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Spock as Icon: Leonard Nimoy – 1931-2015

February 27, 2015 Leave a comment

That small hiccup of lag you might register on the internet today is not due to fugitive llamas or a roaring debate over the indistinct colours of a fuzzily-photographed dress. No, if you notice the slightest of bandwidth slowdowns today, it may well be traced back to the millions of science fiction fans the world over watching and linking to their favourite YouTube clips of the death and funeral of Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The actor who first and most memorably played Spock on the original Star Trek television series in the late 1960s and in the subsequent franchise movies in the 1980s passed away much more quietly today. Leonard Nimoy, actor, director, writer, singer, and larger-than-life icon, was 83.

This last term will be applied most gratuitously in reports and eulogies of Nimoy in the popular media discourse over the next few hours and days. And yet it applies in this case not only as a conventionally-circulated term of praise and endearment for a prominent cultural figure but in strict definitional terms as well. “Icon”, the Greek word for “image”, was first and most commonly applied to the flat images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints venerated in Orthodox Christian faiths. The implications the word acquired from these practices, however, became much deeper and more significant. The icon was a familiar, quotidian object, a focus of identification and aspiration that made the distant, mysterious, unknowable realm of the divine personal and identifiable to the common faithful. Through icons, the unintelligible became not only intelligible but close-by, intimate, relatable.

Cultural icons of our modern age function similarly, and performers in the mass media make very fine examples. We do not know them but feel like we do, conceive of these icons in familiar and intimate terms, weaving not only their performances but also their apparent personalities and characteristics into our visions of our own identities. In the 20th Century and into the 21st, speculative and imaginative narratives are the defining texts of the discourse, and the icons that features within these texts are among our most popular icons, figures that stand for far more than the sum of their textually-contained parts: James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Big Brother, the Wizard of Oz, and, yes, Spock.

Many observers will point to Leonard Nimoy’s other non-Trek work – “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”, 3 Men and a Baby, his striking photography – to demonstrate that he was more than a pair of pointy ears, blue shirt, and upraised eyebrow. But as Nimoy himself came around to admitting in his book title progression from denial to acceptance, he was Spock. But millions of others were Spock, too. Nerds, creative types, thoughtful children, and color_nimoy_headshotlogical devotees across the globe venerated Nimoy’s iconic character as an ideal whose example of cool-headed steadiness and unwavering consistency of morality, honour and intellect they could aspire and strive towards in a world of overheated passions and emotional decision-making. One of their number is currently President of the United States.

Nimoy seeded Spock with pieces of his own identity, certainly. His Jewish heritage loomed particularly large: Spock’s famous Vulcan salute and accompanying motto “Live Long and Prosper” were both lifted from childhood reminiscences of priestly blessings from the synagogue. The isolated primacy of logic and intellect in Spock’s worldview when compared to the lusty passion and physical bravery that underlay Captain Kirk’s embodiment of power and heroism was in some ways a textualized metaphor for the Jewish social and cultural experience as an internal Other in gentile societies for centuries. The Jewish people survived in commonly challenging and often hostile milieus by their mental and practical skills, maintaining a stubborn dignity in the face of inborn bigotry, as did Spock on the Enterprise, where he had influence and vital importance but was also a minority, facing prejudices both subtle and blatant.

But icons are icons because those who are devoted to them see their own identities – be they actual or imagined, current or future – projected onto these idealized images. Star Trek owes much of its continued cultural relevance to its image of a hopeful future, a vision of space travel and exploratory cooperation that was not quite utopian but certainly not dystopian either. Spock, a man of science and logic and curiosity (“Fascinating” was nearly as well-known a catchphrase as “Live long and prosper”), was the key to this vision in the original Trek (although the cultured Captain Picard and his antiseptic neoliberal space-borne condo complex in The Next Generation is perhaps a purer distillation of this vision from franchise doyen Gene Rodenberry’s twilight years). It was Spock who wanted to document, investigate, and understand the universe, an inquisitive, interstellar, alien Joseph Banks to Kirk’s sex-crazed, ready-to-fight mutation of Captain James Cook‘s imperial vanguard.

In a popular culture increasingly conquered not by Kirks but by Spocks, Leonard Nimoy’s iconic creation has gained a greater cultural currency. Although Spock is a super-strong, super-smart, usually emotionless extraterrestrial space traveller from the (ever-less) distant future who sometimes regarded his human counterparts as something resembling living laboratory experiments, many of those same features made him an icon to millions. His alterity was subsumed by his proximity, his unintelligibility rendered intelligible by recognizable and relatable traits that people hoped to intuit in themselves as well. The passing of Leonard Nimoy does not mean the end of Spock; Zachary Quinto has crafted a flattering if sharper-edged tribute to Nimoy’s unforgettable performances in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films, and those original performances are only a DVD or YouTube link away too, after all. But the loss of the original model indelibly fades the icon’s glowing inner light.

TV Quickshots #20

February 26, 2015 2 comments

Game of Thrones (HBO; 2011-Present)

HBO’s Sunday night ratings phenomenon, which has brought serial fantasy fiction to the small screen in spectacular and widely-debated fashion, is fundamentally a primetime soap for fantasy geeks and amateur medievalists. The lavish television adaptation of The Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin (the affectation of that pair of Rs will never not grate) has its devotees and its detractors, and you’ll forgive me if I indulge the detractor side first and in greater detail.

Game of Thrones takes place in a detailed but oddly superficial medieval world. The realms of Westeros and Essos and the peoples and important figures that inhabit it are rife with complication but rarely achieve true depth. Martin’s narrative (adapted for the screen by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) thrills in the intrigues of dynastic power politics but lacks cultural breadth or any hint of social concern or artistic heritage. The tug of war for the Iron Throne is intricately but bluntly constructed, but the daily life of the wider society is barely scratched, hardly considered. In Martin’s bloody-minded perspective, the basic stuff of life is shitting, fucking, and killing and there’s no need to depict anything else to craft a convincing simulacrum of a quasi-medieval milieu. HBO is the perfect setting for such content, ever-willing as the network seems to be to utilize gratituitous sex and violence as sensationalist fodder and debased evidence of unfettered creative freedom.

Furthermore, the characters that populate this narrative are one-dimensional almost to the last. Some, like the sadistic boy king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), are endowned with barely a quarter-dimension. With the arguable exception of the cunning dwarf Tyrion Lannister (the wonderful Peter Dinklage), the sprawling cast of characters does not boast multiple, contradictory facets or character arcs. They are mostly complete pricks of one order or another, and continue being pricks until Martin kills them off (which happens pretty often and without much warning). Game of Thrones is full of bad people of many kinds, and the conscientious viewer does not particularly wish to see any of them sit on the Iron Throne.

And yet, we watch. Despite the gratuitous “hard” content, the stock characters, the complicated but thematically anemic plot, the leaden absence of transcendence or even heartening suggestions of a bruised beauty. Benioff and Weiss do not tell this story like, say, Matthew Weiner tells the story of Mad Men or Vince Gilligan tells the story of Breaking Bad, with each episode intelligently constructed, interweaving particular themes and sketched meanings with the larger arc of the series’ plot. Their show is a classic serial, and relies on the flow of Martin’s books rather than TV-centric purposeful framing. It’s an ideal program for the age of DVD and streaming services. You can pause watching through it in the middle of episodes rather than at their conclusion and little of the experience is lost.

This is quite the flood of negative opinion without much positive, but there must be some of the latter in Game of Thrones if we keep watching. Certainly there are plenty of interesting actors who do their darndest to squeeze interest out of their limited characters. Besides Dinklage, Charles Dance does well with Tywin Lannister (in his first appearance, he lectures about the necessities of power while skinning and dressing a deer), The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen makes a slimy Lord Baelish, Sean Bean is solid (if inevitably doomed, as his characters always are) as Eddard Stark, and Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen is always more interesting than she is written to be, somehow. The high level of the design work – sets, costumes, weapons, props, heraldry – is worthy of praise, as is the maps-and-clockwork title sequence. Set to the memorable theme composed by Ramin Djawadi, the changing locations that feature in the show are established on the map at the beginning of each episode and greatly aid in geographical orientation.

Game of Thrones is essentially pulp entertainment whose hard content, self-serious tone, and historical borrowings lend it an air of artistic integrity that it doesn’t really earn the old-fashioned way (a useful distinction: Martin writes fiction, not literature). But it’s also addictive and absorbing viewing, a fully realized (if basically shallow) world that devoted fans delight in diving into over multiple seasons.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Moneyball

February 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Moneyball (2011; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Underdog tale, generation gap narrative, star vehicle, neo-romanticist sports film: Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is all of these things, sometimes practically at the same time. It narrativizes (and often fictionalizes) Michael Lewis’s book about the embrace of sabermetrics and other mathematical analytic models by the front office of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics under General Manager Billy Beane in 2002. Well-acted and well-shot, Moneyball nonetheless incongruously commits the very sin that Beane sees the greying keepers of the conventional baseball wisdom committing on the regular and which he comes to believe he can no longer afford to rely on if he wishes to compete on an uneven playing field. It reduces complexity to simplicity, boiling down logical cogitation and rigorous data crunching to gut feelings and emotional motivations.

Given that Aaron Sorkin claims half of the screenwriting credit (with Steven Zaillian), this should not be unexpected. Sorkin framed the founding of Facebook in similar terms in The Social Network, a world-connecting platform whose creator alienated his best friend and was basely motivated by sexual/status-based rejection by both the opposite sex and the same sex. Therefore Beane (Brad Pitt) is driven not by the glory of winning or the promise of prestige or riches or even the personal satisfaction of success on his own terms, but by the sting of his own once-promising but failed playing career and by his love for his daughter (Kerris Dorsey).

Moneyball opens in 2001 with the A’s losing to the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. It’s the have-nots vanquished by the haves, respectively, as onscreen statements of the glaring discrepancy in total team salaries lay bare. Beane’s frustration (repeatedly expressed in the film through the jock-ish outlet of throwing and breaking inanimate objects) in defeat deepens in the off-season, with his star players plucked by richer teams and the A’s owner refusing to expand the comparatively paltry payroll. It all comes to a head when Beane meets with his scouting staff, a roomful of old, mostly white men prattling on interminably about the shape of a favoured player’s jaw or how the ball sounds off the bat of a top prospect. Beane is blunt: his team cannot compete on the basis of the old rules of the game, and that’s all that these experienced but blinkered scouts or his stubborn manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can offer him.

He’s offered the fresh approach he’s looking for by a 20-something Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, Hollywood’s premiere lumpy sidekick to presupposing alpha males at the moment). Beane comes across Brand in the offices of the Cleveland Indians, is impressed by his contrarian analysis on the basis of the complex mathematical algorithms devised and championed by Bill James, and basically bullies him into being his new assistant GM. A few unorthodox transactions and heated meetings with scouts and Howe later, Beane fields a baseball team that struggles to find its way but finally puts together an American League record 20 wins in a row before another first-round playoff exit.

“The Streak” (it even gets its own Tarantino-esque onscreen title to herald it) is the narrative climax of Moneyball, and the dramatic tension and unlikely hero element of the record-setting game is ripped straight from the inspirational sports movies whose emotional methodology Moneyball‘s core ethos seems poised to refute. But it never does, portraying the use of data to improve performance and results as a mere backdrop to the intangible magic of America’s hallowed pastime. Perhaps, ultimately it is, and neither Beane (who doesn’t even watch his team’s games live) nor the boyish Brand deny their enthusiasm for the game despite their willingness to reduce it to a torrent of numbers. Still, the record-clinching home run might as well have Randy Newman’s musical cue from The Natural playing under it, so staged is it in hands-aloft sporting glory terms.

Pitt plays his trademarked casually masculine A-type with straining thoughts on his mind to the hilt, and it got him an Oscar nomination to boot (as did Hill’s dialed-down work). Hoffman is subtly, inobtrusively convincing as the bluff, good-old-boy sort that invariably becomes a baseball manager (or maybe that baseball managers inevitable become; chicken or egg?). But what kind of movie, exactly, are they starring in?

It’s not an honest portrayal of a full-on Freakonomics-style overturning of conventional thinking, but then Beane’s revolution wasn’t exactly that in real life either (some of the risky signings of misfits portrayed in the film happened before the loss to the Yankees rather than after, and Howe was not as reluctant to go along with Beane’s philosophy as he is shown to be onscreen). It’s firmly couched in the language of the underdog sports narrative (the trailer below makes it look like a post-millenial major league Bad News Bears only with more long division), but that label only applies in the highly relative terms of the multi-million-dollar professional sports world and therefore loses much of its aspirational impact.

What Moneyball finally settles into becoming is a basically conventional sports drama, with conflict, adversity, and ultimately on-field triumph vindicating bold, non-conformist thinking and self-belief. Miller’s direction is controlled and calculated, like a fully-compiled spreadsheet, so it’s a particularly well-crafted example of such a film. But Moneyball aims for the heart and the gut when its subject moved away from such unreliable, non-rational calculi to gain an advantage over resource-rich rivals. A movie, of course, is not a data set. But like baseball, there’s useful information it can glean from one.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Bully

February 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Bully (2011; Directed by Lee Hirsch)

On its surface, Bully is a document of social dysfunction and a weapon for awareness and advocacy. Lee Hirsch’s documentary focuses on five students from across America’s so-called “Heartland” (more on that hoary, misleading concept in a minute) who face bullying from their peers at school and react to it in different ways. Some try with awkwardness to either fit in or avoid torment or both in fluctuating uncertainty, others demonstrate extraordinary strength of will and moral character in the face of prejudice but ultimately seek out a more accepting milieu, and still others are driven to self-harm and even suicide by the rejection and abuse of their peers. In some cases, parents are highly supportive, in others oblivious or wrong-headed, and in the most extreme and tragic have become public crusaders for anti-bullying action.

Bully is about all of these people, their struggles with a harsh world and their hopes for a better one. But on another deeper and more fundamental level, Bully is about the tyranny of “tight-knit” small communities and the deadening indifference and willful blindness of the institutions that define them. It’s about the failure of social systems as assuredly as (if more microcosmically than) The Wire, with the primary failed system being the schools.

This is not a failure of education, of intellectual and practical preparation for the rigours of a competitive capitalist economy like the standard school-focused liberal social documentary film tends to be (or like The Wire‘s own treatment of schools). It’s a failure of social structure that goes beyond small-town American schools but is magnified terribly in them: the instinctive ostracism of difference, no matter how insignificant, and the punitive measures marshalled against disobedience to that assumed norm. Documentaries like Waiting For “Superman” focus on schools in urban areas because education levels are the primary issue there. Bully finds its resonant case studies in smaller communities because exclusion and enforcement of homogeneity are rife in such places.

A document like Bully exposes the conservative myth of the “Heartland”, a morally upright and common-sensical belt of friendly small towns where everyone gets along (as long as they’re white and straight) and modern anxieties are kept at bay, as the craven and pernicious lie that it is. Everyone gets along in these communities only to the extent that they admit no variation from their rigid set of shared values. Perish the thought that, like one strong-spirited young girl in Oklahoma, you happen to be gay or otherwise marked out from True American microculture.

Bullying is the weapon of school-age socialization in such places, the blunt instrument of conformity to the local order. The most incredible subjects in Bully are the passive (and even active) enablers of the bullying culture in positions of authority in the schools. They shame and blame the victims of regular abuse, gloss over parents’ complaints with plastered-on smiles, and generally protect not the bullied but the bullies from any meaningful consequences for the deep psychological damage that can be inflicted by acts of bullying at such an impressionable age. There are scenes shot at rallies and marches against bullying with large crowds turning out in support, but very few of sympathetic and effective school administrators meaningfully addressing the problem head-on.

Hirsch does not come straight at the reason for this dissembling and avoidance by authorities, but it becomes fairly evident to the initiated and knowledgeable. Confronting bullying does not simply involve punishing bullies, nor does it extend to the uncomfortable position of informing parents that they have raised little people who prey on the weak, the isolated, the divergent (a failure in nurture in social inclusiveness terms, but a measure of success in far too many segments of American life). Confronting bullying means facing up to the unsettling social truths at the core of Middle American life. It means admitting that the close-knit conservative community model encodes certain exclusions and prejudices and basic unfairness by design, that it surveys out social fissures that cannot but open and divide in good time. It means that adhering to this social model will always leave some children behind (as its larger economic model leaves some adults behind) and that, contrary to jingoistic propaganda, these youthful abandonments will not be on the basis of value or merit but upon value-judgements considerably more arbitrary and unjust (also as it is with adults).

Schools and other small-town institutions cannot confront bullying because then they would have to confront the whole panoply of cloaked pathologies that underlie conservative American life. The society they hold dear could not bear up against such scrutiny. The psychological suffering and identity scars of the minority who do not conform to the enforced socialization of small-town American schools are necessary sacrifices to maintain a comforting illusion for the majority of these communities. Bully presses its message into placard-carrying protesting solidarity, but the  image of American society that it presents is not one whose pathologies can be meaningfully addressed by a few rallies. It is a cancer that goes far deeper and cannot easily be cut out.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Fall

February 15, 2015 1 comment

The Fall – Seasons 1 & 2 (BBC; 2013-2014)

For whatever reason, on television in Britain, the murder mystery and police/crimes procedural genres are able to encompass and express a greater variety of meanings, themes, and sociopolitical implications than their American TV equivalents. U.S. entries into the genre – especially from the endemic, formulaic glut of CSIs and NCISs and Law and Orders – are generally prisms for a fevered nightmare vision of crime and unreserved enthusiasm for morally unambiguous punishment (often of an extra-legal, state-mandated vigilantist sort) redolent of right-wing American fantasies.

But British television, especially the BBC (although also its more conservative private competitor ITV), can often employ the genre’s conventions to explore and comment upon a wider range of ideas. Perhaps the historical overlap between British playwriting and teleplays has opened a conduit of greater literary depth that is tapped by the best (and even some of the less-best) TV dramas, which tend to be more tightly-structured and on shorter runs than their American equivalents (a prestige cable narrative like True Detective is an obvious exception). Or perhaps the genre itself simply has a different profile in Britain, where it has a deeper and richer literary tradition (although, ironically, its key early texts followed the example of an American, Edgar Allen Poe).

Whatever the sources of this breadth, you can see it across notable British genre television: the sashaying wit of Sherlock, the bruised local whodunit of Broadchurch, and the historical recreation/commentary on social dynamics of period shows like Ripper Street, The Bletchley Circle, or, heck, even Downton Abbey (though procedural it is not). But evoking a wide range of ideas need not hamper the entertainment value or even the sensationalist frisson of the murder mystery genre. All of this very much self-evident in The Fall, one of the best iterations of the form in recent broadcast history.

Set in contemporary Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Fall focuses on the contest of minds and wills between a focused and self-assured female inspector (Gillian Anderson) and a meticulous, double-life-maintaining serial killer of women (Jamie Dornan). The series, written by Allan Cubitt and directed by Cubitt and Jakob Verbruggen, builds towards the two opposing characters’ final confrontation as nemeses but also presents their fascination with each other as supra-professional, with a quality of romantic interest if not intense psychological desire. This latter suggestion unsettles (if not undermines) the dominant feminist overtones of the series in its closing movement.

Anderson’s Stella Gibson, a visiting Detective Superintendent from London’s Metropolitan Police, is in Belfast to conduct a review of the local force’s investigation into the high-profile murder of the wife of a local business scion. Her mission soon expands to leading a larger inquest into the case when she connects it with other similar murders of professional women, as well as to battling against the patriarchal assumptions of this provincial locale’s policing which hound her at every turn.

Stella Gibson knows what she wants and what is required to do her job right, and treats bull-headed males that stand chauvinistically in her way with the cool contempt that they richly merit. Soon after arriving, she has a one-night stand with a hunky, younger Detective Sergeant (Ben Peel). When he is later killed and revealed to be married with kids, her male colleague investigating the case makes sexist insinuations that she efficiently bats away; why shouldn’t she have pleasure on her off-time (besides the obvious thorny professional questions, which are ignored)? She also negotiates her interactions with the PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable (and her former lover) Jim Burns (John Lynch) with skill and subtle condescension. She’s on his turf and must tread lightly to obtain his cooperation, but he’s an unimaginative and weak-willed bureaucrat and glad-hander more concerned with public image and the politics of department funding than with shepherding along effective investigative policing.

More than any other outlet, Stella’s feminism is expressed in her moral position vis-à-vis the predatory crimes of her nemesis, the serial strangler, sociopath, married father of two, and grief counselor Paul Spector. Dornan, soon to have his career either blown up huge, ruined, or both by a lead role in 50 Shades of Grey, makes a strong, fiercely creepy impression as Spector, with his inscrutable gaze, nighttime stalking habits, and semi-simian strolling walk. He loves his young daughter Olivia (Sarah Beattie) with a fondness that mirrors the intensity of the perversion that drives him to strangle women and then meticulously arrange them in poses of pacified idealization.

What Stella (and therefore The Fall) refuses to lose sight of when it comes to Paul Spector is the smug, self-important misogynistic assumptions that underscore his litany of crimes. This type of generic narrative has a tendency (especially when told in an American context, but not exclusively then) to underplay the social and behavioural implications of violence against women even while exploiting that violence for sensationalist shock effect or to establish a given text’s artistic “seriousness”. The manner in which the arbitrary application of patriarchal force and sexualized violence by men against female victims terrorizes women everywhere and proscribes their agency and security is buried from the get-go (the common feminist truism is quoted in one episode: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them”). The resolution of this essential tension is customarily subsumed by the protective male application of justice on behalf of “damsels in distress”, frequently through the use of violence that is coded as righteous in opposition to the violation of the killer’s acts.

The Fall constructs Stella’s efforts to identify Spector as the killer and bring him to justice as a struggle against patriarchy, but it’s hardly that simple or unproblematic. To expound upon precisly why requires a discussion of the series’ “ending”, and so an uncharacteristic spoiler alert is in order at this point.

The second season finale features a showcase conversation between Stella and Spector in custody in which the latter confesses to his crimes in full but stubbornly resists and challenges the former’s position of power and authority; both actors look into the camera (and therefore at us) while offering clear-cut diagnoses of each other’s behaviour and motivations, and what might have been the climactic resolution of a lesser story merely heightens the tension of this one. Following this scene, Stella has some pillow talk with her latest Detective Sergeant lover, Anderson (Colin Morgan). Having already acknowledged Anderson’s general physical resemblance to Spector in the course of interrogations, the DS wonders if she thought he resembled Spector in other ways. Anderson admits that Spector is a fascinating figure, for all of his inhuman monstrosity, but Stella, who in an earlier episode contradicted a stark labelling of Spector as a monster by Burns, offers a blunt feminist assessment of Spector as a horrid being unworthy of “fascination”.

Spector is taken to the woods outside Belfast in the closing sequence to lead police to his final victim, a former lover that he abducted and imprisoned for suggesting him to the police as a suspect. There, cuffed to Anderson as a minder at Stella’s insistence, he and Anderson are both shot by a Shankill Road thug who Spector made an enemy of in his predatory activities (it happens moments after Spector mentions to Anderson that something is clearly going on between him and Stella). Stella rushes to the cuffed, injured pair, and chooses to cradle the head of her enemy Spector, not her lover Anderson. It’s a final image of corporeal intimacy between The Fall‘s two contending leads, and it suggests not so subtly that behind Stella Gibson’s overt identity as a righteous feminist avenger lies a deep and disavowed desire and attraction for a figure that represents everything that repulses her and drives her sense of justice. It’s a problematic twist to the feminist politics of the show that ends the narrative (we assume; Dornan at least has hinted at future seasons) on a note of contradictory, complexity, and uncertainty that demonstrates how the murder mystery police procedural genre can malleably expand its boundaries of signification.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Woman in Black

February 11, 2015 1 comment

The Woman in Black (2012; Directed by James Watkins)

Focused more on sustained creepy atmosphere and anticipatory dread than cheap jump-in-your-seat thrills, The Woman in Black brings updated Hammer Horror Edwardian-era-set spectral chills to the contemporary multiplex. Magnificently shot, exquisitely paced, and making full use of the particular strengths of its famous lead actor, James Watkins’ notable, artful B-movie genre piece delivers delightful scares consistently and even rises to a rambling baroque crescendo in its showpiece sequence of accruing fear.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a London-based widower with a young son who thinks him dour and a tenuous position at a law firm whose thin thread may be cut if he fails in his latest assignment. An old woman has died in her isolated house in the tidal marshes of the North, and Kipps is dispatched to get the deceased’s legal papers in order and hopefully to sell her home, the Eel Marsh House. The village of Crythin Gifford (wonderfully Welsh-sounding, the name seems to crawl out of characters’ mouths like a worm) is a distinctly unfriendly place to him, however, wishing him to head back where he came from and certainly to stay the heck away from the Eel Marsh House.

The locals have also practically all lost children in mysterious circumstances, including the innkeepers whose three daughters simultaneously leap from their bedroom windows in the haunting opening scene. Among the bereaved is a wealthy local landed gentleman, Samuel Daily (Ciaran Hinds, a fellow Harry Potter castmate and ever a reliable screen presence), who befriends Kipps and helps him in his task as well as he can.

Kipps certainly could use some help or maybe just a few more candles, because as soon as he’s alone in the Eel Marsh House (the only road in is swamped by the rising tide every day), odd sounds, apparitions, and a ghostly woman bedecked in the clothes of mourning begin to hound him. Children start to die in the town whenever he stops in on breaks from the manse, and the villagers blame him for stirring up malevolent supernatural forces in his attempts to shed light on the life and the resentments of the woman who died there.

Daily brushes all of this aside as so much superstition; he’s a man of reason in his gleaming automobile, but Kipps, curious about seances and fashionable spiritualism, is less certain, especially as his observation of the house’s spectral forces accrues alarming examples. The creaking doors and furniture, winding discarded children’s toys, and recurrent appearances by a white-visaged, black-clad crone culminate in a drawn-out sequence of ghostly horror tricks and frights. Kipps overnights at Eel Marsh House, and is driven half out of his skin by one bizarre, unexplainable freak-out after another. The execution is masterful, but the relentless protraction of the sequence raises it to the level of genre brilliance.

Radcliffe, a seasoned thespian of fine motor control but less-developed vocal gravitas, is used well by Watkins, observing and reacting and becoming gradually, almost imperceptibly unsettled and undone by what he witnesses. His relationship with his son, it should be noted, is a touch too fond for its historical context; Victorian and Edwardian fathers remained at a cold, studious distance from their offspring almost as a matter of course. The gothic atmosphere of everpresent death and deep mourning at lost children does strike a contextual nerve, however; in a period in which middle class prosperity was greatly expanding but disease and other factors still preyed on the young, the social construct of protection of children (as opposed to their employment in labour from a young age) was formed, and the profundity of parental mourning at their untimely death was unprecedented. Susan Hill’s novel draws upon these endemic social elements, and Watkins’ film of that novel does as well.

The Woman in Black was a successful commercial and critical comeback for Hammer Films, the venerable British production studio whose gothic horror films in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s lent a prestige and sophistication to B-level genre releases and made icons of the likes of later blockbuster supporting figures Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It may not engage with the tropes and expectations of the horror genre like meta-horror flicks like ScreamThe Cabin in the Woods, or The Ring, although it does share the latter’s teasing faux-resolution of the proper Judeo-Christian burial dispelling the haunting spirit, which will not be so easily placated. It’s a revived old-school creepy ghost story executed to maximum effect, and that can be enjoyed on a completely guilt-free level of its own.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #19

February 8, 2015 2 comments

Sons of Liberty (History Channel; 2015)

Considering the centrality of the American Revolution in the history of the United States and in the identity construction of Americans from the Civil War to today’s Tea Party, it’s a bit surprising that thSOL-JanuaryReleaseDateere have been basically no classic portrayals of its events in the movies or in other media. Perhaps a narrative that is forced down the throats of American schoolchildren in history class needs no fictional component to support the textbooks. Or perhaps that narrative is already so full of fictions that a story of the War of Independence would be rejected by audiences if told with historical fidelity.

You won’t get such historical fidelity from Sons of Liberty, even if it did air on the History Channel. You’ll get a beautifully shot, seriously acted, tightly constructed version of the key early moments of America’s founding struggle for self-determination and nationhood as a grimly masculine action movie. Rebels against tyrannical British rule sneak like nimble ninjas across rooftops, blood spurts from musket wounds, and everyone from silversmith Paul Revere to paunchy middle-aged brewer Samuel Adams is a handsome young warrior with a martial artist’s grasp of hand-to-hand combat.

As history, Sons of Liberty is garbage, as Thomas Verenna lays out exhaustively and convincingly for the Journal of the American Revolution. The most egregious of its mistruths is also the one that undergirds all American populist conceptions of the Revolution: the tyrannical oppression of the colonies’ British overlords. Genre mainstay Marton Csokas appears as General Thomas Gage, a sadistic, sneering, cartoonishly evil redcoat villain who breaks laws and moral codes with impunity. The real Gage, as Verenna lays out, was frequently criticized by colleagues in the colonies and back in England for being too fair-minded, lenient, and liberal in face of the increasingly provocative agitations of the Sons of Liberty.

Modern Americans, self-defined by a love of liberty (especially in economic terms) and a distaste for raggedy “European”-type protests and revolts, must need have a tyrant to justify a rebellion that was, historically speaking, quite radical if not wholly unprovoked. Sons of Liberty, with its ninja patriots and perfidious Albion stereotypes, give Americans the dramatic Revolution that they imagine they mounted, not the equally dramatic one that actually happened. We’ll have to continue to wait for an onscreen treatment that provides the latter.

Murder on the Home Front (ITV; 2013)

A period-specific entry into the endlessly flexible British television murder mystery procedural genre, Murder on the Home Front is a one-off TV movie take on the genre set during the London Blitz of World War II. As German murderhomefrontbombs fall, buildings crumble, and civilian bodies stack up, unorthodox, forward-thinking medical examiner Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) enlists intrepid reporter Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) as his assistant in a proto-forensic inquiry into a series of murders. Collins must contend not only a killer and a continuing enemy bombardment, but also with his cynical, conservative supervisor Professor Stephens (James Fleet), a police force that is often corrupt or incompetent or both and contaminates crime scenes with clumsy regularity, and a snaky dance club owner with organized crime ties (Ryan Gage).

Murder on the Home Front is often frothy stuff, inserting copious suggestions of sexuality into the normally austere social picture of the Blitz period in London. When you could die any day in a nasty explosion, why not dance and screw your nights away? Still, one feels it’s laid on a little thick. So is the by-the-numbers romantic plot between Collins and Cooper, whose weakness is made especially apparent by the lack of chemistry between the casual, smirking Kennedy and the plucky but spacy Merchant. The real delight is Gage, who played Alfrid in The Hobbit movies and brings a similar pause-heavy sliminess to suspicious gangster Danny Hastings. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to assess the level of forensic science accuracy in the historical period (though, as a recent Frontline suggested, not much of it beyond DNA testing is actually reliably scientific). But this watchable, involving, but often pulpy and predictable mystery does not overstay its welcome in TV film mode as it might have as a series.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Prometheus

February 5, 2015 1 comment

Prometheus (2012; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Emerging from a succession of imposing, primordial landscapes, a hooded figure stands at the brim of a thundering waterfall beneath a massive, floating oval spaceship. Removing its robe to reveal a powerfully-built, classically-sculpted humanoid figure, the titanic manlike being ingests a black liquid from a rudimentary cup with the careful precision of a rehearsed ritual. The tincture does not agree with him, to say the least; in fact, it disintegrates his magnificent physique from the inside out until he tips into the surging cataract, his limbs, torso, and head crumbling into black dust and swept away in the torrent.

Thus enfolds the semi-metaphorical opening scene of Ridley Scott’s more-than-semi-metaphorical sort-of prequel to his 1979 science-fiction-horror classic Alien. Taking a welcome respite from grimly serious (and occasionally racially suspect) historical epics, Scott returns to what brung him to the show, attempting to turn back his own aesthetic clock as well as that of a film series and expanded universe increasingly given to B-level space marines vs. frightening alien monsters generic shlock. The message and tone of Prometheus is evident from its Greek mythological title and encapsulated in the above-described initial sequence before being drawn out in a narrative sometimes surprising and memorable but just as often conventional and cliched: tread lightly when creating life, because death is usually quick to follow.

Ridley Scott is never not interested in the Big Questions, especially when treading on sci-fi territory, and they animate his kinda-reboot of the Alien franchise as a deep-origin prequel set in the same universe. Prometheus demonstrates this most clearly, engaging in a visually and referentially dense conversation about the nature of existence with not only the Greek philosophers but also with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Isaac Asimov, Carlo Collodi, Sigmund Freud, and (not to be left out) Stephen Stills. Not to mention the original Alien, of which Prometheus is often an uncanny clone, blurring the line between thematic echoes and Hollywood focus-group generic element reproduction. Knowing nods of recognition will accompany the revelation that Damon Lindelof co-wrote the screenplay (with Jon Spaihts), as the dense layering of philosophical, mythological, scientific, and pop cultural references and bursts of pulpy incident will be richly familiar to legions of Lost fans.

The eponymous spaceship’s crew awakes gradually as they arrive at a barren, rocky world where they expect to find the answer to a common star map riddle unearthed by a hotshot archaelogist couple (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) in their digs across Earth in the late 21st Century. This riddle, Doctors Shaw and Holloway believe fervently, is nothing less than the origin of the human race in neither Darwinian nor monotheistic Genesis terms, but as a star seed of an advanced form of extraterrestrial life. Their work is apparently persuasive enough to convince a wealthy, very elderly CEO (Guy Pearce, unrecognizable in age makeup) to fund a mission to the world that they believe holds the key to this most confounding of locks.

The cryosleep of the Prometheus‘s crew is suspended by the ship’s android, David (Michael Fassbender). He’s had lots of free time in between monitoring their vital signs and the ship’s systems on their multi-year space journey, and has apparently spent most of it watching Lawrence of Arabia over and over (the benchmark to which Historical Epic Ridley Scott seems to forever be reaching for and therefore not a surprising name-check). He patterns his appearance and speech patterns on Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence just as those who conceived of and executed the mission he is a part of patterned that mission on an interstellar strain of Lawrence’s arrogant imperialistic meddling (Fassbender is spectacular here; there are bigger movie stars, but this man is slowly laying claim to the title of the world’s finest actor).

The ship lands on the planet, investigations begin into the monolithic structures on its surface, and motives begin to clash. Set against the scientific/spiritual idealism of Shaw and Holloway is the corporate boardroom refinement and precision of mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), as well as the proletarian pragmatism of the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba). David, though apparently as incapable of motivation as he is incapable of emotion, seems to be working at cross-purposes to everyone, perhaps on secret orders from the absent CEO back home, though it would be telling too much to go into that much further.

Like Alien, this intellectually resonant framing is all too soon overcome by sequences of intense corporeal horror as the Prometheus team discovers that the starseeding Engineers who built those galactic superstructures met their end at the hands (or claws and fangs) of some familiar-looking creepy-crawlies of their own creation. The first attack by a milk-white eel-worm larvae in a dark cavern is troubling even if it is predictably staged by Scott. It is fully eclipsed, however, by a tantrically extended and exquisitely squeamish sequence of Dr. Shaw surgically removing a squidish embryo surreptitiously implanted inside her. Rapace’s Shaw is Prometheus‘ self-evident Ripley figure (she’s even got a contemporary take on Sigourney Weaver’s perm-mop hair), and this scene is the pinnacle of her hardy semi-feminist survivalism; she even must work around patriarchal assumptions to achieve her life-saving abortion, as the automated surgery pod can only perform male-centric procedures (the right to choose, indeed).

Also like Alien, the visual design of the film is almost more to the point than its entertainment or metaphorical features. It was interesting to watch it so soon after Jodorowsky’s Dune and see some of the late H.R. Giger’s unused designs for that film employed onscreen at last, as well as ship and technological designs indebted to that project’s other creative minds. As in Alien, the design reaches out from the backgrounds like a searching tentacle, grabbing hold of Prometheus‘ grand philosophical implications and injecting them with parasitic suggestions of organic/technological hybrids and disturbing, monstrous, intensely sexual incubii. There are some stabs at awe as well, as when David stands in the midst of a holographic star map and Marc Streitenfeld’s score reaches its apex of stellar wonder.

Prometheus skews too much to action blockbuster convention for its own good, however. There are not one but two scenes of characters outrunning gargantuan threats that they would probably not stand a real chance of outrunning. The grander message, too, is more alarmist than visionary. It skeptically equates scientific exploration and inquiry into human life’s origins with the titular Titan’s gods-defying gift of primitive technology to primitive beings, Greek mythology’s take on the Judeo-Christian myth of the embrace of knowledge, loss of innocence and fall to sin. The examined life seems like a fine thing, but that process of examination can unearth some very disturbing things. After all, Socrates never had to face down a ravenous tentacled arthropod, so who is he to tell us what is and isn’t worthwhile? Prometheus says the lion’s share of what it has say in its opening minutes: our insatiable desire and curiosity for self-awareness is an existential threat. Finding out what we’re made of can take us to pieces. Magnificent as the film can often be, the rest is just so much elaboration and frothy filler.

Categories: Film, Reviews

A Sojourn in the Pacific: Thoughts on Hawaii

February 2, 2015 3 comments

Roughly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago whose warm weather, languid coastline sunsets, and edenic profusion of tropical flora is generally accepted in popular aesthetics as the nearest natural approximation of the Judeo-Christian vision of paradise. This is certainly the ironclad image of Hawaii peddled by tourism boards, hotel operators, tour guides, and real estate developers, that of a mild, comfortable, frequently pretty vacation destination. A holiday-perfect place in the sun, conveniently available to the world but especially to Americans as one of the 50 states, with a history both patriotic and romantic.

This manicured picture of Hawaii is not exactly untrue, as far as it goes. Its excellent climate, idyllic natural beauty, and cultural patrimony are unquestionable. A visitor gets this impression especially strongly on Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Having risen from the ocean floor on mounds of hardened, nutrient-rich lava bursting through a moving hot spot in the earth’s crust, Kauai is about 6 million years old, and thus has had more time to grow into a richly-adorned living botanical garden than many of its fellow islands in the chain (though it has some human-arranged versions of those gardens IMG_3770as well, most notably the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Gardens near the old plantation town of Koloa).

With no more active volcanoes to increase its size, Kauai is eroding gradually into the ocean; the effects of this epic erosive process are most visible on the dramatic Na Pali Coast on the island’s north shore, its near-vertical verdant cliffs and ridges snaking towards the reductive ocean like inverted fingernail scratches. It’s gorgeous but also imposing, aesthetically potent but also pregnant with the awesome danger inherent in the natural world. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg shot most of the locations for Jurassic Park there.

If this spectre of the mortal peril underlying geologically-scaled natural forces pokes through the green curtain of beauty on Kauai intermittently, it is wholly inescapable on the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state or archipelago that shares its name. The youngest and largest of the islands, the Big Island is also the only volcanically active land mass above sea level in the archipelago, having been formed relatively quickly in geological terms (over a mere half-million years). Its sense of grand, catastrophic geological drama is unmatched in the Pacific and perhaps the world. From its coast, alternately sun-baked and rain-soaked, encompassing gentle beaches (of white, black, and even green sand) and treacherous rocky outcrops, it is possible to progress above 13,000 feet to the peak of its twin sleeping mountains, Mauna Kea IMG_3975and Mauna Loa, in the space of a couple of hours (although, with altitude sickness in mind, it wouldn’t be advisable to cover that vertical space too quickly).

The intense threat of this place often overwhelms its scenic wonders. From the thunderous waves with deadly undertow potential to the frigid mountain summits to the rivers of fire spilling from the three-decade eruption of Kilauea, the Big Island can lull with its stark magic but promises the potential of death behind every winking sunset as well. The islands’ first and most celebrated pasty-white foreign tourist encountered this fatal potential firsthand: British navigator Captain James Cook met a bloody end in the island’s picturesque Kealakekua Bay, his skull stove in by Native Hawaiians in the shallows of what is now one of the world’s finest and most tranquil snorkeling reefs.

True believers in Hawaii’s paradisical serenity may balk at such gauche reminders of a less idyllic past, but bare history rarely sugarcoats. My views of the last two centuries of Hawaiian history were largely formed by Sarah Vowell’s informative and wonderfully readable Unfamiliar Fishes, which I devoured on the long travel day to the islands from the Eastern Seaboard. Mixing travel literature with history, Vowell interweaves her own idiosyncratic treks through the islands to historical sites and museums with an account of the period from Cook’s stopover in 1779 to the archipelago’s annexation to the United States a little over a century later.

What Unfamiliar Fishes makes clear is that Cook’s arrival set in motion both local indigenous changes and larger imperial forces that moved astonishingly quickly to enfold Hawaii into the rapidly-developing modern world and, consequently, into the American Republic. New England Evangelical missionaries followed Cook’s lead in 1820, with Jesus Christ quickly filling the void left by a traditional set of religious practices and social customs that distintegrated swiftly under the stress of the examples of off-island society and destructive irruptions of off-island disease. Kamehameha vowell_unfamiliar_fishes_bookthe Great, a ruthless but astute warrior chief who united the islands under his dynastic authority (a unity achieved through mass slaughter of resistant forces, which sets the streets, parks, and malls named after him across the archipelago in quite a different light), also left a kingdom and a culture susceptible to foreign influence and eventually takeover. A coup masterminded by the missionaries’ sons (also wealthy landowners in the rapidly-developed plantation system that dominated the Hawaiian economy for 3/4s of a century until tourism displaced it) in 1893 removed Kamehameha’s descendant Queen Lili’uokalani, paving the way for a cynically imperial annexation by the U.S. upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Vowell, an outspoken liberal and NPR regular, sees plentiful parallels between the then-contemporary Iraq War’s imperial grasping under Republican President George W. Bush and the Spanish-American War’s imperial grasping under Republican President William McKinley. But she also pulls out illustrative incidents from Hawaiian history that further reflect American social, political and cultural traits and tendencies. American control over Hawaii was and still is justified in terms of the inevitability of westward expansion, manifest destiny stretching into the Pacific. But in this most beautiful of states, Vowell is able to find much that was ugly about how Hawaii became a state in the first place.

Early in Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell recounts visiting one of Hawaii’s iconic banyan trees in a town square. These impressive trees, with their insatiable, rhizomatic root structures, do not resemble single-trunk growths so much as multitudinous wooden vines. They are more like contiguous forests than single trees, and make a strong impression on so many visitors to Hawaii (I first visited the islands when I was 2 years old, and “banyan tree” was one of my first spoken words) that one might believe that they had been growing there for centuries.

But banyans are not native to Hawaii; like so many of the islands’s flora and fauna species, they are invasive, brought from India. Furthermore, their exponential expansion is nearly unstoppable; Vowell’s local guide tells her that gardeners are kept quite busy trimming the snaking roots and branches to keep the town’s tree from toppling most of its buildings. Vowell intelligently presents this image as a metaphor for her own view of Hawaiian history (and, I must admit, now mine as well), but without specific definition. We are left to read it as reflecting the pervasive and ineradicable foreign influence that has made Hawaiian into the diverse culture it is today, as well as the damaging cultural reality of that influence. But as presented, it is also an image of natural forces threatening the structural integrity of civilization. This last impression is inescapable in this mid-ocean land forged by water and fire.