, this is the thesis of The Fog of War, as a reasonable, intelligent, analytically-minded elder statesman tries to make sense of why he and the institutions he was party to launched the American military into a disastrous and demoralizing war in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Morris’ splendidly withering and honest document of his conversations with the now-deceased but then-85-year-old McNamara constitutes a ruminatory, truncated, self-critical feature-length filmed memoirs of the man who presided (against his better judgment, if you believe his account of events) over the escalation of the Vietnam War during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration between 1964 and 1968. Morris interviewed the clear and talkative McNamara for at least 20 hours, utilizing a device called an Interrotron which creates the illusion of interviewer and interviewee talking directly to each other through the use of cameras and two-way mirrors. Whether this elaborate technique improves the interaction between Morris and McNamara is far from certain (the director is heard tossing questions at his subject from time to time but is never seen). What is certain is the effect of the use of this contraption on the viewer: McNamara discusses his actions, his second thoughts, his regrets while appearing to look out of the screen and maintaining eye contact with the viewer. It’s a disarming experience, quite unlike the usual averted-eyeline detachment of talking-head documentaries.

Intercutting the interview footage of McNamara with archival photos, film clips, and audio from White House meetings on Vietnam, Morris allows his subject to narrate his own story (though he adds the Eleven Lessons subtitles, albeit drawn from McNamara’s own words). A rich and fascinating story it is, as McNamara is elevated by his mind, his work ethic, and historical circumstances to a degree at Berkeley, a Harvard professorship, a key role as an analyst and planner for the U.S. Air Force in World War II, an executive post with Ford Motor Company, and eventually the position of Defense Secretary and his post-cabinet post as head of the World Bank.

Along the way, McNamara describes personal milestones but more importantly contentious and morally ambiguous decisions that affected (and often cost) thousands of lives. Again and again, he returns to his focus on data, research, evidence, and a rigorous, unemotional approach to analyzing the hard stuff that drives policies. This process of gleaning preferable and efficient courses of action from a rational, analytic approach to data collection and pattern deciphering is classic conventional rational-progressive wisdom, made especially conspicuous in the midst of the George W. Bush Administration whose ideological fantasies and data-fudging in support of a dubious war are being analogously responded to by Morris (though not explicitly by McNamara, who felt a former Defense Secretary had no right to comment on the decisions of a current one). But McNamara’s examples expose the considerable blind spots of this approach.

There’s one such interesting contrast that Morris edits together. McNamara describes his insistent crusade while rising through the ranks at Ford of collecting data on collision deaths of motorists. This data suggested that a focus on better safety features, and an emphasis on seatbelt usage in particular, could save lives, and McNamara’s initiative on this basis did reduce accidental automobile fatalities, to his great pride. This rational vector to preventing deaths is completely reversed in his military experiences, however, as apparently sober-minded calculations lead to the deaths of thousands.

McNamara discusses his time in WWII under the command of the imperious Air Force General Curtis LeMay, an uncompromising tyrant with none of McNamara’s qualms about recourse to extreme methods to achieve ultimate goals. LeMay, utilizing the analyses produced by McNamara and his team, judged that deadly fire bombings of Japanese cities (which, during the war, were built entirely of wood) would cost fewer American lives and maybe even fewer Japanese lives than would a ground invasion of the islands of Japan. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians perished, and similar cost-benefit ratios would be taken into account when the U.S. government decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. McNamara can’t hide his admiration for LeMay any better than he can his animus for his methods and many of his results.

The Fog of War is mostly absorbed by an examination (sometimes a self-examination) of McNamara’s role as Secretary of Defense in the vital, tragic mid-1960s escalation of the Vietnam War. These events obviously haunt him, and his thoughts on the war that broke America are complex and contradictory and are better left for the viewer to absorb and consider themselves without too much critical hand-holding. McNamara does relate an anecdote about meeting a former North Vietnamese foreign minister in the early 1990s who confronted him about the American imperialist actions in the country, widely viewed by contemporary Vietnamese as a mere continuation of the French colonial presence in the country. McNamara calls this view absurd, but moments later insists it was about Cold War politics, which were, of course, about projecting imperial spheres of influence on both the democratic and communist poles. For all of his obvious rational intelligence, McNamara’s inculcation into the absolutist good vs. evil narrative of the American side of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union blinds him now as it blinded him in the mid-1960s to the fatal miscalculation of the Vietnam conflict, namely that the war was a domino theory demonstration of the spread of communism and not a civil war with overtones of independence from Western colonial domination.

McNamara’s lessons (or Morris’ lessons mapped onto McNamara’s ideas) strive for the epistemological comfort of classification and summation but prove as unsettling as they are enlightening, if not more so. McNamara repeats the classic boomer-liberal canard that things may have turned out much differently in Vietnam if John F. Kennedy has lived and carried out his intention to draw down the military adviser commitment that the U.S. military had there. He likewise throws LBJ under the bus, ultimately laying the blame for the war on the President who he claims to have felt to be making wrong decisions even at the time. But what Morris gleans from his interviews with this giant of ambivalent American statesmanship is the false comfort of data, reason, and institutional inertia, and how that comfort can inadvertently but almost inevitably lead to horrors.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007; Directed by Jake Kasdan)

I laughed… hard. An especially rewarding parody of musical biopics for music geeks with a sharp eye, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story hits all the major cliches of the usually sappy genre with force and even wit (although sometimes, admittedly, with excessive broadness and all-American sophomoric crudeness).

John C. Reilly, indispensible indie-film character actor turned short-lived Hollywood dude-comedy lead, wins a lot of laughs right off the bat with his complete lack of matinee-idol looks and his consistently dumbstruck mock-innocence as the titular Cox, an admixture of multiple American musical icons including Ray Charles and Johnny Cash (the then-fresh Oscar-winners Ray and Walk The Line were only the most recent examples of the lampooned genre upon this film’s release, and provide the lion’s share of the satiric fodder here).

Jenna Fischer (of the American version of The Office) is great in her early scenes of trumped-up sexual tension with Reilly’s Cox (referencing the relationship of Cash and June Carter, especially as Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon played it in Walk the Line), but is then reduced to looking good and having nothing to do but play straight and serve the gradual self-actualization process of the male protagonist. This is the common prision of the female leads in Judd Apatow comedies (Bridesmaids being the most obvious exception). The feature comedy king co-writes with director Jake Kasdan, son of ’70s drama auteur Lawrence, and exec produces as welland there’s little doubt that Walk Hard is made in his house style, which at this point either hits your comedy sweet spot or it doesn’t.

The best scenes of Walk Hard, however, are the brief cameos of various famous recognizable types from the comedy film realm playing other famous recognizable types from the music history realm. All of these moments are hilarious, but the appearances by Elvis and the Beatles are the clear high points and will have you on the floor if you’ve spent a bit too much time learning about music history (as I have). Of course, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them by revealing who plays the rock legends; that’s one trigger warning I choose to respect. Additionally, as usual, the homosocial atmosphere of slapdash semi-improvised fun around such Apatow productions bleeds into the work, and even when it isn’t working, you smile at how hard everyone is trying to make it work. But generally it does work. And it does, indeed, walk hard.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Joy and Loathing at the World Cup

Once every four years, a month of summer is set aside by one of the world’s most bloated and corrupt sporting bureaucracies to pit national team against national team to determine the country able to field the best collection of players of the most popular sport on the globe. The cost is enormous, jingoistic nationalism and offensive stereotypes are given full voice, the American media establishment sniffs in glib imperialist disapproval, and some occasionally pretty spectacular football is played. Millions – billions – watch in rapt attention the world over, even in mostly unconverted North America, where immigrant heritage emblazons temporary noisy loyalty to faraway athletes wearing national colours. It’s at once a glorious display and the ultimate guilty pleasure, the discriminatory assumptions of the worldwide economic order marking the event even more strongly than, say, the Olympics.

And yet this contradictory nature, the World Cup’s comfort and delight coexisting with its stark illustration of international socioeconomic gulfs and intra-national mistrust and prejudice, is what makes the event so appealing and even cathartic. As a large-scale, highly-corporatized major sporting event, the World Cup is necessarily compromised by commercialization and sponsorship, to say nothing of the darker, murkier side of backroom dealings, match-fixing and illegal bribery that continues to dog high-level football. The hubristic greed and cluelessness of FIFA, as embodied by its evident shameless President Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, has 2014FIFAWorldCupgathered into a perfect storm not around the current World Cup in Brazil but the 2022 edition, granted to the tiny Persian Gulf petro-emirate of Qatar. Qatar’s World Cup, though still eight years off, has been jeopardized by allegations of bribery, reports of thousands of migrant worker deaths in the construction of the facilities for the tournament, and concerns about player health and safety in the scorching daytime desert heat and about visitor freedom and security in a Muslim state where alcohol, homosexuality, and many women’s rights are strictly forbidden. Moving the World Cup to winter has been discussed (though this would seriously disrupt the intricately-scheduled domestic league season across the game’s upper echelons in Europe), and FIFA Executive Committee members have even suggested that a vote may be taken to strip host Qatar of the competition altogether.

Current host Brazil, one of the most football-mad nations on the planet whose national team’s iconic successes (and failures) are an inextricable part of the country’s image and character, has not been immune to similar intrusions of real-world problems into the impeccable sports fantasy of the World Cup. Protests have riven the country over the government spending on the event, with inquiries and disclosures into the nature and amount of funds spent supported by the legendary striker Romário. Brazil has a long history of misuse of public funds, like many developing nations where socioeconomic gaps remain considerable, and such suspicion is usually richly merited.

This tension, along with the obvious, glaring problems with the Qatar bid that appear to have been swept aside by avalanches of cash, illustrate the animating contradictions of a sport run by a wealthy elite but whose grassroots appeal reaches deep into the poorer quarters of the globe for both its on-field talent and off-field enthusiasts. Just as football has often staged international conflicts (England vs. Argentina) and sectarian divisions (“Protestant” Rangers vs. “Catholic” Celtic) as safe, non-warlike athletic spectacle, it likewise stages its fundamental socioeconomic disparities as object lessons of larger forces at work on the economics of the sport.

What continues to amaze about the World Cup, however, is how all of these concerns drop away when the ball is kicked off and the world’s greatest footballers contest its greatest prize. The 2014 World Cup has already proven rich and exciting, with close games won in the late stages and a flood of goals, many of them quite magnificent. The central dramatic storyline of the tournament – whether host Brazil can win the World Cup on home soil after falling agonizingly, traumatically short when the nation last hosted the tournament in 1950 – has some compelling historical heft, and the history of the game does often privilege larger-than-life narratives. But football is, above all, an aesthetic experience unlike any other sport, and the World Cup, with its visual background of chanting fans in national colours and foreground of amazing athletic feats, is its quadrennial masterpiece, painted in full motion. Glory and triumph of the victors aside, this kaleidoscopic display of national distinctions and enduring commonality beyond all political, social, and cultural divisions is the fleeting shot of joy that the World Cup offers a wearied post-capitalist, post-imperial, post-colonial global village. The World Cup is as beautiful as it is ugly. How like life.

Film Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

June 14, 2014 1 comment

Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991; Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola)

Far be it from me to disagree with Community‘s Abed Nadir, but I can’t fully go along with his third-season assertion that the retrospective behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness is a better film than the film it’s about, Francis Ford Coppola’s Joseph Conrad-goes-to-Vietnam fever dream Apocalypse Now. It’s plenty entertaining, often hilarious (Marlon Brando at his finest), and greatly deepens, contextualizes, and magnifies Apocalypse Now‘s already-echoing dominant themes. Hearts of Darkness is really great, but then the impossible opus that is its subject is so suffused with the aura of cinematic greatness that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s actually a good movie or not. Hearts of Darkness both grounds Apocalypse Now in knobbly, messy, ridiculously unpredictable reality and elevates it beyond its troubled circumstances to level of heroic myth. It’s a fine, penetrating analysis of how it ended up right after so spectacularly going wrong; it’s Coppola’s best piece of press, his shiniest slice of propaganda, despite the troubling picture it sometimes paints of the American auteur.

Compiled by George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr from archival footage, much of it shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now‘s legendarily troubled production in the Philippines, as well as talking-head interviews, Hearts of Darkness opens with Coppola’s grandiose claim from the film’s gala opening at Cannes (where it took the Palme d’Or, one of Coppola’s two) that his film is not about Vietnam, “it is Vietnam”. Such grandiose claims from the younger Coppola (the older man is more thoughtful and sober, sitting in his vineyards and reminiscing) crop up repeatedly in the documentary, and it isn’t hard to miss the metaphorical thrust of the material. Apocalypse Now adapted Joseph Conrad’s indictment of the horrors of Belgium’s Congo Free State in Heart of Darkness, with Martin Sheen’s Willard as the onscreen Marlow, journeying downriver into a deep jungle of unimaginable human-wrought evil. Hearts of Darkness constructs Francis Ford Coppola as a Willard/Marlow with a film crew and millions of dollars, and his own odyssey is dark in its own distinct psychological ways (no actual severed heads here, although a water buffalo or two is butchered with machetes).

Many of the production’s disasters and cost-overruns were detailed in the press while it was being shot almost immediately after the end of Vietnam War, but their stacking concurrence is quite spectacular to behold even now. The army helicopters lent to Coppola by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be employed in the famous Wagner-scored air cavalry assault sequence were constantly flying away in the middle of filming to fight rebel forces mere miles away from the set. Typhoons during the rainy season halted production and washed away expensive sets, delaying the production by months. The film’s original Willard, Harvey Keitel, was replaced by a dissatisfied Coppola after filming had begun by Martin Sheen, who later suffered a heart attack, again delaying production. Coppola’s jungle-dwelling warlord Kurtz, the target of Willard’s assassination mission, was to be played by Marlon Brando. The revered but unquestionably difficult actor was only available to work on the film for a month, during which time he would be paid a million dollars a week; he showed up overweight, admitted to having never read Conrad’s novella, and spent most of his days on set discussing the character with Coppola and then improvising scenes. Forced to finance the completion of the film with his own money, anticipating artistic and financial ruin, Coppola begins to doubt not only his own filmmaking abilities but even his own sanity.

Hearts of Darkness details all of this amazing stuff with a mix of journalistic directness, philosophical wonderment, and darkly-tinged humour. Actors discuss taking a panoply of drugs on set and transgressing other legal boundaries (Apocalypse Now was Laurence Fishburne’s first film, and he was 14 years old at the time); the nutty military enthusiast screenwriter John Milius (libertarian director of Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian, as well as the scribe of JawsUSS Indianapolis speech) tells a story of attempting to intervene with Coppola about the catastrophic direction that the film seemed to be taking and leaving the meeting having been convinced by the auteur that it would be the first film to win a Nobel Peace Prize; Martin Sheen gets drunk, slices his hand open punching a mirror, and is filmed having an emotional breakdown. It’s almost total madness, just as Coppola requires to make his desired point.

But what is his point, and what is Hearts of Darkness‘ point? A supposed summary provided by a young, erudite, overflowing Coppola suggests it’s about everything, life and death, rebirth and redemption, all of human history and culture slammed together in a sweaty, mysterious jungle and set to a Doors song. The young Coppola is deeply concerned about his film being pretentious and mocked for it, and then proceeds to built it up as an artwork so implausibly big and all-encompassing that it could not conceivably be seen as anything but pretentious.

The referential montage that follows this speech muddies the dominant metaphor of the documentary, namely that of Coppola as Willard. The Doors’ The End soundtracks spliced-together footage of Apocalypse Now‘s primal closing sequence of the natives of Kurtz’s fiefdom ritually sacrificing a buffalo while Willard murders Kurtz with footage from the filming of the scene. Before Willard strikes, a shadow-drenched shot of Brando’s Kurtz is juxtaposed with a similarly-darkened shot Coppola. Is the director Willard, or is he Kurtz? Or, just as Apocalypse Now ultimately suggests that Willard becomes a greater monster than Kurtz when he kills him, did Francis Ford Coppola journey deep into this sweaty, drugged nightmare of the modern American psyche as a seeker of truths and discover something inescapably dark about himself instead, which is now immortalized on celluloid? The horror, indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Prestige

June 7, 2014 2 comments

The Prestige (2006; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s thematically resonant story of rival magicians in Late Victorian London opens with a pile of identical black top hats. A voiceover narration asks us if we are watching closely, a cue that doing so will be very important for next two hours. But this opening image contains all of the active implications of The Prestige: duplication becoming multiplication becoming fragmentation, appearances concealing realities, science, industry and technology making the fantastic not only real but terribly, irrevocably, devastatingly real. The engaging assistant (Andy Serkis) of the real-life wizard who built the machine that made numerous copies of the hat belonging to Charles Angier (Hugh Jackman) tells Angier, “They’re all your hats.” But like the multiplying anthropomorphic broomsticks in Fantasia‘s “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” sequence, mass reproduction in The Prestige evokes not wonder but horror.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, the Nolan siblings’ film (they co-wrote and of course Christopher directed) does indeed focus on two contending magicians in Late Victorian London engaging in a contest of professional one-upmanship that extracts a greater cost with every new outstripping gesture. But both Angier and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are living opposing double lives: Angier uses an assumed name and an American accent to conceal his aristocratic origins, while the lower-class Borden’s double-living is fundamental to his onstage act’s success as well as to his personal life’s turmoil and tragedy. Starting out working together under the same hackish magic-man (played by real-life magician Ricky Jay, also the film’s stage magic consultant) alongside self-proclaimed ingénieur (ie. designer of tricks) John Cutter (Michael Caine), Borden and Angier fall out permanently when Borden’s perfectionist streak may have (or may not have) contributed to the death of Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) onstage in a watertank escape trick.

Each magic-man rises to solo prominence as a theatrical draw, Angier as the Great Danton (a flamboyant, French-sounding stage name that his wife suggests) and Borden as the Professor (a moniker suggesting Borden’s cloistered, cerebral, anti-social sincerity vis-a-vis his craft). The professional jealousy and personal resentment they mutually feel leads them to inflict escalating punishment on each other, beginning with physical disfigurements, rising to professional sabotage and romantic damage, and finally settling on fatal vengeance. Success on its own terms is not enough for either man; it must be at the expense of his rival. The beautiful stage assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) becomes a pawn in their game, hired and wooed by Angier but then falling for Borden when she is sent to spy on him to suss out his stage secrets.

This rivalry at the pinnacle of London’s magic performance world mirrors a famous contemporaneous rivalry in the realm of scientific innovation, where real-life conjurers Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (the latter played here by a wonderfully pent-up David Bowie) vied for supremacy in the burgeoning industry of electricity. Like Angier and Borden, these scientific genius inventors tore each down in their battle over the future of the electric power supply; the corporate-backed Edison discredited his former pupil Tesla’s superior alternating current technology (which had its own corporate backer, mind you, in George Westinghouse) in favour of his own direct current method, leaving the latter bankrupt by the end of his life. History has vindicated Tesla and his technology as the preferred mass-power-supply option, however, and left the underhanded, controlling Edison with a more tarnished if still tremendous legacy.

To get back to the magicians, it both is and is not a spoiler to reveal that Borden achieves the Transported Man trick that makes him famous, in which he enters one doorway and exits another on the other side of the stage, by the use of a double. The jealous Angier (whose driving motivation seems to shift every 15 minutes) refuses to believe Cutter and Olivia when they tell him that this is how the trick is achieved, insisting that it must be something more complicated. Angier himself copies the trick for his show with a copy of himself, a drunken unemployed actor named Gerald Root (a much looser Jackman seems to be channeling Steve Coogan as Root). But he cannot shake the feeling that there is more to Borden’s version.

After Borden sabotages Angier’s New Transported Man, the latter sets off for the mountains of Colorado in search of Tesla, whose name is the cypher that unlocks Borden’s encoded journal. Tesla is experimenting on a peak outside of Colorado Springs, creating power fields that light up row upon row of Edison’s tungsten lightbulbs (multiplication again), and reluctantly builds Angier a machine that allows him to trump Borden’s Transported Man in a fuzzily scientific way. But there is a terrible price to this admittedly incredible trick whose cost Angier may not be able to bear.

This contending of ambitious male wills stuff would be narratively and thematically meaty enough for most filmmakers, but not for Chris Nolan, who amplifies the elements of doubling and mirroring to create a resonant statement on the fragmentation of the self in a post-industrial society. Nolan loves to pull the switch on his audience and is given ample opportunity to do so here. His narrative is characteristically fragmented in temporal terms, cutting between the magician wars in London, Angier reading Borden’s journal in Colorado while waiting to meet with Tesla about the machine, and Borden reading Angier’s journal while waiting to be executed for his rival’s apparent murder and deciding whether to give a mysterious magic enthusiast named Lord Caldlow both his stage secrets and custody of his daughter as a ward after his death. Each journal is itself a trick, an elaborate trap for his rival laid by the magician who wrote it.

The concluding twist of The Prestige is itself a double: Borden is revealed to be twin brothers, platooning the public identity of Alfred and that of his quiet bearded companion Fallon, while Angier’s Tesla-aided Real Transported Man creates a living double of the magician that he then must drown beneath the stage to preserve the illusion of the performance. The tempermentally-divergent Bordens fail to preserve a fulfilling life, falling in love with different women and losing both (Bale’s perfectly-tuned performance makes this dual-personality conceit seem plausible once it’s revealed), while Angier, who assumes masking identities both on and off stage, splits his self into multiple copies (the film’s final shot is of a room full of drowned Angier copies in watertanks similar to that in which his wife died) in order to achieve theatrical stardom as well as to entrap Borden for his “murder”. But then that’s not what ultimately drove him.

Alfred Borden “escapes” the non-theatrical trapdoor of the gallows by passing the identity to the surviving twin (double-identity becoming singular), then kills Angier amidst the relics of his moral fall in the name of fame. But Angier tells Borden in this closing sequence that he did not do what he did for the accolades, nor for the money (he’s nobility, and has plenty of lucre), nor even to avenge his wife. Angier wipes out his many evidently fickle, vacillating motivations by taking the high road, claiming that what appealed to him about performing magic was that briefest moment of the audience’s reaction to a great trick that made them doubt their depressing, rational reality and fleetingly believe in the fantastical, the impossible.

Caine’s Cutter prefaces the narrative by laying out the basic structure of all magic tricks: The Pledge, where the audience is shown something ordinary, mundane, familiar; The Turn, where the object is made into something extraordinary, fantastical, unfamiliar; and the Prestige, where the ordinary, mundane, and familiar is restored. Nolan’s film is structured like these three acts of a trick; Borden ultimately achieves the Prestige, the return to relative normalcy, in his own life because he understood and lived the Turn in his daily offstage existence, while Angier clings to a fleeting impression of how the Turn makes him feel because he cannot face that same return to normalcy in his “real” life, which is based in so many lies and appearances that he has lost touch with who he really is, if anyone. His climactic Real Transported Man casts the rise of the scientific, rational world as the ultimate Prestige, simultaneously making stage magic’s invocation of the fantastical in The Turn obsolete and stealing its thunder (or, in the case of Tesla, lightning) by crafting something that appeared to the world’s eyes as true magic. But the message of The Prestige is that this true magic, this Real Transported Man, is menacing rather than transcendent. It’s a trick that changes the nature of the ordinary, so that the Prestige, the return to the ordinary, can never truly happen. Abracadabra.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Gods of Gotham: Murder Mystery in the Muck of Mid-1800s Manhattan

Equal parts gothic whodunnit, pulpy melodrama, and scrupulously-detailed historical novel, Lyndsay Faye‘s debut original novel is no mystery masterwork but demonstrates its author’s great potential as a crafts(wo)man of the genre nonetheless. Set in the richly-drawn muddy cesspit that is New York City in the middle of the 19th Century, The Gods of Gotham is the author’s hopeful launching point of a detective fiction series with obvious echoes of that giant of the genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Faye, after all, cut her long-fiction teeth on Dust and Shadow, a fanfic-sounding narrative of Sherlock Holmes’ pursuit of Jack the Ripper). This origin story for her apparent serial hero – observant, street-smart NYPD proto-detective Timothy Wilde – places macabre, sensationalistic violence at the centre of a mystery of labyrinthine misdirection and drops it into a fascinating and defamiliarized historical context whose well-researched intricacies prove more absorbing than the gradual revelation of the solution to the narrative puzzle.

This intriguing place and time is New York City in 1846. The metropolis that would one day be the vibrant hub of the United States (if not the entire world) was already the still-young nation’s largest city, counting around 400,000 inhabitants but swelling with European immigrants, especially Irish fleeing the Great Famine. Maintaining a ludicrous population growth rate of over 60% for much of the mid-1800s, New York City would top a million residents by the start of the Civil War. But the city would not be recognizable to modern eyes: sailing ships ringed the island of Manhattan, wooden structures and fetid tenements leaned against each other in legendarily decrepit slums, and the city petered out before reaching what is now the southern limits of Central Park (Harlem was nothing but a farming village a short train journey’s north).

New York did not lack vibrancy in its juvenile delinquent years. Indeed, it was practically too vibrant. Factories and storehouses crowded together in Lower Manhattan, while along Broadway stockbrokers and merchants and miscellaneous swells jostled for capital and sported the latest fashions. Mere blocks away, however, was the Sixth Ward and the infamous Five Points, one of the most terrible ghettos in the history of human cities. The poor, unemployed, starving, and homeless (many of them recently Irish immigrants or free African-Americans) dwelt there together in unmatched squalor, working hard labour for a pittance if at all. It was the dark, rotting underbelly of the American Dream.

The corrupt political machines of the city, especially the Democratic Party of William “Boss” Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies, exploited these poor voters through comprehensive electoral fraud even while posing as their champions. They also controlled many of the gang factions who carved out territory in the city and often clashed in bloody, brutal street battles that enacted the natives vs. immigrants conflict that defined this era of social upheaval in the city. The members of the Party-friendly gangs, the thugs with the sharpest minds and strongest arms, began to form New York City’s first public services: first the fire department, then the New York Police Department, its officers known in the force’s infancy as “copper stars” after the badges they wore to identify themselves in public.

The aforementioned Timothy Wilde is one of these copper stars. A longtime barkeep at a basement-level oyster tavern near the Battery at the island’s very southern tip, Timothy is carefully saving his silver and planning to marry the beautiful and bookish Mercy Underhill, the daughter of a fiercely anti-Catholic Prostestant minister (if she’d ever acknowledge his affections, that is). But he loses his home, his job, and part of his face in a catastrophic fire that burns whole blocks in the First Ward. Becoming a copper star is a fall-back that is thrust on the reluctant Timothy by his imperious, dissolute older brother Valentine. The elder Wilde took care of the younger after their parents died in a house fire, but now spends his time as a Democratic Party operative and firefighter. Timothy resents Valentine’s attempts to direct his life (as well as his willingness to risk his own in infernos and with the consumption of copious narcotics), but without any other employment options, he takes the position as one of the city’s first policeman.

Timothy Wilde’s observational and listening skills, honed behind a bar for years, prove to be of no small utility as a copper star. His abilities will be sorely tested, however, by the first major, sensational crime of the NYPD’s long history. Child prostitutes (called “kinchin-mabs” in the city’s obscure and expressive “flash” street dialect) seem to be vanishing from the city’s brothels, or from one in particular, run by diabolical madam and major Democratic Party contributor Silkie Marsh. Taken by a man in a black hood who rides in a black carriage, they are carved open with a cross-shape in their chests, and their bones wind up in a mass grave north of the city. Or so says one escaped child, Bird Daly, who runs smack into Timothy during his rounds, covered head-to-toe in blood, and unspools the whole sordid tale to him. Soon, unstable and dangerous letters are delivered to the Wildes and to newspapers, claiming that the murders are the work of a zealous Catholic cleansing the city of its sinful filth. Appointed the force’s first detective by the imposing chief George Washington Matsell, Timothy Wilde must solve the murders before xenophobic sectarian riots engulf New York and take down the fledgling police with them.

This place and time has been treated in onscreen fiction before, most famously by Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York but also by the BBC America television show Copper (both set two decades later). Faye has obviously studied many of the same primary historical sources as Scorsese and his team did, as the locations, political and social tensions, and even some of the characters feature prominently in each text. Indeed, Faye even employs Bill “The Butcher” Poole, the model for Daniel Day-Lewis’ William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. Featured at the head of a Nativist gang that takes on Irish fighters and a force of copper stars in a bloody street battle in the Five Points’ Paradise Square, Poole’s appearance strongly recalls the memorable (and roughly contemporaneous) battle that opens Gangs. Much of the colourful “flash” vocabulary will also be familiar to fans of the film, and Faye even includes a glossary at the start of the book to help the reader follow along, based on Matsell’s own dictionary of the dialects of New York’s criminal underworld. It’s never overly difficult to suss out the meanings, mind you, and on the rare occasion that it is (such as when Wilde crosses paths with the city’s most artful dodgers, the newshawkers), glosses are provided in dialogue or narration.

Many of these convergences are, as mentioned, down to shared historical context. As also mentioned, that context is rich and fascinating, moreso than Faye’s mystery plot. This factor, imparted in her alternately brisk and purple descriptive prose, most certainly follows Conan Doyle’s model closely. Wilde is the obvious Holmes figure, and though he has no clear Watson (Matsell, Valentine, and resourceful “finder” Mr. Piest each represent disembodied elements of the great sleuth’s Boswell), he does at least boast a Mrs. Hudson (his steely German baker landlady). 1840s New York is the complex, atmospheric proxy for Late Victorian London (which does not feature quite so centrally in the Holmes canon as subsequent adaptations have made it appear). The resolution of the murder mystery is ingenious and clever and full of Conan Doyle’s patented misdirection. That’s not to say it isn’t maybe a little disappointing, as The Gods of Gotham is as a whole. Though definitely worthwhile for devotees of the mystery genre, Faye’s novel doesn’t really pay off its rising action in a satisfactory way, and its incident never overcomes the absorbing atmosphere of its setting. These may be weaknesses that can be ironed out in sequels (the first of which, Seven for a Secret, came out last September), but on the evidence of The Gods of Gotham, Faye remains a mystery writer to watch who does not yet display the prodigious writing skills to transcend her genre of choice.

Categories: History, Literature, Reviews