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Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Cowboys & Aliens (2011; Directed by Jon Favreau)

With a title as full-bore pulp fiction as Cowboys & Aliens, one might be forgiven in expecting something infinitely sillier than the final released product. Gunslingers on horseback emptying their chambers at buzzing spaceships, high noon shootout with laser blasters, saloon fistfights between grim, stiff-jawed outlaws and slimy bug-eyed extraterrestrials. That, you might be justified in thinking, would be the ticket. Go all in with the promise of ridiculous genre-colliding nonsense and just have a total ball with it.

Cowboys & Aliens is not that kind of movie, which we as an audience may be grateful for at times and may deeply regret at others. It’s helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau from a script by J.J. Abrams’ collaborators Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, who based it on a story by three other guys, who based it on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Before you start humming “Too Many Cooks”, don’t forget Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing and Steven Spielberg exec producing and the big-star influence of leads Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. With so many particular creative minds and visions involved in the project, you’d think it would be a bit more imaginative or surprising than the violent and often cumbersome blockbuster end result.

Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof know how to hook you with a tantalizing opening that promises fascinating mysteries to be unravelled (the first two hours of Lindelof’s television opus Lost are better than almost anything that followed on the show). Cowboys & Aliens begins with Craig’s then-nameless protagonist character awakening in the desert Southwest with a bleeding wound in his side and bizarre electronic bracelet attached to his wrist. Three mounted outlaws ride up and tell him they’re on the road to Absolution, ask him if he knows the way. Before matters come to blows, you might be fooled into thinking something deep and metaphorical is about to happen.

Whether sadly or not, it isn’t really. The amnesiac stranger with the gauntlet gizmo rides into the nearest town, is mended by the world-weary preacher (Clancy Brown, who always plays a preacher), runs afoul the callow, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a local cattle-trading kingpin, meets a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to know more about him than he does, and is arrested by the local sheriff (Keith Carradine). Though he has no memory of it, he’s apparently a wanted criminal named Jake Lonergan, accused of stealing gold from the cattle-trader Colonel Dolarhyde (Ford) and killing a former prostitute (Abigail Spencer). Before he can be shipped to federal jurisdiction in Santa Fe for trial, however, a disastrous calamity befalls the Wild West town.

Knowing genre fans will immediately have the assaulting force pegged as the titular aliens, but the pre-science-fiction 19th-century townsfolk call them demons or monsters. Either way, they swoop down from the night sky, blowing up the clapboard buildings, snatching people up with electronic lassos, and vaporizing anyone who tries to resist. Only Lonergan’s gauntlet, which switches on when the extraterrestrials are near like an otherworldly Sting, is an effective weapon against them; it’s of their own advanced technology, and releases powerful energy blasts that down one of their attack ships.

Seeing as the invaders have abducted someone who means something to almost all of the characters in town, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s son Percy, and the Latina wife of the town’s barkeep/doctor (Sam Rockwell), a motley posse coalesces quickly to track them down. Old hatchets are buried one by one, as Dolarhyde’s posse, the hostile outlaw gang that Lonergan once led, and a distrustful band of Apache warriors join forces to return the missing and perhaps to repel the aliens, who Wilde’s Ella has told them pose an existential threat to much more than just their sparsely-populated corner of New Mexico.

Cowboys & Aliens works very hard and spends lots of budget to appear as realistic a rendering of this premise as possible without ever stopping to wonder if that effect is especially worth the effort. The seriousness of this business is part of the problem; it’s trying to be The Searchers meets Independence Day, but the Duke would just shake his head and deride this load of nonsense. The CG aliens are well-designed and are formidable antagonists, but not much else, not that they’re required to be; their evident interest in gold drives their invasion plans, for which the party encountered by the cowboys is a mere scout group.

This association with resource exploitation, as well as the technological gap between the colonizing outsiders and the settled natives (Native and otherwise), aligns the aliens with the white American settlers who conquered the West in the name of Manifest Destiny. Cowboys & Aliens has little time for involved political metaphors about the implications of westward expansion; The Lone Ranger it ain’t, though it was a commercial flop of similar proportions.

But in between scenes of hard-edged masculine bonding and fights between, well, cowboys and aliens, the film at once carries the embedded suggestion of the brutality of Caucasian-American usurpation of Native lands and destruction of their way of life along with a heroic fantasy alliance of the West’s various antagonistic social factions. Unable to face up properly to the atrocities of white settlement and the stark divisions of Old West society (or of America at large), Cowboys & Aliens gradually erases them by uniting the marginalizers and the marginalized against a common external, hostile Other. It’s a frothy, generic mashup onscreen dream of the contemporary American mindset, where entrenched inequities and cultural vendettas are subsumed in favour of emotionally-charged resentment of an implacable enemy from away. The cowboy, that all-American symbol of individualist liberty, pioneering spirit and rogue heroism, opposes the alien, that symbol for threatening, unrecognizable Otherness descended from Cold War Red Scare paranoia. No guesses as to who gets to ride into the sunset.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Tombstone

November 26, 2014 1 comment

Tombstone (1993; Directed by George P. Cosmatos)

Tombstone is an ungainly Western with plenty of spurting blood, flashing machismo, slick one-liners, and exactly one character who transcends the frothy generic interplay. It also engages many active themes in the modern discourse of American public masculinity but then so do most Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s of its broad, firearm-action-centric type.

Set in and around Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, the film lays out the violent narrative of the Earp Brothers and their struggle against an outlaw gang called the Cowboys. Wyatt (Kurt Russell) and his brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) arrive in Tombstone with their wives looking for a change of scenery and an honest, profitable life free of the sort of tense entanglements that characterized Wyatt’s past. That past, particular a stint as a peace officer in Dodge City, has made Wyatt Earp famous in the town before he can even step off the train. Before the three couples can even take off their boots in a lodging house, Wyatt has run off the petty tyrant dealer (a young Billy Bob Thornton) of a local saloon and gambling house and earned a stake in the house’s earnings, evidently by virtue of his innate badassery.

While Wyatt carries out a hesitating courtship with intriguing actress (and future wife) Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) and fails to connect with his laundanum-addicted spouse Mattie Blaylock (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), the Cowboys’ lawlessness and degradation increasingly threatens the Earps’ hopes of undisturbed pecuniary prosperity. Their leader Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) “accidentally” shoots and kills Marshal Fred White (Harry Carey, Jr.) in the main street while drunk, is arrested by the Earps, but walks due to a lack of witnesses and threats of retribution from the gang. Virgil takes up the marshal mantle with Morgan and eventually the reluctant Wyatt as deputies, and with the help of gunslinger, gambler, drunk, and tuberculosis sufferer Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) take their escalating conflict with the outlaws to the OK Corral and well beyond.

The thematic and moral lesson here is clear enough, with Russell’s stiff-jawed Wyatt Earp as its main actor and exemplar. Initially following that most American muse of individual economic success, Wyatt and his allies obey the clarion call of moral law and social order, marshalling violence with steely dedication to rid the wild frontier of anti-social criminal rapine and make it safe for socially-sanctioned capitalist enterprise (itself not indisposed to rapine of a distinct sort). Their enemies are immoral multitudes to be righteously killed, marked off convieniently by red sashes. There is little doubt about their implacable evil, as Tombstone opens (after a curiously perfunctory Robert Mitchum narration) with the Cowboys slaughtering the entire wedding party of a Mexican lawman who tried to shut them down; there’s a dramatic slow-motion shooting of the priest, and an evident imminent rape of the bride that is very quickly shunted to the background of the scene in favour of sharpshooter Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) quoting Revelations. As much violence as the Earps and their allies muster, it is always already justified in dispensing with the existential threat of the Cowboys, the inherent enemies of property-owning, law-abiding Americans. It’s the common conception of right-wing justice emblazoned on Wild West myth, or more likely vice versa.

Like most patriarchal power-fantasies, Tombstone renders these male-centric events in homosocial terms. Yes, Wyatt is married, but his activities with his brothers – running gambling houses, playing billiards, busting up outlaw gangs – are much more key to his sense of self than his hopeless relationship with Mattie. Yes, Wyatt romances Josephine, but his friendship with Doc Holliday is much more important; Russell has concluding scenes with each in the denouement, and his profession of devotion to the sickly Doc Holliday is much more deeply felt than his profession of devotion to Josephine. It’s hard to blame him for the latter: Kilmer’s sweat-drenched, sashaying, degenerated Southern gentleman rogue is by far the most intriguing presence in a movie overfull of grim men’s men, and he’s usually given the best lines, too (“I have not yet begun to defile myself.”)

Also like most patriarchal power-fantasies (or at least the dumber ones), Tombstone experiences serious pitfalls of storytelling, emotional engagement, and aesthetic quality. It couldn’t help that it had a troubled production, with writer Kevin Jarre canned as director with the film overbudget and behind schedule when he refused to cut down his extended, unwieldy script. Replacement George P. Cosmatos was apparently a mere front behind the camera for leading man Russell, who later claimed that he ghost-directed the rest of the shoot using elaborate secret hand signals. Tombstone still presents as a film whose numerous subplots were chopped down and whose main plot had some of its nuance and detail compressed in favour of shootouts and flinty tough-guy quips. Those quips are sometimes championship-quality (“You can tell them I’m comin’, and Hell’s coming with me!”), but they don’t complete the picture and don’t quite make for a true classic of the Western genre.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Interstellar

November 23, 2014 3 comments

Interstellar (2014; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The films of Christopher Nolan are intelligently-constructed hybrids of the work of other cinematic auteurs first and foremost. Interstellar is no exception, and zeroes in particularly on the hallmarks of two such directors. With his grand, constructed visions and rational precision, Nolan tends to resemble Stanley Kubrick rather more than perhaps any other major filmmaker; the other major filmmaker he resembles in his genre enthusiasm and populist outreach is, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg. Nolan has found himself shifting progressively closer to Spielberg’s profile while tiptoeing carefully around Kubrick’s considerable artistic legacy, while also engaging in the sort of ambitious philosophical puzzle-building that never much interested either of those men.

Interstellar began production development life as a Spielberg project: Nolan’s screenwriter brother Jonathan was hired to pen it and suggested his sibling as director when studio production alignments took the rights out of Spielberg’s reach. This explains the preponderence of grand emotional sop to some extent; it’s easy to imagine to Nolan’s mansplaining devotees balking at the sheer number of tear-soaked cheeks on display here. The film is also an old-fashioned, grandiose, stargazing sci-fi epic of the kind that Spielberg once excelled at (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of many reference points, along with Star WarsStar Trek, Andrei Tarkovsky, Superman and even Apollo 13) but that was forever defined by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Nolan has spent years of his notable big-budget directing career giving the self-evident Kubrick associations a wide berth, he dispenses with the hedging with Interstellar. This is a film that not only evokes and often directly references 2001 (there’s a clear Star-Child callback just after the climax), it’s likewise the product of the concept of manned space travel as the starting point for a deeper existential discussion.

The Brothers Nolans begin with some heavy-handed politically-charged dystopian material that does not bode well for the rest of the picture. Sometime not terribly far in the future, a phage of agricultural blight has reduced human civilization in both population and ambitions. Only corn can be grown, and probably not even that will provide plentiful harvests for long. In America’s Great Plains grain-basket, massive dust storms descend on the regular. Nolan makes the 1930s Dust Bowl association explicit by intercutting testimonials from aged witnesses filmed for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the period into his opening section in the Heartland. The dire need for food production has made itself felt on American education: university spots are hard to come by and most capable young people are steered back to the fields. Frustrated farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) even learns that textbooks have been conquered by conspiracy theories and are teaching that the Apollo moon landings were propaganda exercises by NASA to drive the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself on space exploration spending (the scene revealing this is awkwardly overdone, barely fits in the movie, and probably would have been cut had it not reflected a pet issue of the screenwriter, who is also the director’s brother).

Cooper is frustrated as a farmer because he isn’t really one. He was a NASA pilot and engineer before the agency was forced out of space flight by a shift in funding priorities (sound familiar?). He now reluctantly tends his farm along with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, his field-tilling heir Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a teen and Casey Affleck as a young man) and his science-loving maverick daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a girl, Jessica Chastain as a young adult, Ellen Burstyn as an old woman). Murphy suspects that a ghost is leaving her morse messages with books on shelves and in gravitational waves acting on falling dust. Coop thinks it nonsense until he realizes it’s binary, and that the message is a set of coordinates.

The coordinates lead Cooper to a secret NASA base on NORAD’s subterranean premises in Colorado. There, the brilliant (but subtly dissembling) Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has masterminded a last-ditch effort to save the dwindling human race from the planet they’ve irrevocably poisoned: find another world out in the stars that is amenable to conditions of human life and transfer either humanity’s survivors or their fertilized embryos there to start over. A dozen solo astronauts have passed through a wormhole near Saturn and landed on potential planets; some are still broadcasting data about conditions that may or may not be promising for colonization. Brand wants Coop to pilot a crew through the wormhole to investigate these potential new homes and begin the process of either relocation or genetic repopulation. Coop doesn’t want to leave his family, but knows he belongs in space and not in the dirt. He decides to accept the offer, and to the stars he goes.

I hesitate to go into much more detail about what follows, partly to avoid spoiling the fascinating revelations and partly because I’m not entirely certain I understood them, particularly the ones grounded in complex theoretical physics. Suffice it to say that the space-bound later acts of Interstellar feature visually wondrous travel through the spherical wormhole, to forbidding planet surfaces, and over the horizon of a supermassive black hole; maximum emotional wringing of the concept of relativity; Anne Hathaway with short hair, Wes Bentley awaiting an inevitable snuffing (what does that man do but die in movies? He’s like a more metrosexual Sean Bean), and a surprise cameo on a world of frozen clouds (no, it’s not Billy Dee Williams); not one but two sassy talking robots (I’m not kidding); and, finally, a more hopeful and unambiguous conclusion than any of us would have had any reason to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score. I’m hardly qualified to speak on the film’s scientific accuracy, although both consulting theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and prominent astronomer and public science intellectual Neil DeGrasse Tyson are so qualified and they were both pretty much on board, with Thorne authoring scientific papers on the basis of the computer effects and Tyson even defending the most tenuous leaps of the film’s ending.

Does all of this mean, however, that it’s a good film? Long experience with Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre should give us pause about praising the whole on the basis of the sum of its parts. While the editing of specific sequences is superlative, the movie as a whole is far too long, with unwieldy portions concentrated in its earthbound opening act and even occasionally in its more involving space sections. And it’s undeniable that the ask of belief on the part of the Nolans in the ending is huge and maybe beyond most casual moviegoers.

As always, the visual and intellectual scope of Christopher Nolan’s visions deserve our admiration even while his populist compromises, rule-bound rigidity and recurring aesthetic hiccups tend to temper that admiration. The results of his Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid are often astonishing and always compelling. But the philosophy and existentialism can be submerged by sentimentality like in Spielberg and can equally alienate its audience with its museum-display composure like in Kubrick. Interstellar is unquestionably spectacular, but like its characters, it passes through a cinematic black hole and doesn’t entirely retain its structural integrity while it does so.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Science

Film Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

November 19, 2014 2 comments

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998; Directed by Terry Gilliam)

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” So goes the memorable opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo memoir on the early 1970s zeitgeist, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The phrasing is simultaneously specific and vague, straight-faced and descriptive while also evocative, symbolic, mythic. On the cusp of entering the desert, that arid, unforgiving space of existential questing and contemplation long before and well after Jesus Christ spent 40 days and nights there being tempted by Satan (and he wasn’t even looped on mescaline and ether, at least as far as we know), revelations of some kind (capitalized or otherwise) are foreshadowed. And the drugs, gifted by Thompson’s sentence with an agency, a menace, a power beyond that possessed by the helpless apes who dare to consume them, let alone one that they are capable of resisting or overcoming. All of Fear and Loathing, in its anti-narrative flow and bacchanalian scattershot inspiration, follows from this simple but potently charged sentence.

Terry Gilliam, more than any other filmmaker possibly could, gets what Thompson was after with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the resulting cinematic adaptation of the self-styled Doctor of Journalism’s unreliably phantasmagorical memoir of degenerative excess might well be one of the truest but also among the most imaginatively extrapolated page-to-screen translations in movie history. Like much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas blurs the line between reality and fantasy in an effort to destabilize an oppressive establishment. Unlike much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, the drug-fuelled apparitions observed by our vision-questing protagonists are not dreams but nightmares of the pharmaceutically-initiated sort. As per the Samuel Johnson quote that takes up the film’s first frame, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo become beasts to rid themselves of the pain of being men. And America manufactures pain on an industrial scale.

Duke, played by a bald-pated Johnny Depp as an exploded, bow-legged, cigarette-holder-chomping caricature of Thompson (whom he dwelt with and studied for some time in preparation for the inspired role), rents a convertible and drives from Los Angeles to Vegas in 1971, ostensibly to cover a desert motorcycle race. Dr. Gonzo, a fleshy, wild-haired civil rights lawyer based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta and embodied with an exhilarating, dangerous abandon and lack of vanity by Benicio Del Toro, accompanies Duke, helping him to consume their encyclopedic catalogue of psychotropic drugs and generally wreak antisocial mayhem around Sin City and its environs. Duke and Gonzo are rough sketches of Thompson’s ego and id, respectively, his relatively square, accredited word-slinging journalist persona and the unhinged werewolf that chased every high available to him. The wild and woolly exploits of his two halves gradually reveal a mirror-image madness in the character of an America squirming under the thumb of Richard Nixon and losing itself to a reckless hedonistic quest for self-fulfilment that never quite ends.

Gilliam’s film commences with an insane sense of dizzy momentum. Duke and Gonzo barrel through the desert in their red convertible, phantom-chased by hallucinated bats and weirded out by a wispy-haired hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire in a brief, terrified cameo appearance; a pre-stardom Cameron Diaz shows up later in a small role, too). They arrive at their Vegas hotel just as a hellacious acid trip kicks in for Duke: the carpets crawl up guests’ legs, the front desk agent (Gilliam fave Katherine Helmond) has moray eels swimming through her face, and a sojourn into the hotel bar features the patrons transforming into inebriated, blood-drenched, sex-mad reptiles (“Buy us some golf shoes, otherwise we’ll never get out of this place alive!” exclaims Duke with the clarion anti-logic of the drug-blitzed).

The subsequent ebb and flow of fragmentary plot, extended drug trips, and embarrassing social scenes might not be as “fun” as the opening surge on the open stretch of highway, strictly speaking. But Gilliam shows masterful, uncompromising control of his images (and his wonderful soundtrack, wall-to-wall period songs with no filler), and refuses to tone them down or make them easier to digest. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes a difficult, queasy experience before too long, and Gilliam purposely arranges his visuals to cause maximum discomfort and disorientation. You may not enjoy it, exactly, but you cannot but admire the skill and the dedication to unsettling the viewer. The sick violet glow during an adrenal extract trip, Gonzo’s skin-crawling exploitation of young portraitist Lucy (Christina Ricci), and a final descent into complete madness (“You people voted for Hubert Humphrey, and you killed Jesus!”) that ends with Duke wading through a flooded hotel suite in hip-waiters and a dinosaurian tail with a tape recorder taped to his chest: this movie is an epic sensory experience, and often an unnerving one.

But then that’s Hunter S. Thompson, too: he troubles you even as he enlightens; or perhaps it’s the enlightenment itself that is so troubling. Terry Gilliam reduces the original novel to its constituent parts and rearranges them in his preferred form while allowing their nature to remain evident. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that rarest of cinematic adaptations that represents the visions of both the source’s author and the film’s director with equal effectiveness and imagination. It’s also performing a key public service in demonstrating the effects of hallucinatory chemicals without requiring their actual consumption. I have never felt the slightest urge to attempt psychedelic drugs mainly because I’ve seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and therefore already know the things that they might make you see. What’s the point? This tremendous, utterly unique movie is the only drug I’ll ever need.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Reviews

Conservatism and Class in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth Works

November 16, 2014 2 comments

With the considerable cultural capital built up by the Middle Earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the geek subculture and with the progressive-leaning bourgeois creative class in general, there has been a tendency to construe the legendary Oxford don’s mythological-fantasy literary fictions as fundamentally liberal texts. This impression has been encouraged by the film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which under the stewardship of a left-leaning movie director and his creative-class cadre of collaborators placed a greater emphasis on progressive canards visible in the texts such as environmentalism and interracial tolerance. The third film in the Rings series, The Return of the King, even included a striking, Wellesian montage vibrating with anti-war sentiment and explicit criticism of deluded, imperious political leaders sending young men to die for dubious causes.

It’s important to recognize, however, that Tolkien’s work stems from and reflects a very specific political context but, much more importantly, a specific class context in early 20th-Century Britain. The Oxford professor was an officer in the First World War and a firm member of his country’s bourgeois educational establishment thereafter. He was conservative in the small-c sense at least, in that he yearned for the restoration of a glorious past that he felt to have been worn away by current socioeconomic conditions. For Tolkien, that desired return to the past involved a much farther journey through time: the glorious lost England to be admired and emulated was not that of a few decades earlier but of several centuries earlier. Tolkien thought, not un-idiosyncratically, that it was all downhill for distinctive Anglo-Saxon culture after the Norman Conquest, and felt the pain of 1066 as acutely as if that year’s historic events were the death of a friend. There’s been quite a bit of critical work published on the influence of Catholic thinking on Tolkien’s work. There’s also been plentiful analyses of the roots of Middle Earth in mythology, medieval literature, and the history of language. But much less has been written and said about the class assumptions that preconditioned his work and its ideological implications.

Take the aforementioned environmentalist angle of The Lord of the Rings, for example. Tolkien demonstrated the characteristics of an avid nature-lover in his writing, penning meticulous, aesthetically-pleasing descriptions of landscapes, flora, and fauna (the spectacular New Zealand vistas that characterize Peter Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s work are a visual extension of these flourishes on the page). The element of Rings usually cited as environmentalist in thrust is the subplot of the walking-tree being Ents demolishing the industrialized Isengard stronghold of wizard-gone-sour Saruman the White, who has denuded the nearby forests in the name of a demonic form of technological progress. Although inspired by Tolkien’s narrative frustration at William Shakespeare’s broken promise of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and bringing ruin with it in Macbeth, the Ents’ assault on Isengard is generally seen as a radical, vengeful sabotage of industry by a slighted and injured natural world.

Published in the 1950s in Britain, The Lord of the Rings first rose to the level of cultural phenomenon when unauthorized paperback copies spread through American universities in the 1960s. The rising youth counterculture of the period embraced the trilogy as an imaginative vision with rebellious undertones (the Ring as the atom bomb has been a common symbolic reading), with flower-child hippies responding particularly to the pastoral humility of hobbits, the natural harmoniousness of the Elves, and the anti-industrial assault of the Ents on Isengard. Tolkien, though faintly amused by the growing fanbase for his writings that he once dubbed his “deplorable cultus”, made statements broadly agreeing with what we now think of in terms of tree-hugger ideology, specifically lamenting the disappearance of England’s woods and fields that he remembered from his youth and their replacement by concrete urban blocks.

Such views carry a very different valence in Britain than their dominant leftist overtones on this side of the pond, however, even down to today. They dovetail with heritage preservation efforts that are among the bastions of quotidian Toryism in the UK, seeking to preserve and even reconstitute architectural and pastoral realities redolent of a weakened aristocratic order of inherited class positions. Lampooned in pop culture by progressive voices like the Kinks in The Village Green Preservation Society and Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz, these campaigns and the worldview that underlies them evince a sharp anti-modernity and anti-diversity that is often manifested in Tolkien’s work and is central to conservatism from its classic to contemporary iterations. Behind such backwards-looking nostalgia lurks a robust belief in the inherent benefits of social stratification and the maintenance of hereditary privilege.

This ideological colouring is apparent across Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Repeatedly, “good” characters and races are marked as the product of noble lineage and gentlemanly wealth, while “evil” ones carry the markers of the working-class. It has been pointed out (by a critic whose name I cannot recall and therefore whose observation I cannot cite) that the compelling tension of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stems from Tolkien contrasting the more historically proximal, familiar pastoral landed gentry character of the hobbits (what are they but diminutive hairy-footed gentleman farmers, like background figures out of a George Eliot country opus?) with the high-myth heroism of the milieu of medieval romance represented by Elves, dwarves, men and wizards.

The humble, sympathetic hobbit heroes Bilbo and Frodo Baggins may sit lower on the grand Middle Earth hierarchical pyramid than Elf princes or kings in the wilderness or quasi-angelic wizards, but they still possess a noblesse oblige that grants them a begrudging respect from the upper-crust fellows that they encounter on their journeys. Even the comparatively irresponsible and immature Merry and Pippin are scions of major Shire families, while Sam Gamgee, though clearly from the servant caste, distinguishes himself chiefly by maintaining his steadfast loyalty to his master and to the class order that he represents. The antagonists, meanwhile, are clumsy, dirty, morally-debased proletarians who threaten the viable authority of the more noble peoples, be they the hated orcs or savage men or even trolls or spiders.

Language was always paramount to the philologist Tolkien, who allowed the lineage and meaning of names and words to suggest character arcs and narrative developments in his books. So it makes ample sense that Tolkien marks his world’s vital class distinctions most strongly through language and dialogue. The formal speech of Elves, of Gandalf and Saruman, and of noble men like Aragorn contrasts with that of the hobbits, although even the Bagginses have a way with words: the dangerously clever-speaking dragon Smaug notes Bilbo’s fine verbal manners particularly. Orcs, meanwhile, speak like guttural factory workers, while the comic trolls turned to stone in The Hobbit express themselves in the dialect of rural commoners and even have English peasant names (Tom, Bert, and William). Even the spiders of Mirkwood, whose speech Bilbo can understand, hiss and spit out lower-income-level colloquialisms.

In addition to these examples, the predominant narrative obsession in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the restoration of the male heirs of noble lineages (be they the House of Durin or the Kings of Gondor) to positions of political control. It betrays Tolkien’s allegiance to a conservative conception of British society that privileges noble bloodlines and a traditional hereditary aristocracy over an open and inclusive democracy that breaks down invidious class distinctions. Middle Earth may be a convincing, detail-rich fantasy world creation that is the setting for stories that have captivated millions of readers and moviegoers, but it remains a world founded in assumptions of class stratification reflective of its creator’s position in and dedication to a social and political context of a highly-ordered, class-driven Britain.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Politics

Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Gender Politics of Celebrity Melodrama

November 11, 2014 1 comment

American pop megastar Taylor Swift released the second single off of her latest album 1989 last week, entitled “Blank Space”. More importantly, she released a music video to go along with it, a self-proclaimed “film” directed by Joseph Kahn. It’s a nutty slice of aristocratic opulence and purposely overwrought hysterics that is either slyly brilliant, deeply problematic, or quite likely both. Either way, it has to be seen to quite be believed.

Swift inspires unswerving devotion from a young generation and everything from chin-stroking benefit of the doubt to hostile dismissiveness from a slightly older one. She’s clearly come a long way from the country-tinged castles-in-the-sky idealized romances of her early releases, now properly classed as mass-selling juvenalia. Her turn to Top 40 synth-pop on 2012’s Red gained her the regard and qualified support of the indie music intelligentsia, with her lyrics increasingly focused on her public image, relationships, rumours, and personal identity. As a young female artist and songwriter, Swift is far from unintelligent and is not self-unaware; her lyrics scratch fitfully at gender roles and romantic tropes now in a way they did not in her more innocent days. But her perspective is so predetermined by her own specific experiences and perceptions that she has a tendency to miss the forest of social politics for the trees of her personal feelings.

Taylor Swift is getting a bit wiser as she ages, though, and with 1989‘s singles is cultivating the image of a goofy, down-to-earth girl cheekily undermining the celebrity machine of monolithic glitz that has made her a star but also threatens to swallow her identity at every moment. This was certainly the impression generated by “Shake It Off”, which cast a wacky Swift as embodied tropes of fragile femininity such as the ballerina and the cheerleader while also gussying her up as a twerking hip-hop queen and a contemporary performance-art pop star like Lady Gaga. The concept is that she dances to her own beat in terms of both traditional and more current conceptions of a young woman’s identity, a square peg that does not fit into any of these round holes of entertainment-media convention.

The video for “Blank Space”, meanwhile, is an overblown but fascinating assumption of the character of a hysterical, practically psychotic jealous woman by Taylor Swift. Her fledgling acting career looms large; this is an ambitious audition for screen roles, of sorts. That the stock character Swift plays is hugely troubling and problematic from a feminist point of view only seems to dimly register with the young woman playing it. But it does register, it seems; indeed, “Blank Space” contains suggestions of satiric intent, if one looks hard enough.

The entire clip proceeds visually from a striking, quasi-poetic early couplet in the troubled-romance lyrics: “I could show you incredible things / Magic, madness, heaven, sin”. Set in and around a palatial country estate (it’s nearly something out of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), Swift and the male object of her affection (and hostility, played by Sean O’Pry) carry on a tumultuous romance, beginning as idyllic, opulent scenes of privileged love before degenerating into over-the-top melodrama. Before she knifes paintings and lays into a tremendously expensive sports car with a golf club in rage over her dude’s insensitive texting at a picnic, Swift stars in Kahn’s nigh-on surrealistic tableau of emotional hyper-drama: weeping mascara tears, singing passionately, fist pounding at a well-appointed fireplace, an impassive deer behind her. Later, Swift is clad in riding gear on a hedge-framed path in the house’s gardens, standing on the saddle of a horse. It’s an image out of a lost Magritte painting.

But what does all of this mean? Can we give Taylor Swift enough credit to claim that she or her collaborators are saying anything with the “Blank Space” video? Is it a subtextual critique of the public appetite for moody, dramatic celebrity relationship antics, pantomimed with convincing loopiness by Swift? Is it a reinscription of discriminatory constructions of irrational, emotion-driven women or an explosive blow-out of those pernicious discursive stereotypes? Is its setting of aristocratic wealth a subtle reference to the neo-Gilded Age elite who utilize the media discourse to dazzle the voyeuristic masses with images of privilege and riches and compel their compliance via aspiration? Or is it serendipitously tapping into deep veins of gender politics, celebrity fascination, and class distinction in an unambitious effort to make a memorable video for a relatively unmemorable pop song? Maybe the title is a clue: this text may be construed a “blank space” to be filled in with our own understandings or with the lack thereof.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

NHL Jersey Ads and the Flickering Spirit of Sports

November 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Professional sports are massively popular conduits for corporate profit. To deny this or even to minimize its vital importance in the continuing perpetuation of any significant athletic competition would be foolish and blind. The will to profit relies fundamentally upon the deeply-felt, visceral, tribal loyalty of fans to their teams in particular and to their sport of choice in general. The force of their belief is irrational, and its purest iterations are unconnected to competitive success: witness the persistent home arena sellouts for the perennial basement-dwelling Edmonton Oilers. These deep reserves of loyalty and dedication are the stuff of corporate executive dreams, for they predict a lifetime of consistent consumption on the particular brand of the fan’s choice (if, indeed, the alignment was a choice in any conscious sense; such affiliations can be matters of family or community inheritance).

In the National Hockey League, the business side of the equation is as dominant as in the NBA, Major League Baseball, or the black-eyed capitalist colossus that is the NFL. Arenas have corporate name sponsors, the boards surrounding the ice are wraparound billboards, signature television broadcasts are run by corporate conglomerates who sell segment name rights to other companies. The NHL is a profit machine, and much of that profit is tied in with corporate marketing strategies that visually and linguistically associate the on-ice product with corporate logos and taglines.

And yet, like the other three major North American sports leagues, a line is drawn in the metaphorical sand when it comes to the sale of advertising space on NHL team jerseys. Unlike European sports leagues or domestic organizations like NASCAR, where paid logo ads are plastered onto uniforms with impunity, the NHL and its fellow leagues forbid such ads. And so it was with a tone of faux-resignation, the kind so often utilized to discursively presage paradigm-shifting alterations in the status quo masterminded by corporate decision-makers against the consent of consumers, that NHL COO John Collins said that jersey ads are “coming and happening”.

NHL fans have already objected to this suggestion at various magnitudes, and the core of their assumed objections was summarized eloquently by Paul Campbell at The Hockey Chat. Transgressing this last boundary, allowing corporate imagery to compete with and ultimately sully team jerseys and all that they are taken to mean, is conceived of as a serious body blow to the symbolism, the magic, the aura of the game, those who play it, and the teams and fanbases they represent. The team jersey has an “inviolability” and a “sanctity” that would, if ads were permitted alongside a team crest, be violated.

Campbell makes his point very well and it will doubtlessly resonate very deeply with many hockey fans, especially those with strong team loyalties who likewise share an aesthetic appreciation for the sport’s flashes of beauty (and may also appreciate its enervating but troubling bursts of violence). But considering jersey ads to be an unforgivable trespass on the near-religious significance of the sport to many strikes me as a curious distinction to make in a sports milieu already suffused and often disfigured by capitalism.

It is also a distinction that is contradicted by precedents. Campbell does not mention that corporate sponsors have been emblazoning their logos onto the kits of major European soccer clubs for decades without evident ill effects on the sanctity of the game. Indeed, many of these clubs can boast of a level of fan loyalty and inextricable community identification that some of the NHL’s more marginal franchises would kill for (does it “mean” anything to be, say, a Florida Panther?), and the sport of international football enjoys a level of global popularity (and, at its best, an aura of sublime inspiration) that would make Gary Bettman weep into his ginger ale if he ever cared to contemplate it. Does Manchester United mean less to its legions of worldwide devotees because of the Chevrolet logo in the dead centre of its jersey? If so, I’d be curious to know how.

The jersey ad distinction also raises an interesting question about team logos themselves. Campbell cites the common NHL practice of skirting around the team crest on dressing room floors; to tread upon it is considered a transgression on par with stomping thoughtless on graves in a cemetery, if not worse. But is a team crest not itself a corporate logo, by any conceivable definition? If it is animated with a resonance that goes beyond that of the standard corporate logo, is that not a triumph of consumer conditioning and brand marketing rather than a statement of communal meaning as established through a shared history of experience? To what extent has that shared history, if it does predominate in the construction of team significance, been coopted by corporate forces for the sake of profit? Where precisely, in a contemporary North American culture consumed by corporatism, does the capitalist imperative end and the deeper spirit of engagement with the game begin? On the jersey, we are told.

The idea of the team jersey as an inviolable space reflects, to my mind, the interesting and self-contradictory magical thinking that undergirds the attitude towards professional sports in North America. In the United States, a nation whose identity is very much defined by its self-conception as a culture of liberty-chasing, free-market entrepreneurs, the business of professional sports is run and protected by powerful cartels that disregard supply and demand and other economic imperatives at every turn. For all of America’s stereotyped conceptions of European society, its major football leagues operate more closely on free market principles than the North American Big Four leagues.

Football clubs that lose money, run up debts, or are otherwise characterized by financial malfeasance are punished in competitive terms: Glasgow Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs of Scottish football (to Old Firm rival Glasgow Celtic’s Montreal Canadiens), were busted down to the fourth tier of the national competition pyramid after the liquidation of the club’s corporate entity in 2012. Competitive failures, in turn, carry economic consequences through the promotion/relegation system, wherein the clubs with a given league’s worst records are dropped to a lower division, replaced by that lower division’s best. Profits are higher in the better leagues, lower in the weaker ones, commensurate to the level of competition. Such regulations applied to the NHL would have driven storied franchises like the Oilers and Leafs out of the league as they have gone through recent cellar-dwelling spells, and money-losing Sun Belt franchises like the Panthers and Arizona Coyotes would have slid to lower levels or simply folded rather than been propped up by revenue sharing and league ownership.

Professional sports in Canada and the United States increasingly reflect the state of capitalism in those countries. In spite of corporate elites’ self-image as self-reliant, trailblazing individualists, their business model relies on being sheltered and protected from market forces, propped up by government subsidies and tax breaks, coccooned in silky privilege. This state of things could be roughly equated with the similar notion of some lingering core of pure spirit surviving deep in the game of hockey despite being blanketed by smothering corporatism. There is some flickering light of the sublime glowing in the heart of a sport like hockey, on that its many devoted fans can agree. But the extent to which it can be believed in on its own terms and not as another commodity, as a mere platitude in a marketing campaign, is unclear.

Categories: Culture, Sports