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Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

July 29, 2015 1 comment

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

In the first half of the concluding chapter of The Hunger Games cinematic quadrilogy, the core characters’ struggles take the form of open political machinations. Previously, the divisions and grievances simmering beneath the surface of the society of the fantasy world of Panem cropped up in the context of the titular deadly game of mass-televised attrition contested by minors from across the twelve Districts. Now, after the arena-smashing ending of the last Games in the previous installment, Catching Fire, a long-hidden but secretly active faction of rebels is in open revolt against the brutal authoritarian regime of the Capitol.

The focal point of this revolution is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), first a Games co-winner and then the young Artemis whose electric arrow tore a hole in the fabricated heavens and let a new light of potential liberty pouring in. Spirited away to the massive underground bunker city of District 13, Katniss meets Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President of this isolated breakaway people’s republic. Coin and former Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have grand plans for a guerilla propaganda campaign to accompany the continuing armed resistance to the iron-fisted government of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), with Katniss at the centre of it as their authority-defying “Mockingjay”.

Though she cannot deny that she is a potent figure of resistance for the masses and a target for Snow’s crackdowns, Katniss as usual is much less invested in the wider struggle than in protecting those that she cares about: her mother (Paul Malcolmson) and sister (Willow Shields), her platonic dudefriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and her fellow Games Victors, especially Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). It is her deeply-felt empathy for those around her, extended by natural sympathy to all those struggling under the yoke of oppression, that makes Katniss such a potent symbol. For Katniss Everdeen, all politics are personal, and it is not surprising that the concessions she demands of Coin and Heavensbee in return for her cooperation as a propaganda star for their cause relate to the safeguarding of her personal emotional connections.

One of those connections, to the absent Peeta, has become ever stronger in separation. Peeta is being held in the Capitol, apparently against his will, and she demands that the authorities of District 13 launch a rescue mission to bring him and other Victors who survived the Quarter Quell to safety. Peeta’s value as a target is questionable, however, as he is participating in a series of broadcasted interviews with a sober-toned Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the usually flamboyant Games host and carnivalesque spokesman for the surface platitudes that uphold the oppressive regime. Peeta doesn’t precisely trumpet the Capitol’s talking points, but does criticize the violence unleashed by the rebellion and Katniss’ role in fomenting it. This makes him a divisive figure in the eye of the rebels, a traitor to their cause, though Katniss never doubts that coercion lies behind his every word.

Mockingjay – Part 1 is a more limited film in terms of action-infused incident than its predecessors. Director Francis Lawrence, who also helmed Catching Fire, stages sequences of loggers booby-trapping a platoon of Peacekeepers and a strike team storming and blowing up a hydroelectric dam to cut power to the Capitol to give a sense of the guerilla war raging across Panem and its connections to the Mockingjay “propos” sent out from District 13. Katniss ventures near the front lines to visit a hospital for the wounded and awesomely shoot down a government bomber with an explosive-tipped arrow, too (filmed for propaganda purposes, natch). But otherwise this is a film about a movement under siege, claustrophobic and bunker-bound. Even a massive aerial bombardment effort on District 13 by Capitol forces is less about inflicting losses than sending a laser-guided message to challenge and demoralize Katniss in particular, and is thus viewed entirely from the perspective of the subterranean dwellers enduring it.

Make no mistake, Mockingjay – Part 1 is all about Katniss Everdeen and the forces tugging at her, compelling her to give herself up to their power. The pull of Gale and Peeta, her potential male romantic partners, is mirrored by the powerful orbits of the District 13 and Capitol leaderships. Gale is a brave and capable freedom fighter for the resistance who has been loyal to Katniss for years, while Peeta is a (possibly brainwashed) tool of the enemy’s fascist propaganda who has, nonetheless, shared the singular experience of the Hunger Games with her (twice); President Snow is devious and merciless beneath his suave and eloquent facade and crushes the hopes of the masses yearning to breathe free, but President Coin and her followers constitute a faceless, jumpsuited, collectivized multitude whose invocations of democracy ring worrisomely hollow in the face of their grim-visaged conformity (Andrew O’Hehir of Salon characterized the arrayed opposing forces of this civil strife quite cannily as the Roman Empire vs. the Khmer Rouge). Choosing either Gale or Peeta involves fundamental compromises of Katniss’ identity, and both District 13 and the Capitol will kill thousands or more in the name of their causes and shamelessly manipulate popular opinions about these war crimes with a barrage of propaganda.

The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins posits that there are no good choices, only less worse ones. Coin’s Maoist bunker culture says the right things about liberty from oppression and slaughters only the Capitol’s jackbooted stormtroopers in pursuit of this goal, while Snow’s regime commits heinous massacres and atrocities to sustain their authority and economic system of trickle-up exploitation. There’s little question about which side is less worse, but there is question, and that is important.

Despite this, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels less vital and politically resonant than the films it serves as a sequel for, despite being more overtly about political themes. The vanishing of the Hunger Games themselves from the text can account for some of this; their resonant self-contained and disseminated messages about the nature and cost of power have no real equal in the realpolitik workings of this narrative. One of the subtle matters of concern about Coin’s rebels, mind you, is their apparent ambivalence towards the Games. This supreme symbol of the Capitol’s control over the outlying Districts and their downtrodden peoples is not one that the egalitarian revolution feels confident in challenging. Indeed, they are glad to attempt to turn the Victors, Katniss included but not at the exclusion of all others, into PR weapons to turn public opinion in their favour. It’s a clear tell that Coin’s promised utopia may not be so different from Snow’s established autocracy, after all.

But this text’s vitality is drained more thoroughly by the unerring focus on Katniss’ central dilemma, on the false dichotomy of strength vs. vulnerability. On one hand, she heeds the appeals of those who desperately need her (Peeta, the rebels); on the other, she is attracted to the poles whose certainty and self-command complement her own (Gale, Snow and his Capitol order). Katniss’ dilemma also represents the false dichotomy of modern femininity. Her tendency towards independence and self-reliance is constructed as being at odds with nurturing maternal instincts, be they expressed towards a victimized baker’s boy or a victimized multitude of Panem citizens. Katniss Everdeen has thus far followed a third way, though she has shifted from one pole to the other at various times, sometimes drastically. Mockingjay – Part 1 suggests strongly that whatever her preference concerning these opposing options, her world is set on making her choose between them in the end, and that the fate of her world may depend on the choice. Part 2 will tell what this choice is, and what it will cost the Mockingjay to make it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Whiplash

July 26, 2015 2 comments

Whiplash (2014; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) sits at his drum skit in a practice room at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. A first-year jazz drummer at the (fictional) best music school in the United States, Andrew is solitary, friendless, and driven to succeed by overwhelming effort and dedication to his chosen craft. His solitude is marked visually by his fellow freshman, director Damien Chazelle: he strikes the skins and strokes the cymbals inside the frame of an open door Whiplash+drummeras the camera creeps towards him along a moodily-lit corridor. But the camera is not an omniscient observer, nor is it the voyeuristic audience. It is revealed to be Shaffer instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), stalking unannounced into the rehearsal room to assess Andrew’s potential.

There’s a horror-suspense element to this initial scene of Chazelle’s electric Whiplash that he will often return to in colouring the tone of his film. Simmons as Fletcher is indeed like a villain out of a slasher flick transplanted onto the body of an eminent Manhattan music academy conductor. He wields his powerful personality like a machete and hurls the abusive verbal volleys of an army drill sergeant at his band if they dare to waver in their performances. Working his expressive brow below a cruelly bald skull, his head is a furrowed, rocky field in which nothing will grow. The skin of Simmons’ neck and bulky arms stretches into black turtlenecks like that of a snake about to shed, and Fletcher is a kind of jazz cobra, slinking elegantly to a beat all his own before rearing back for the deadly strike.

Fletcher is already striking in his first meeting with Andrew, and doesn’t let up even as he recognizes the young drummer’s talent and invites him into his prestigious and highly competitive studio band. He asks the young man about his family (disappointing high-school teacher father, abandoned by his mother) and chats jazz influences with him (the famous, tumultuous drummer Buddy Rich is a major touchstone), then gives him some initial praise in the rehearsal space. But it’s all a psychological trap, the nectar to draw the naive Andrew into the man-eating jaws of his searing anger. Fletcher unloads on Andrew when his timekeeping does not conform to a standard so minutely exacting as to be possibly arbitrary, screaming, insulting, throwing a chair at, and even slapping his new drummer until the boy is reduced to tears.

Andrew is not broken by the fiery crucible of this intense tutelage, which Fletcher believes, with the zealous certainty of the niche culture fanatic, to be absolutely necessary to maximizing talent and potential in jazz. Instead, the capable but soft Andrew is reforged into a harder iron instrument; Neiman is a new man, and Teller ably embodies both ends of this spectrum. He shrugs aside the laddish bonding with his father (Paul Reiser), clashes with his football-star family rivals at a holiday dinner about the nature and cost of success, and breaks it off with his pretty but modest and unambitious girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), telling her with cold, prickish rationality that she will hold him back and they will resent each other bitterly for staying together.

The lengths to which he will go to excel under Fletcher’s eye become ever more extreme and more physically and psychologically taxing. His overworked hands become bloodied with regularity, the plasma dripping from his sticks, splattering his skins, and beading alongside the condensation on his cymbals. Chazelle visualizes Andrew’s blood-oath with Fletcher’s absolutist philosophy of excellence with a striking shot of the drummer’s hand plunging into an ice-water pitcher in slow motion. The transparency of the liquid element is gradually overcome by bloody crimson, just as Andrew’s more clear and casual personality is conquered by his bloody-minded pursuit of Fletcher’s approval.

Whiplash is reminiscent in many ways of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, another artistically uncompromising film about a young, cloistered performer in New York City driven by an emotionally unhealthy mentorship with a highly demanding teacher to greater aesthetic heights than they might have thought possible or prudent, regardless of the moral consequences or psychological toil. Both films focus on the corporeal viscera that underscores erstwhile tasteful high cultural forms and present climactic performance triumphs as carrying more ambivalent personal costs (or worse). But Black Swan‘s nightmarish, destabilizing fantasies (inheritances of Stanley Kubrick), which transform the simultaneous ascent and descent of Natalie Portman’s ballerina into a more baroque metaphor for the intersection of genius and madness, could not be supported in Whiplash. Chazelle’s film has Fletcher’s intensity and unwavering obstinance, and doesn’t require flights of fantasy; its version of reality is nightmarish enough.

If Whiplash is a nightmare, then it’s a darkly appealing one. The film’s spectacular closing sequence, in which Andrew takes over a Carnegie Hall performance contrived by Fletcher to humiliate him with furious, virtuoso drumming, is a bravado showcase, tense and stunning. Editor Tom Cross’ quick, off-beat rhythmic cutting of the band’s performance sequences in general is an intentional alignment with the syncopated pulse of jazz that is self-evident but not unsuccessful. Indeed, especially in the finale, it lends an urgency and excitement to the scenes of performance that this particular jazz non-believer did not consider possible in this particular musical genre.

But in the Carnegie performance in particular, Chazelle never lets the dazzling nature of the filmmaking bury the philosophical ambivalence of Andrew’s metamorphosis into an embryonic jazz great (even if the jazz in the film is, according to the New Yorker, not so great and underscored by a non-jazz-like solitary competitive aggression). If Whiplash is more of a horror movie than a music movie, then Andrew Neiman can only defeat the monster that is Terence Fletcher by becoming a greater monster himself. And since this was Fletcher’s mission all along, it is no victory at all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Donald Trump, Piers Morgan, Taylor Swift, and the Privilege Check

July 22, 2015 1 comment

Check your privilege.

Many of us have heard or at least read this phrase, and have maybe even uttered it at one point or other. Contaminated with toxicologically-measurable levels of smug liberal righteousness, it’s a buzzy phrase that means well but rarely accomplishes anything productive in its usage. It refers to the concept of privilege, a generally understood but sometimes fuzzily-defined term that points a finger at wealth and inborn socioeconomic advantage as an incubator of discriminatory and/or reactionary views and opinions about certain issues. A blunt directive to “check” that privilege, to put aside the web of social and cultural assumptions that set their holder above others that are less fortunate, is supposed to be an encouragement to seek out a fairer perspective.

But does the interlocutor insisting on this check of privilege feel equally capable of separating their own particular viewpoint from the tangle of cultural influences and psychological catalysts that has formed it? Doubtless, they would not consider it necessary to do so, if the privilege of others who disagree is what requires the vital check. It ought to be appreciated even by its most strident critics that privilege, pernicious and lamentable though it may be, is as inextricably a part of the identity of those formed by it than the lack of that privilege is part of the identity of others. How readily and willingly would anyone be to shift such an identity? How effective is a rhetorical tool of persuasion that basically boils down to telling someone, “Stop being who you are”, and how might these same critics bristle if such a privileged figure punched down with a similar phrase to a figure outside of the circle of the elite?

The intractable nature of the idealized privilege check is visible all over American culture at this very moment. The current frontrunner in the polls for the Republican Presidential nomination in the 2016 election is Donald Trump, a trumpblowhard capitalist sock puppet who gleefully riles up the mostly white, male, lower-income, lower-education rump base of the GOP, a conservative political party sunk in hate, ignorance, and superstition and detached from great swaths of the complex, contradictory American social experiment. He’s violating basic campaign decorum on a daily basis, when he isn’t labelling entire internal minorities as rapists and criminals. We’re assured that he can’t win the nomination, let alone the Oval Office, but he’s ridden his unapologetic, belligerent privilege this far. How much farther can he go, and who is going to make him check that privilege?

Nor can the under-appreciated privilege of the world’s favourite pop star, Taylor Swift, be effectively checked. After Caribbean-American musical artist (and noted enthusiast of sexualized glutes) Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to complain of whitewashing in the MTV Video Music Awards nominees (or at least the exclusion of the specific brand of image-making that she herself represents), Swift felt singled out by the criticism (for some reason) and said as much. Swift pivoted the perceived offender pinpointed by Minaj from institutional and cultural racial prejudice to a gender issue, playing the wounded feminist. Swift’s country music apprenticeship and ingenue anthems of high school crushes have served to scale down her socioeconomic associations, but she is, in point of fact, the spawn of the 1%, the offspring of the wealthy American elite. Her assumptions are quite apart from those of Minaj, Trinidad-born, Queens-raised, and from fractured family circumstances, to say nothing of their divergent stances in terms of the country’s structures of cultural prejudice.

As if the lines were not drawn clearly enough, English broadcaster and puff-headed parrot of the trans-Atlantic plutocratic order Piers Morgan authored a punchy, sniffy editorial in the Tory document of record the Daily Mail castigating Minaj for her “discourtesy”. From the privileged outlook represented by Morgan, this act alone is worse than most property crimes. But both Morgan – who looks askance at such a tiff in the miasmatic swamp of lowly pop music and wouldn’t consider that it means anything – and Swift – shielded from racial prejudice and more concerned with the personal affront of sexism – are enmeshed in uncheckable privilege. Their perspectives, like Minaj’s, are formed and continually informed by their circumstances.

One of the oddest features of the so-called “classless” society of America (which is increasingly stratified in the most extreme economic terms) is the pervasive, unquestioned certainty of the superior claims to authenticity of those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Being poor is persistently characterized in media and entertainment and cultural texts and discourses of all types as being more “real” than being rich, even while many of those texts and discourses are predicated on the overwhelming desire of millions of poor people to become rich. By what measure of identity construction does relative poverty equate to greater authenticity (itself a notorious construct) than relative wealth? Socioeconomic origins are key factors in identity formation and worldview construction, but inscribe no particular moral superiority or surplus of truth in and of themselves.

A culture that romanticizes the fundamental grounded-ness of poverty, that understands it as a rich soil for philosophical robustness, works to make income divergence more acceptable. It is not checking privilege, it is aiding the privileged in achieving their goals of crafting textual symbols that normalize income divisions. Donald Trump may be a cartoon, a clown version of elite, hopelessly out-of-touch privilege, much as TLC reality show stars present as cartoons who are imbued with essential values of community and decency that the American coastal elites cannot approximate. But those images maintain the position of privilege, even as they seem to destabilize it. A “check” of privilege is impossible in such circumstances, when privilege is at once at home with itself and apart from itself.

Film Review: Hidalgo

Hidalgo (2004; Directed by Joe Johnston)

Like most Hollywood epics, particularly those “based on a true story”, Hidalgo is patently a fantasy. It begins with a bedrock of Old West myths, Native American and Arabian stereotypes, and ingrained conceptions of ruggedly individualistic American identity as opposed to the rigid hereditary class structure of the Old World. Upon this foundation, it layers horseback heroics, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, and backstabbing desert intrigue, with a lacquered coat of gorgeously-shot landscapes. Hidalgo is sweeping, confidently old-fashioned Hollywood dream-crafting, with much of the good and much of the bad that has tended to entail.

Given these forefront and background elements, it should be no surprise that Hidalgo was directed by Joe Johnston, who cut his filmmaking teeth on the effects and art direction teams of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for the inherently nostalgic Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Johnston’s own films (The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’m thinking of particularly) have often been characterized by a similar obsession with the past, with a perspective that seeks to slice through the tangled Gordian knots of American history with broad strokes of cinematic mythmaking. Hidalgo fits this model nicely, especially as its purportedly “true” story is itself almost certainly a self-aggrandizing myth invented by its protagonist.

That protagonist is Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a legendary distance racer and Western dispatch rider whose claim to have participated in a 3,000-mile ceremonial ride in the Arabian peninsula provides the fodder for Hidalgo‘s widescreen fantasy of a prestigious desert race called the Ocean of Fire, contended by owners and riders of the finest-bred Arabian horses in the Middle East for a lucrative reward. Although it is referred to as having a thousand-year history, no such race ever existed in Arabia or anywhere else. Due to be lack of hard proof, this ride halfway across the world is commonly assumed to be one of Hopkins’ fabulous fabrications from his autobiographical memoir. These fabrications include a win record of 400 long-distance riding races, a role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (his name does not appear in the Show’s archives, though he was a stunt rider for the Ringling Brother Circus), and Lakota ancestry. He even claimed to have been born in 1865, allowing for his frontier exploits in the prime years of the Old West, rather than 1893, as his Pennsylvania birth records would have it.

So Frank Hopkins invented a series of impossible exploits, and Johnston, screenwriter John Fusco, and producing studio Disney elect to take him at face value. Or they do so just enough to drop $40 million on a perfectly enjoyable (if occasionally clunky and deluded) popcorn flick, anyway. If that commitment in addition to a “Based on a True Story” onscreen title in the opening moments might potentially offend some observers, you’ll have to look elsewhere for moral castigation.

Hidalgo takes Hopkins’ claim of being half-Lakota seriously, which could be a problem if it didn’t take it so seriously. Mortensen’s Hopkins speaks the Lakota language, understands and respects the Lakota culture, sympathizes deeply with the plight of the Lakota people, and even has a fleeting spiritual vision at a key juncture of the Ocean of Fire race. Fusco even places Hopkins at Wounded Knee before and after the 1890 massacre: he delivers the fateful orders to the officer monitoring the Lakota Sioux encampment, and is afterwards haunted by the slaughter. While performing in Buffalo Bill’s touring show, Hopkins dreams of Bill (J.K. Simmons) in the stands, shooting down Lakota below, a resonant metaphor of how the Old West mythos has contributed to a history of aboriginal displacement and even genocide. Hopkins’ claimed Lakota heritage is almost certainly an appropriation, but that appropriation is directed towards prefacing an epic blockbuster film with a deeply respectful sketch of the central tragedy of the Lakota people at its outset.

Leaving both that respect and Hidalgo‘s classic Western pastiche behind, the story soon moves to the Arabian desert for some Raiders of the Lost Ark derring-do and Lawrence of Arabia dunescapes. Hopkins and the titular mustang paint are lured from desultory faded fame in Buffalo Bill’s cavalcade to race through unfamiliar territory halfway around the world. The snobbish sheikhs and princes, stewards and riders of Arabian thoroughbreds with family trees of prestige second only to royal houses and prophets of Allah, look askance at this dusty mongrel rider and half-tamed mongrel horse. Were it not for the secret Wild West enthusiasm of the race’s overseer Sheikh Riyadh (the recently-passed Omar Sharif, cinching the Lawrence of Arabia callback), this infidel and his beast would likely not be allowed to race alongside such glorious horseflesh in the first place.

Johnston and Fusco wield all of these deep-seated class politics in the service of rooting interests alone; go elsewhere for social commentary of any stripe. Hopkins and Hidalgo satisfyingly chase down and beat a smug gentleman rider in an early sequence, and Hopkins even socks him in the kisser in a tavern afterwards, when the prig has the audacity to badmouth the bloodlines of the painted steed. There’s little doubt that this man-horse team will exact a similar comeuppance on these uppity blood-purity-obsessed desert aristocrats by the time this grueling race is over.

Hidalgo is not a mere racist colonial narrative of white hero vs. native villains: Riyadh is cultured, fair, and relatively open-minded, and his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) strains against the Islamic yoke that her culture reserves for women. But there are some treacherous sand snakes at work too, including a traitorous advisor, a nephew with designs on Riyadh’s wealth and position, and a refined English lady who owns a top contending horse. Again, there is so little subtext to any of these characterizations that political implications (productive or offending) arrive stillborn, although the whiff of orientalism is in the air and the hostile takeover of the fine Arabian bloodlines schemed up by Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) carries suggestions of the damaging inheritance of European imperialist meddling in the region.

More than anything, though, it is Hidalgo‘s star who stubbornly drags it towards a certain measure of respectability and transcendence of its core of melodramatic populism. Viggo Mortensen has just enough Method in him as an actor that he can’t help but approach any role, even one this silly and romanticized, with a dedicated seriousness of purpose. His Frank Hopkins is a plain-spoken, unreflective frontier rogue on the surface and maybe even several feet down, and Mortensen’s hoarse, grim whispered delivery and steely gaze imparts the proper casualness and even a hint of subversive wit. But Mortensen leans into the Lakota cultural elements as well as into the relationship with his remarkable horse until his performance seems almost to mean something.

Hidalgo is a fantastical retelling of a genuine tall tale, a myth of a myth, but it’s also a singular milestone in an interesting screen acting career. After gripping the screen as reluctant monarch-to-be and incomparable fighter Aragorn over the three-film length of The Lord of the Rings, Hollywood wanted to find out just what it had in this thoughtful but arresting multi-lingual Danish-American actor with oodles of leading man potential. Hidalgo with Mortensen as lead feels like an idea hatched after a viewing of the sequence in The Two Towers during which a half-alive Aragorn is rescued from a riverside by his loyal steed. Mortensen even seems faintly embarrassed by his abortive romantic flirtations with Jazira and Lady Davenport, much as he was mostly retiring and ashamed of the attentions of Liv Tyler’s ethereal Arwen. In the latter case, it was because his character felt himself unworthy of the Elf-maiden until he fulfilled his destiny and earned Gondor’s throne, but in Hidalgo, he’d simply rather be with his horse.

This portrait of human-equine symbiosis is Mortensen’s truest accomplishment in Hidalgo. Despite his aesthetic success as star and the film’s modestly profitable commercial returns, Mortensen as an old-fashioned movie star with a contemporary bohemian edge never quite took hold. Given a freedom of choice of projects by his convincing Gondorian kingship, Mortensen tended towards independent and international work, most notably becoming David Cronenberg’s key collaborator on a trio of acclaimed films (A History of ViolenceEastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method) and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in the process. Viggo Mortensen didn’t follow the Hidalgo epic screen hero career path not because he couldn’t hack it, but because he decided not to, because other paths appear to have interested him more. To this, we say: Let her buck.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Foxcatcher is a film about how family connections breed simmering personality pathologies like multiplying bacteria on a festering wound. It’s concerned with the masculine American id, ever defined as hegemonic and ever catered to, and its chronic inadequacy in furnishing the psycho-social fuel required to run the perpetual motor of self-regard for such demanding male egos. Its central triad of men choose to express their ambitions, to project their emotional longing, in a highly physical manner, and yet their emotions are fraught and dangerous mysteries, to others as well as to themselves. Tragedy seems to always be inevitable for such figures. Bennett Miller’s patient, subtle film renders this tragedy as simultaneously grand and metaphorical, intimate and microcosmic, impulsive and coldly calculated.

Foxcatcher relates a dramatized take on the true story of Team Foxcatcher, a prominent competitive wrestling training circle funded and hosted on his family estate by multimillionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). du Pont recruits the Schultz brothers, younger Mark (Channing Tatum) and elder Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic gold medalists, to coach and compete under the team’s wrestling banner. Relations eventually sour, Mark leaves the fold, and the moody du Pont shoots and kills Dave without apparent reason (beyond that of unspecified mental illness). This much is public record, though maybe also a spoiler to the unfamiliar.

No matter. Knowing what will happen in Foxcatcher does not make the road to the closing horror any less rewarding. The film moves gradually, deliberately, with purpose. Much like, I suppose, a wrestler on the mat, circling his opponent, feeling for weaknesses and asserting strengths. The Schultz brothers, as the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman presents them, display a classic (one might even say clichéd) sibling relationship. The elder Dave, married with children, overshadows the inscrutable loner Mark, at least in the latter’s mind. It’s not totally in Mark’s head, though; the $20 fee he receives for speaking to a grade school assembly about his Olympic gold is originally written out to Dave and he has to correct it to collect it.

There’s a real affection between the brothers, though, even if the lonely Mark needs Dave more than the more socially integrated Dave needs Mark. Their relationship is one of physical definition, as one eloquent sequence of on-mat sparring expresses. Tatum and Ruffalo manifest a primal closeness, grabbing, pushing, and touching like bears or great apes or another non-linguistic animal engaging in healthy socialization. Dave manifests a similar physical closeness with his children, but Mark has trouble opening up about his emotions to his brother in a verbal manner, however. Channing Tatum’s general weakness as a performer, the slack-jawed dimbulb pose that is the default setting of his expressive features, is applied here to suggest a depth of repressed desires. Tatum’s Mark Schultz is a metaphor for Tatum himself: he’s trapped in his impressive, athletic body, and only distantly grasps how to extend his identity beyond this corporeal reality.

When a lucrative offer comes in from du Pont to relocate to the wealthy family’s compound in Pennsylvania, Mark jumps at the opportunity even if it is calculated to attract the real prize (Dave) along as well. Reluctant to uproot his family, Dave stays away, allowing Mark and John du Point to bond in his absence, forming a tentative and weird father-son proxy relationship that the orphaned Mark (raised mostly by his older brother, adding a further dimension to their relations) and the childless du Pont both try a bit too hard to press into service.

To these unsettled sibling and substitute-parent connections is added a forbidding, highly disapproving mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave). An old-money aristocrat with an equestrian bent, Jean sniffs dismissively that her sound-alike-named son John’s enthusiasm for “a low sport” such as wrestling is reflective of a defect of character. Her expressions of disapproval wound du Pont, and he lashes out in transference, usually at Mark; one such outburst cripples their friendship not so much from the abuse and humiliation the millionaire inflicts on the wrestler, but from his recourse to redoubling his offer to bring Dave into Team Foxcatcher, a hurtful rebuke of Mark’s wrestling prowess that serves to inflame his underlying psychological and self-esteem issues.

If the Schultzes’ deepest wants are only made manifest in a tactile manner on the wrestling mat, then John du Pont’s identity is tied up in symbols, filtered and mediated by his inheritance of wealth and privilege. On Mark’s first visit to Foxcatcher Farm, he is brought there in a helicopter and passes over Valley Forge, where George Washington and the Continental Army steeled themselves in frozen patience for the coming struggle for independence in 1777-78. Mark waits to meet du Pont in the Colonial Revival finery of the estate’s sitting room, but is ushered instead to a basement trophy room, a subterranean man-cave for du Pont nonetheless dominated by the trophies of his mother’s champion horses.

John du Pont tells Mark that his friends call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle”, although his later admission to having no friends (beyond a chauffeur’s son that his mother paid to befriend him in childhood) indicates that he only wishes that they would. He’s a birdwatcher (actually an accomplished ornithologist) and encourages the hobby in Mark (it does not seem to stick). In many key scenes, Miller intercuts shots of taxidermied birds around the family premises, including a prominent, rampant eagle looming behind du Pont as he films one of his self-aggrandizing documentaries to propagandize his Team Foxcatcher project (the name itself has a historical continuity with the fox hunt, that traditional aristocratic blood sport which is visually detailed in the opening credits). Miller seems to be following Alfred Hitchcock deliberately in associating these stuffed birds with an overbearing maternal presence, as was famously done in Psycho.

The du Pont fortune was founded on gunpowder manufacture, and John du Pont’s business in the film, despite the diversification of the family corporation, is stubbornly connected to arms dealing. He inspects tanks and a machine gun, has military brass coming in and out of his office as Mark waits to speak with him about wrestling. It could be extrapolated that the tactile conflict of wrestling (which du Pont himself begins to “compete” in) is a transference of the man’s repressed guilt at contributing as a supplier to a mechanized, dehumanized strain of imperialist warfare. If so, this is a secondary weight to du Pont’s overwhelming desire for praise and acceptance from the world, especially to compensate for the lack of such treatment from his battle-axe of a mother. This is glimpsed in his propaganda films, his awkward but chummy interactions with Mark, Dave, and the other wrestlers on the team, and most memorably as he and Mark snort cocaine while choppering to a gala dinner in his honour, reciting the various descriptions of his prominence and range of interests like an absurd mantra. But it’s also bubbling beneath the surface of Carell’s contained, oddly tempered performance, visible like the first hints of boiling water.

Late in the film, du Pont’s inherent need to self-mythologize precipitates the closing tragic crisis. Though there is no direct, connective narrative thread between the scenes, Dave’s persistent inability to articulate the nature of du Pont’s role in his life in the required inspirational bromides for one of the documentary films and du Pont’s internalized frustration at failing to achieve the high goals one of those films set for him and his wrestling team appear to mingle in the millionaire’s unconscious and turn him into a murderer. Dave’s pride at his rise from a humble station to Olympic gold will not allow him to even pretend that a filthy-rich dabbler in the sport he has excelled in might be his “mentor”, and du Pont is frustrated and wounded that his tremendous advantages have not allowed him to succeed upwards as men with lesser advantages such as the Schultzes have done. Mark, the wounded figure who unwillingly brought Dave and du Pont together, has departed the scene and taken a key mediating element out of the situation. The results are tragic, but then so is the aimless, deeply unrighteous power struggle of the American male psyche that is depicted so masterfully in Foxcatcher.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Greece, the Eurozone and the Predatory Market

July 13, 2015 1 comment

The deepening fiscal crisis devouring the sovereign nation of Greece, whose collapse or withdrawal from the Eurozone currency union might threaten the financial health of other weaker EU economies as well, is an issue with a certain weight and importance. It attracts the sober attentions of many but the knowledgeable and productive observations of relatively few. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Greece’s crippling debt, crushing austerity measures, and the potential solutions to the problems available to Eurozone’s financial overseers (controlled from the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, with strong ties to the German government of Andrea Merkel). Here are some fairly direct ones to catch up the tardy, edited by Matthew Yglesias at Vox, that remain opinions even while achieving the trick of appearing as bedrock information. Not everyone’s opinion draws the same weight or is based on expertise, reasoned analysis, and evidence rather than pre-set ideology, however.

I’m not especially prepared to pretend to be one of those whose opinions displaces more discursive water than most. Economics is a complex and slippery discipline that has a habit of escaping your grasp precisely when you feel like you’ve got a firm hold of it. Part of the problem (perhaps most of it) is that even the world’s most educated, experienced, and renowned economists will harshly disagree about what any particular economic or fiscal development might indicate, and have or will be proven disastrously wrong in some element of their economic theorizing at one point or another.

Photographer: Angelos Tzortzinis/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesMore than any other branch of theoretical epistemology, economics might be most bound for inevitable failure. The financial self-interest of billions of individual agents, from workers to bosses to consumers to financiers to regulators to ministers, tends to be assumed to be essentially, almost magically, harmonized. Such is the enduring myth of the market, a self-monitoring, self-correcting corpus of mingled money and commodities and transactions (firm and potential, existing and to exist in the future) that is supposed to operate on some rational, measurable, predictable metric. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is, under this aegis, ever connected to some non-corporeal, non-denominational rational being that constitutes a substitute deity. It’s a collective hive mind of beneficent profit motive, a grinning Buddha of generous trickle-down.

Of course, this kind of market doesn’t exist and never did. The market is much more primal and Darwinian, a pre-set dichotomy of hunters and hunted wherein the hunters are equipped with heatmap radar and homing missiles and the hunted have a 50-pound backpack and a twisted ankle. In our intractable version of capitalism, profit motive cannot be constrained by moral considerations or fanciful notions of collective betterment if it will lead to ever-waxing growth, and the most successful players in the worldwide casino of finance and corporate enterprise assume the role of predator lest they be made to be prey. Little wonder that the market assumes similarly predatory tendencies when those whose transactions drive its fluctuations are out for fresh meat wherever it might be found.

A decade and a half ago, Greece was one of the freshest butcher shops in the world financial market. Money was lent to the Greek state liberally, much of it by fellow EU member nations, the largest creditor being Germany. The fundamentals of the Greek economy being what they were, it was not a sustainable investment and the bill was heavy when the world financial crisis swept through the European market and left Greece especially vulnerable. But the structurally high value of the common currency prevented the predictable (and, in the sociopathic terms of capitalism, healthy) boom and bust cycle from setting in and renewing Greece’s economic prospects with devaluation and lowered prices on goods. The Euro did not lose value in Greece or anywhere else, and the deficit grew until, catastrophically, it was larger than Greece could possibly hope to pay back.

There are (or were) ways forward that do not involve the brutal, blood-from-a-stone treatment of the Greek people and the whittling away of their welfare state and labour rights under the pernicious Orwellian concept of “austerity” (call it what it is: enforced poverty). Greece could have, and still might conceivably, leave the Euro and return to its own national currency. No one can really tell you what will happen if that happens, and those who claim to know are almost certainly salespeople for the intentions of some interested party or other (most likely the international bankers who will not relinquish a cent of their ill-gotten gains). The ECB could also forgive or at least restructure Greece’s debts, which would be the most diplomatic and liberally-minded solution, considering that even the harshest austerity measures imposed upon Greece will fail to put a serious dent in what is owed. Of course, this fairest of solutions has been completely dismissed by Greece’s cabal of creditors, lead by Germany, who have had their massive national debts forgiven three times since World War II (under distinct but not entirely non-analogous circumstances).

It might be difficult to understand the wish of the Eurozone to treat Greece’s debt crisis as a moral transgression demanding punitive action. It may well be that, as some commentators have suggested, Germany in particular but other member nations want Greece trundled out of the common market and see a golden opportunity to force that particular hand with minimized political fallout. But the entire situation becomes much clearer when considered in light of the predatory market. Imprudent loans were made years ago, but when they went bad, the lenders piled blame on the borrowers, accepting none themselves. Punishment followed suit. Despite the German position, there is ultimately no moral principle at play here: they simply don’t want to lose money, and see a chance to to continue bleeding the Hellenic Republic for something, anything, while making an example to instruct nations such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain, or even Italy that may face similar fiscal issues in the future not to step out of line. The hunter does not simply catch and release their prey in international finance: they devour it, if not in whole then in methodical pieces. And Europe does like the taste of Greek food.

Film Review: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (2014; Directed by Dan Gilroy)

When we first meet Lou Bloom, he’s already transgressing the bounds of the law, stealing scrap metal for resale and roughing up a security watchman who catches him in the act to affect his escape. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his gaunt and driven obsessive mode, Lou Bloom haunts the nocturnal streets of Los Angeles much as his homonymic counterpart in James Joyce’s Ulysses wanders Dublin’s sidewalks, but with darker, creepier, and greedier intent.

Lou is a man on the make, however he can make it. Confident and nonplussed by criticism or dismissal, he’s an internet-empowered autodidact who speaks in business-speak clichés and structures his every utterance, even his threats (which are not unplentiful), as zippy taglines from self-actualization seminars. His introduction as a brazen but resourceful thief in Nightcrawler establishes that his self-advancement will not be constrained by legal or moral imperatives, and the subsequent events of the film demonstrate that he will not be constrained by the weakness of human sympathy either.

Happening upon a fiery car crash while cruising one of the metropolis’ arterial freeways, Lou Bloom also happens upon his calling. A freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) pulls up moments after Bloom’s rubbernecking arrival in a tech-laden van to film the carnage and the dramatic rescue attempt as it happens with the intention of selling the footage to the local television news. The videographer, Joe Loder, is brusque with the curious Bloom but reveals just enough of his trade to pique his interrogator’s interest. Bloom pawns a stolen bike for just enough cash to get himself a camcorder and a police scanner. Bold and heedless of risk, he gets closer than Loder will to a bleeding carjacking victim and his graphic video is snapped up by TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Bloom’s night missions on the prowl for newsworthy human wreckage bear more and more fruit with Nina, and he’s soon able to expand, hiring a homeless young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an assistant and eventually upgrading his technical capabilities and his wheels. Stalking L.A.’s dark, coldly-lit streets in a brash red Dodge Challenger, Bloom and Rick launch into action at the first scanner sign of a LAPD code for serious collisions, fires, assaults, and even murders, hoping to beat Loder and any other competitors (even first responders) to the scene to score the best footage possible.

Bloom, whose scruples are basically non-existent, underpays Rick and bullies him authoritatively, bristles competitively at interactions with Loder, and leverages anything he can think of with Nina for better paydays, more credit and privileges with the TV station, and even more intimate favours. His amorality creeps ever more insistently into his work as well, as he intrudes on crime scenes, arranging them to improve the framing of his shots and strengthen his images of alarm. When he arrives at an active home invasion and murder scene before the police do – indeed, before the perpetrators have even fled – Bloom will carefully walk the perilous knife edge between professional triumph and heinous criminality.

Nightcrawler is writer/director Dan Gilroy’s feature debut, and it heralds a major new talent blazing a trail of artistic bravura amid a swirl of potent metaphorical and social themes. Lou Bloom’s morally compromised and victim-strewn rise in the freelance video world taps the myths of self-made American entrepreneurial spirit while engaging fully with the inherent dark and sociopathic exploitative side of that spirit that is frequently glossed over in favour of Gatsbyesque romanticism. The film also provides a firm and specific indictment of television news’ role in whipping up popular hysteria over crime. One might have thought that this hoary old canard about television news was played out, but Gilroy enervates it with pointed (if merely sketched) socioeconomic connections.

Nina emphasizes her station’s abiding interest in incidents of crime trespassing into affluent “safe” neighbourhoods, and in one riveting sequence she coaches her news anchors’ verbal commentary on a shocking video of just such a crime from Bloom, prompting their strokes of sensationalism. These kinds of stories presented in such a way attract more viewers, but also foment inaccurate and unhealthy impressions of violent urban crime on the rise and “creeping into the suburbs”, as she puts it. Inaccurate because crime rates in American cities have been falling steadily for decades, despite the excitable coverage of specific shocking crimes in the news; unhealthy because the establishment of such impressions widens income gaps, fosters ghettoization and suburban flight, and underlies the maintenance of a disproportionately severe criminal justice and incarceration system whose sheer size, minority-tilted focus, and profit-driven growth are becoming a burden ever-harder to ignore for the country as a whole.

Gilroy doesn’t gesture towards any of this in Nightcrawler, but neither does he shy away from the truth of the exploitative inhumanity of Bloom and his collaborators. But his film, so beautifully and strikingly shot, with one of the most riveting car chase sequences in recent movie history at its climax (the film glamorizes America’s car culture while also wading knee-deep through the twisted destruction that consumes so many of its citizens), is also subtly about the Big Lie of the cinema. What sets Bloom apart from Loder, who shoots a lot of the same material as he does at the same time, is not merely his willingness to push the envelope, to zoom in to oozing gunshot wounds or burning auto wreckage. It’s also his aestheticization of the mayhem, the way he shoots it with the artist’s eye for utilizing images to embed and then to detonate explosive ideas in the viewer’s mind.

An important turning point for Bloom is when he comes across a collision scene and shifts a victim’s body into the glare of the vehicle’s headlights. He’s arranging his shot for maximum aesthetic effect, like a director or a cinematographer or a painter. His later manipulations of dangerously active criminal situations are simply extensions of this mise en scène. Bloom directs scenarios as if he’s making a fictional action movie, only this one involves real people, real bullets, real deaths. Lou Bloom is sociopathic enough that he doesn’t require the mediating filter of the camera to remove himself from the consequences of what he films, but the power and undeniability of the images he captures have a pull and momentum that makes them irresistible, especially to his clients in TV news who ought to know better than to take them at face value.

Nightcrawler is strangely reminiscent (or at least productively comparable) in this way of a wildly different film, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. A fictionalized narrative of the making of F.W. Murnau’s German silent film classic Nosferatu that imagines that the vampire in the film was played by a real undead bloodsucker (played in turn by Willem Defoe), its memorable closing scene features Murnau (John Malkovich) obsessively filming the vampire’s deadly rampage among his film crew. His dedication to achieving the eternal perfection of the cinematic image recognizes no moral tenet, no human compromise. Murnau is as vampiric as the monstrous Count Orlok, consuming blood and running it through his camera lens in order to effect his immortality. Lou Bloom’s dedication is of a similarly vampiric character, but is even more multifarious, encompassing elements of American capitalism from filmmaking to technology to media to crime to the law. His nocturnal success is less long-lasting than Murnau’s but just as deep and much more suggestive of the operations of a whole array of exploitative structures at the heart of contemporary American society.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World (2015; Directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 summer hit Jurassic Park is one of the unquestioned cultural monuments of neoliberalism. The first real Clinton Era blockbuster in both chronological and ideological terms, Jurassic Park put the artistic prowess of its populist director to work alongside the latest technology in practical and computer effects. It tapped the childhood id of dinosaur fanatics young and old while running the extinct prehistoric creatures through the monster movie playbook, with interludes of visual wonder, Hitchcockian suspense, and corporate satire sprinkled in as well. It was effective in creating thrills and profit and in crafting iconic cinematic moments (the towering Brachiosaurs, the T-Rex in the rain with its footfalls creating ripples in a water cup, the creeping Velociraptors in the kitchen).

But more than anything, Jurassic Park advanced the neoliberal project of cynically and ruthlessly exploiting science, nature, society, and people while maintaining the progressive pose of conscientious concern at the dangers of capitalist excess and hubristic overreach. Jurassic Park tut-tutted about science playing God while captivating audiences by doing basically that; it’s both pro- and anti-science, but that science, positive or negative, is always primarily at the service of capitalist greed. Like so many slick products of corporate Hollywood, it bemoaned corporate products as slick and dangerous, especially when they tinker with the primordial sublimity of the natural world. Jurassic Park was neoliberal to the core in its simultaneous embrace and disavowal of shiny American corporatism and all the advantages and setbacks that system entails; it was a purported corporate critique with its own instantly-recognizable corporate logo. And audiences gobbled it up like a Tyrannosaur swallowing a goat whole at feeding time.

Jurassic World is fundamentally also about neoliberal corporatism, and shares a central enlivening contradiction in relation to that prevailing system with the first film in the dinos-run-amok franchise (The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were not all bad, but they’re not much adored for a reason, too). Where Jurassic Park was a sort of pre-emptive strike against neoliberal hubris, an attempt to strangle it in its crib, Jurassic World revisits the inherent modern Prometheus warning fable of a modern theme park populated by genetically-cloned prehistoric beasts as a fully-formed, adult entity. The movie brings that entity crashing disastrously down in the best disaster movie spectacle tradition, of course, but again does so in a way that reinforces not only neoliberal capitalist imperatives but creeping traditional gender roles as well.

Jurassic World is set two decades after that initial “containment failure” at Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica (actually mostly Kauai, Hawaii; those epic establishing shots of the Na Pali Coast could be nowhere else). After the dinos’ corporate overlords learned practical lessons but not grander moral or ethical ones from the series of disasters in previous films, a working, inescapably contemporary theme park featuring live dinosaurs has been opened to the public on the island, and is attracting paying hordes. The casual, tie-less, helicopter-flying CEO of the transnational corporation that runs Jurassic World, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), has popped in for a visit, and is ushered around by the focused operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are also visiting, but she’s pawned them off on her assistant (Katie McGrath) because she’s too busy running a theme park full of living dinosaurs to, you know, take them for virgin margaritas at TGI Friday’s or whatever she’s expected to do with them. Meanwhile, rugged ex-Navy badass Owen Grady (Chris Pratt in Serious Face Mode) is training velociraptors to respond to his commands, which the military-industrial complex as represented by park security head Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) believes may have huge potential in terms of weaponized application.

The initial expositional tour of the park facilities is conducted concurrently by Claire as she guides investors through the experimental labs run by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the sole cast carryover from previous films) and via the awestruck gaze of the Nephews, who seem fine checking out the attractions without her. As a critical aside, they do have names (Gray and Zach or some other such suburban nomenclature), but I see little reason to refer to the boys as anything but the Nephews. They exist in a virtual side-plot of their own most of the time, and are only very thinly characterized. The movie intermittently remembers that younger Gray is a science nerd but doesn’t employ that part of his personality in any useful way, while elder Zach likes texting and girls because what else would he like? They’re worried that their parents are divorcing and talk about Sticking Together as Brothers and endure an insufferable Jimmy Fallon cameo but are basically only here to be young and frightened and in peril because if you don’t have that in this franchise, Spielberg won’t send you a Christmas card, I suppose.

Anyway, Jurassic World is a Disneyworld/Universal Studios/Sea World/zoo/museum hybrid with hotel resorts, monorails, a toney retail and dining pedestrian mall, and a corporate-sponsored “Innovation Pavilion” with holographic exhibits and a statue of the first film’s grandfatherly visionary boss/case study in caution from hubris, John Hammond. Claire compares the whole venture to the space program and indeed it’s all run from a huge control room straight out of NASA, although that budget-strapped agency probably wishes it had access to the funding resources at play on the island. It’s a gleaming testament to all that neoliberal capitalism can accomplish, marshalling science and finance and tourism and generalized profit-seeking of all kinds to grand, lucrative effect, selling pre-packaged wonderment to the masses for a hefty fee.

jworld1

Raptors, you’re being very Un-Dude.

Of course, this must all come crashing down. The fox in this particular monetized henhouse is a specially-bred new super-attraction called Indominus Rex, a Frankenwu’s monster of a mega-predator with a dangerous mixture of genes, a high level of intelligence, and violent behavioural pathologies resulting from being raised in captivity. The product of focus group research as much as genetic experimentation, the beast busts out of its paddock and wreaks all sorts of havoc, leading to a panicked evacuation and a hyper-militarized containment effort while Owen, Claire, and the Nephews alternately run for their damn lives and try to eliminate the threat in whatever manner possible.

The Indominus Rex is a symbolic hybrid as well as a genetic one, a primordial refutation of man’s purported mastery over nature with mixed elements of Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster, Godzilla, and Melville’s great white whale at play. But it’s also associated very clearly and troublingly with Claire and her representation of modern femininity. The half-glimpsed introduction of the Indominus includes an observation by Masrani that it’s female and white in colour, and it’s impossible to miss that Claire is likewise decked out in an all-white outfit as he notes this. Jurassic World views both the confident, self-possessed professional woman and the genetically-engineered all-killing horror of the Indominus Rex as equivalent aberrations of nature. Claire has not seen her nephews in seven years and brushes them aside in favour of her professional duties; their mother does the same at the cost of her marriage, it’s implied, though she cares more deeply and maternally for her sons; the Indominus killed and ate its only family, a test-tube sibling. The inescapable message is that strong, independent females, be they human or dinosaurid, pose a danger to society when they discard their natural maternal instincts.

Claire’s narrative arc bends towards correct emotional socialization in this sphere, through teaming with the traditional male hero figure in the form of Owen (with whom she had a previous dalliance that is referred to in a cringe-worthy scene of swirling sexism between them), with his acrid stench of testosterone, to protect their makeshift family unit in the crucible of crisis. To Jurassic World‘s mild credit, this doesn’t happen in a manner precisely commensurate with traditional gender hierarchies, despite the anticipatory set-up. Claire is hardly a passive damsel in distress, sprinting away from therapods in heels (Claire wears the heels, not the therapods, although I like the image) and saving Owen from a vicious pterosaur with the butt and barrel ends of a rifle. Her formidability as a career-first woman transfers to a formidability in the milieu of action, it is implied; sprinkle in some belated maternal yearnings and you’ve got the perfect woman for a pack alpha like Owen.

The gestures towards traditional family connections in Jurassic World are ultimately as perfunctory as the movie’s critiques of neoliberal capitalism. The business and operational infrastructure of the theme park is a market-researched hybrid like the Indominus, a collaboration of corporate capital and administration, branded shopping, science and industry, and military contractors. It looks a lot like contemporary American capitalism, in other words, and all of it fails in concert to contain the “asset” when it gets out of control. This is a common contemporary perspective towards the power and authority of the neoliberal elite of Western democracies: just as assuredly as its buzzword bromides about consumer freedom and fulfillment mask exploitation and structural dissatisfaction, its professionalized expertise and mastery is frequently thrown into doubt by the basic unpredictability and unmanageability of our world.

Jurassic World visualizes this breakdown in a chaotic sequence on Jurassic Boulevard, as a flock of pterosaurs escape their domed aviary and descend predatorially on terror-stricken tourists (there’s a funny fleeting bit of one guy at an al fresco bar rushing to safety while carefully trying not to spill the tropical hi-balls in each hand which should not pass without mention). It’s a clear homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, an image of nature judging humanity’s trespasses from above and dispatching winged avengers as punishment. The attack of the birds in Hitchcock’s film has often been interpreted as being infused with vengeful maternal energies, an oedipal balancing on the part of the natural order when faced with the irruption of a strain of femininity whose motivations are other than biologically-grounded. There’s an element of that at play in Jurassic World‘s version of the scene, although the punished transgression of the natural order is on the part of corporate capitalism, of which transgressive modern femininity is couched as a mere symptom.

This interpretation is strengthened by the film’s tremendously silly but undeniably rousing climax, also set on that same half-destroyed commercial strip. Owen, Claire, and the Nephews team up with the lead raptor from the trained pack and a released T-Rex to bring down the rampaging Indominus at last. It’s a delirious fan-fiction turn in the Jurassic Park universe redolent of the popular rehabilitation of Kong or Godzilla as heroic figures rather than as destructive villains as per original intent, fulfilling geek wishes as the iconic classic dinos from the original film subdue the unnatural hybrid animal that has existed only in CGI design. It’s also suffused with the franchise’s own marketing iconography, as Owen and the Nephews shelter in a souvenir shop with logo merchandise surrounding them and nearly suffocating them.

Jurassic World carries thematic notes of anti-capitalism run through a natural order filter, but the conscientious viewer would be well-served to heed the words of D’Onofrio’s Hoskins, who characterizes even enlightened neoliberal capitalism as operating on the survival imperatives of the Darwinian jungle. The tentative family unit of Owen and Claire is also forged on the premise of mutual survival of that sort. In Jurassic World, the setting, premise, and featured creatures are both prehistoric and modern, and so are the thematic and metaphoric implications of socioeconomics, power, and gender roles.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC; 2015)

For a longtime devotee and serial recommender of Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the prospect of any screen adaptation of this most absorbing and beguiling tale of magic and manners in the Early 19th Century England sparks excitement and trepidation in nearly equal measure. Excitement at witnessing the book given visual form, with sumptuous sets and costumes, handsome cinematography and computer effects, and idiosyncratic performances by observant actors. Trepidation at the inevitable pitfalls of adaptation, and the helpless petit morts of disappointments when some cherished narrative element, characterization, or mental image from the pages does not transfer with the proper alacrity to the screen.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has taken a long path from book to screen before landing at long last at the BBC, whose attractive if streamlined seven-part miniseries based on the novel and directed by Toby Haynes recently completed its broadcast run in the UK (BBC America is still in the midst of airing the weekly episodes in the U.S., while Space has the Canadian broadcast rights). New Line Cinema snapped up the movie rights and planned a big-screen version as an expansion of its post-Lord of the Rings profile as a fantasy genre powerhouse, but the project never proceeded beyond the screenwriting phase as other British fantasy literature adaptations like The Golden Compass flopped and New Line Cinema went belly-up and was swallowed by Warner Brothers. The BBC stepped into the breach in 2012 and produced the final adaptation, which at seven hours surely covers more of Clarke’s thick tome with a keener British eye, albeit with a lesser budget and weaker onscreen talent than Hollywood could probably have mustered.

strangeandnorrellHaynes’ television version has widescreen ambitions, but translates Clarke’s narrative surprising closely, at least to begin with (greater dramatic liberties creep in as the climax approaches, some of them of a dubious and cliched nature). That narrative concerns the titular gentlemen, who semi-reluctantly restore the public practice of magic in England in the early 1800s after it has lain dormant since the waning days of the Middle Ages. Clarke imagines a compelling but merely sketched alternate history of England in which magic and faeries play an important part. At the dark heart of this history is a legendary (and more than a little sinister) figure known as the Raven King, a magic-practicing monarch who ruled Northern England from Newcastle for 400 years before vanishing, perhaps into death, perhaps into another world. The heritage of his rule is still felt in the gothic moors of the northern shires, an ever-haunting mist of gloomy superstition set against the rational, imperial, and mercantile modern state of London and the South.

The historical-fantasy events related take place between 1806 and 1817, as England struggles against Napoleon on the continent. The wealthy reclusive landowner and scholar Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is coaxed out of seclusion by a Yorkshire society of “theoretical magicians”; “theoretical” because they’ve read about magic in books (though not many good ones, as Norrell has ravenously bought them all up) but never performed acts of magic themselves. Norrell claims to be able to do magic, and is convinced by Society members John Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) to hazard a demonstration. Norrell obliges, bringing the carven stone statues inside the cathedral church of York Minster to sudden, jabbering life for the amazed members of the Society (this first instance of the magical is milked for atmospherics in the dim grandeur of the Minster). This public return of the practice of magic to England brings Norrell to overnight prominence, although it ends the operations of the York Society, part of the exacting Norrell’s desire to control the practice of and discourse around magic in the country as completely as possible.

Norrell arrives to great fanfare in London with the expressed intent of restoring English magic to a more respectable and modern place in society, in contrast to the wild and dangerous magic of the Raven King, whose magical practices Norrell despises and finds unsuitable to the modern context. Accompanied by his grim, tarot-card-toting servant Childermass (the excellently sneering Enzo Cilenti), the bookish, peevish Norrell has trouble establishing himself and magic in London society at first, but scene gadflies Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan) soon usher him into the proper circles. He gains the attention and the trust of the government when he effects the miraculous resurrection of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the fiancee of minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) who has tragically died shortly before their wedding. Unfortunately, in order to raise her from the dead and gain the influence and notice for his magic that he so craves, Norrell must call upon forces of magic that have been long kept out of the human world, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, an amiable but aimless country gentleman named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) quite accidentally (or perhaps not so) happens upon a travelling street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who sells him some magic spells which Strange then performs with the élan of an unschooled natural. Strange and his newlywed wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) are soon ensconced in London, where Strange becomes the pupil of Norrell in a partnership that will prove extremely tumultuous as well as decisive for the course of magic in England. The two magicians of very different temperments and outlooks will become embroiled in the struggle against Napoleon, against each other, and against a powerful foe from the land of Faerie with thistle-down hair and a certain sartorial strangeandnorrell1flair (Marc Warren), who has eyes for Lady Pole, for Sir Walter’s African butler Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), and for Arabella, and will not let two English magicians stand in his way.

Even such a detailed plot summary barely scratches the surface of what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare delight on the page. Clarke combines a Dickensian flair for eccentric character (especially with figures like the sycophantic fop Drawlight, played with impeccable smarm by Franklin, who adds the canny detail of Frenchifying the pronunciation of his magician patron’s name: “Nor-relle!”) with a mordant, dry wit in her narrative voice, an impeccable and endlessly clever pastiche of Jane Austen’s recognizable free indirect speech. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned in literary terms, it both is and isn’t. Clarke’s book is a tremendously bookish read, full of nested narratives and illustrative anecdotes from magical history that are often self-reflexive if not necessarily post-modern. Many of these are contained in her wonderful footnotes, which sometimes take precedence over the main text itself but generally act as tangents from the main story that are at the same time illuminating and obscuring, distracting and deepening (Strange, for example, is introduced in a footnote before he ever appears in the narrative proper).

Her use of magic is also a marvel. Unlike the wand-pointing and Latin spell-declaiming of the Harry Potter universe to which Clarke’s world has been (unproductively) compared to, magic in Strange & Norrell is unsettling and unpredictable, an uneasy and sometimes imperceptible warping of the rhythms of the quotidian world. It manifests as an invisible smoke, in the reflections of mirrors and the language of birds, emerging out of dusty libraries and busy city squares like a secret door being opened for only a fraction of a second. Even the ampersand in the title seems like an unfamiliar rune, a mystery separating the two magicians. Magic is a digression from the “real” world, a match for her self-aware literary voice in telling her story.

It should be fairly clear from the outset that no visual medium, with its stark representational requirements, can approximate such purely literary devices, such purposely, artfully vague and suggestive descriptions. Images, dialogue, and tics of actors’ performances must perform similar functions, or broad, brief strokes of them at least, and that is what Haynes’ Strange & Norrell does. It frequently does a very impressive job of this. This miniseries is handsomely shot and miraculous lit. The period-recreation sets bristle with details both immersive and symbolically suggestive. The special effects are well-rendered and effectively used if noticeably restrained in comparison to blockbuster films, although the appearance of misty rain ships off the French coast or galloping horses conjured from sand are couched as showy spectacle rather than with Clarke’s nuanced diminishment of magic’s effectiveness (Strange’s spells in particular have a habit of getting out of his control and becoming a mischievous nuisance in the book).

“Your cravat is beautifully starched, but I shall still have to kill you horribly, I’m afraid.”

Both Carvel and Marsan are dedicated and mostly beyond reproach in their embodiment of the titular magicians. Marsan’s peevish, self-serious Norrell glowers in his library with his old-fashioned wig (it almost deserves its own cast credit, especially after its suffering in the finale), tugged between Childermass’s underworld knowledge of magic doings and the increasingly manipulative influence of Lascelles but occasionally capable of a wide, infectious impish grin at an unexpected display of magic by Strange. He’s a putative dictator of magic in the nation, naturally suspicious of rivals and even of his talented pupil for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Peter Harness’s script but that aren’t hard to fathom given Marsan’s characterization of the inherently fearful little man. Carvel, with his uneven hair and careless grin, represents a telling contrast. His eccentricity (and incipient madness) aligns him with the haphazard, hidden world of magic more closely than does Norrell’s prim, cranky bookishness, and makes the Raven King a much more fascinating figure to him. The younger Strange carries much more of the action than does Norrell, and whether bantering with Lord Wellington or the mad King George III or defending himself on the battlefield of Waterloo with desperate magic, Carvel seems ever in his element.

The supporting cast, however, is considerable less so, suffering from the relative compression of the material and flattened characterization as well as from casting less prominent talents for a more marginal television production. Riley’s Arabella is not such a clever, enticing partner for Strange as on the page, and their separation and his quest to get her back is rendered in much more conventional tragic romance terms (they also sleep in the same bed, which plays into an important plot point but is wholly unbelievable for anyone with any knowledge of the upper-class marriage conventions of the period). Cilenti and Kaye are pretty great together (and are at the centre of the closest thing to a sequel stinger that the series can manage), as are Warren and Bakare, although the latter lacks in general as Stephen.

Something rather substantial is missing from the gentleman with thistle-down hair as Harness writes him and as Warren plays him, however. On screen, Warren plays the troublesome faerie as consistently imperious and sinister, every inch the obvious villain at every moment. He becomes serious at times in the book, but when he does Clarke describes him “putting on grave and important looks quite unlike his usual expression”. Warren is always putting on grave and important looks, and his mercuriousness, his changeability, his fundamental faerie-ness, is entirely lost. It’s an important mistake, and as a result the character not only feels wrong to the book reader but distinctly single-note to the neophyte to the material.

While the television miniseries context makes for a less truncated narrative, its more limited set of resources dials back the ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in what will surely be its definitive screen version. A Hollywood blockbuster take on the material, even one extended over an unlikely two or three films, could very well make many of the same debatable adaptation choices and character missteps as were made here. It may well have butchered other elements as well, while not getting nearly as much right as this Haynes version does. Despite my misgivings there is plenty of good here; this is not at all an unreasonable or unrecognizable screen version of Clarke’s book, and is in fact a frequently entertaining one made with real craft and verve and respect for the source (which one hopes will gain new readers via the show, as it is by far the superior work). Still, there remains a small but unavoidable sense of mild despondency when considering that this is the only Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell screen version that lovers of the book will get. As good as it mostly is, there is often something missing that diminishes the magic.