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Sports Documentary Review – 30 For 30 #9: O.J.: Made in America

It’s hard to say what it is about the current American social and cultural moment that has inspired a retrospective burst of re-examination of that mid-‘90s news colossus, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. But there’s no doubting that it’s back in the public view in 2016, over twenty years after its shocking, divisive verdict. First, FX’s furiously-acted, fictionally-tinged, high-drama miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired to critical acclaim and enough Emmy nominations to fill a white Ford Bronco. More recently, ESPN’s prolific sports documentary series 30 For 30 went to air with the troubled, searching, complex, and subtly pained five-part, nearly eight-hour film O.J.: Made in America.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, O.J.: Made in America delves into the life of the football star, actor, advertising pitchman, television personality, domestic abuser, acquitted double-murderer, and convicted armed robber. Utilizing interviews with people whose paths he crossed, court depositions from his various legal cases, and reams of archival footage and photographs,  paints a shaded, deep-cutting, but not unsympathetic portrait of Orenthal James Simpson and his times that emerges in degrees as a Sisyphean (and/or Icarean) saga of tragic proportions. The greater part self-destruction with ample helpings of external societal forces to help it along, Simpson’s spectacular fall from fame, fortune, and grace speaks volumes about a host of endemic American issues, racial and otherwise.

Emerging from a San Francisco ghetto in the late 1960s to become a star running back at USC then in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and briefly his hometown 49ers, “Juice” (as everyone calls him, whether they are his familiars or not) parlayed his gridiron heroics into lucrative endorsements, television football commentary gigs, and a B-level acting career (most notably in the Naked Gun trilogy of broadly farcical police movie parodies, opposite Leslie Nielsen). One of the first African-American athletes to break the colour barrier of American mass media representation, Simpson scrupulously managed his public image and made every effort to appeal to and indeed to belong in the comfortable realm of white wealth and privilege, a gilded kingdom consistently closed to black Americans referred to by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “the Dream”.

The Juice lived the Dream, moving in the corporate world, golfing and schmoozing with rich white friends, maintaining a fine mansion in Los Angeles’ toney suburb of Brentwood, and even discarding his first (African-American) wife to marry a beautiful young California blonde, Nicole Brown. He fancied that he had transcended race and been accepted by all of America, black and white, not as a black man but simply as O.J.

With the acceptance of white America, however, came doubts from the black community about his commitment to the collective political and social advancement of African-Americans, which seemed to be non-existent. As a prominent black Los Angeleno, his silence on the forefront issue of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Los Angeles Police Department’s record of discrimination and violence against black citizens and the justice system’s impotence or reluctance in punishing it – was deafening. While Rodney King’s uniformed assaulters were acquitted and less-remembered shocking cases of miscarriaged justice unfolded, O.J. Simpson palled around with star-struck LAPD officers in Brentwood. Some of those officers even chose to look the other way when O.J. and Nicole’s marriage began to unravel and repeated 911 calls were made to report his recurring physical abuse of her.

Everything changed when Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in 1993 and Simpson became the prime suspect. Anyone of a certain age remembers at least the broad strokes of the rest of the so-called “trial of the century” as it consumed the American media for more than a year: the Bronco chase along L.A.’s freeways, Simpson’s all-star legal team and their decision to shoehorn the LAPD’s notorious racism into the trial as a key plank in his defence (and n-word-spouting Detective Mark Fuhrman’s obliging of that narrative), the disastrous pantomime of O.J. trying on the blood-soaked murder gloves in open court (“If they do not fit, you must acquit”, and they did not), and the stark racial divide in the reaction to the Not Guilty plea, with white watchers aghast and black watchers jubilant. The telling in American Crime Story, exaggerated and subtly dramatized as it was, likely covers the totality of the trial and its aftermath more completely, but Made in America’s placing of the trial in the larger context of the defendant’s life and the city’s powder-keg of racial tension, as well as its role in Simpson’s decline after the verdict, is far stronger, more comprehensive, and thematically richer.

The observation has been made, but Made in America draws it out at length: O.J. Simpson worked very hard to be seen as white, or at least as not black, and succeeded as well as could be considered possible in America (Edelman makes time to deal with Simpson’s aggressive pursuit of the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the film version of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, whom he identified with intensely as a black man who refused to limit himself with or even acknowledge the rules imposed on him by either white or black society). Or at least he was a success up until he was arrested for murder, at which point he became immediately and irrevocably black, to his shorter-term benefit but to his longer-term detriment. This was true in some ways but not true in others: the LAPD took a kid-gloves approach to arresting Simpson which they never would have taken towards a non-celebrity African-American, creating the televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, but there is also the matter of Time magazine’s infamous mugshot cover, with Simpson’s face noticeably darkened in a disturbing invocation of the image of the criminalized black male that has buttressed racially discriminatory views and policy in the country for decades.

A common criticism leveled at Simpson’s lawyers – and distinguished, eloquent, flamboyant African-American solicitor Johnnie Cochran in particular – was that they helped their client get away with murder by “playing the race card”. This charge even emanated from inside the Simpson camp, with defence lawyer Robert Shapiro (whose rivalry with Cochran huffed plenty of dramatic oxygen in American Crime Story) repeating the line in a post-verdict interview and adding that the “race card” was “dealt from the bottom of the deck”. What these accusations of the OJ-Made-in-America-30-for-30sleazy and cynical application of the canard of racial discrimination by the LAPD against Simpson on the part of his defence team fail to acknowledge is that the race card was already played in the public mind at least, and therefore unquestionably in the minds of the jury as well. Simpson was being judged as a black man who had murdered his white wife, an unconscious framing that only served to strengthen the prosecution’s already very strong case of domestic violence history and damning physical evidence. Centuries of systemic racism did not simply evaporate in the heat of Simpson’s 100-watt smile. Cochran would have been remiss as a defence lawyer not to seize on any and every strand that might unravel the tightly-woven prosecution narrative of his client’s guilt.

But what Cochran did in that Los Angeles courtroom was more than just that, and Made in America comes closer than any other document of the O.J. Simpson trial ever has to articulating what it was. Although Simpson’s race was increasingly a factor in the public perception of his alleged crime, it was not a discernably active factor in the investigation or prosecution of the murders, despite the sensationalist history of Fuhrman’s bigotry exposed during the trial. It could be simultaneously be true that African-Americans are frequently targeted by the police and railroaded by the courts due to their skin colour and that O.J. Simpson escalated years of domestic violence and viciously stabbed two people to death in a fit of rage (and it is indeed probable that they both are true, given all that we know now). Cochran and his team used the explosive racial issues of the LAPD of their time to inveigle a decisive measure of doubt into the jury and obtain an acquittal for Simpson, but he also used to Simpson trial as a spot-lit platform upon which to display for a captive (and captivated) audience the injustices inflicted upon black people by the white authorities not only in Los Angeles but across the United States.

Cochran’s gambit worked in the moment for his famous client as well as in the hearts and minds of African-Americans: O.J. was found Not Guilty and blacks across the country rejoiced at the rare spectacle of a black man escaping the grasp of a discriminatory justice system. But as the necessitous rise of the Black Lives Matter movement twenty years later demonstrates, the precise issues that Cochran worked to expose in the O.J. trial have not been resolved, improved, or lessened. No one inside the Simpson defence team or in the black community, no matter how activist their mindset, would have anticipated that a Not Guilty verdict would instantly erase the racial bias of police or the courts, but the strategy of that defence as well as Cochran’s provocative rhetoric (comparing Fuhrman to Hitler, for example) could only really be morally justified by its service to the greater cause of increasing black civil rights, of diminishing injustice.

What was achieved with the acquittal of O.J. Simpsons was a moment of cultural catharsis for Black America on dubious grounds. The white majoritarian order did not blink and miss it, and did not forget it (not that it ever needed concrete examples or motives to delegitimize the black liberation movement). Cochran, the black leaders of L.A., and African-Americans across the U.S. worked for and then celebrated Simpson’s acquittal, but the victory was fleeting and may have done more damage to their cause than the feeling of triumph was worth. The freedom of a famous black athlete with few connections to the community or its politics and a high likelihood of guilt for a double-murder is one hell of a hill to choose to die on.

But the O.J. Simpson case is much knottier and more problematic in its racial implications. Many white Americans, persuaded of Simpson’s guilt by the weight of the evidence as well as by their own prejudices (disavowed and otherwise), seized on Cochran’s “race card” courtroom strategy as a cynical exploitation of the spectre of racism and extrapolated it to apply to the entire continuing African-American civil rights project. Beyond the Simpson case, the awareness of discrimination and political prominence of black rights issues in the early ’90s found little purchase in terms of concrete social progress. Police departments across the country, perhaps chastened by the LAPD’s lack of reward for their rare caution and diligence in dealing with such a high-profile African-American suspect, ramped up racial profiling in inner cities and increasingly militarized their forces even as urban crime steadily declined.

America, too, had a long, slow punishment in store for O.J. Simpson, Not Guilty verdict notwithstanding. His endorsements evaporated, his ties to respectable corporations were severed, his revenue streams dried up. The family of Ronald Goldman won a civil suit for wrongful death against him, and capitalized on his questionable decision to have a cash-in semi-confessional book ghostwritten, If I Did It. His Brentwood mansion was sold, his possessions scattered, and his fame tipped into infamy. O.J. did not make much of a distinction between these two similar but sharply divergent states, and his clean-cut, suburban-friendly grin became a seedy leer. In the company of porn stars, two-bit dealers, and other unsavoury hangers-on in Florida, the once-proud Simpson became a garish self-parody as he flirted with a bad-boy image that he had diligently worked to avoid for years. A relapse into criminality seemed inevitable, and when Simpson led a chaotic armed robbery of a memorabilia dealer that he felt had stolen from him, the justice system that he had thwarted and humiliated threw the book at him.

Now incarcerated in Nevada for a 33-year sentence (the severity of which seems incommensurate with the severity of his crime, if the account provided Edelman’s film can be believed), O.J. Simpson stands as a case study in the American pursuit of the Dream and the dark underbelly of sunny image-crafting. The Made in America portion of Edelman’s title is vital: O.J. Simpson took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him in America, but America demanded a price from him, too. Its racial politics allowed him a singular place in the sun for him for a time, but ranks closed when matters became serious. The system worked for him until he exposed some of its core faults, and then it lowered the boom in response. Fame and fortune made O.J. Simpson more than he was, but they could not help him overcome his base impulses and personal faults and could not fully shelter him from their consequences as they might have for a white man. America made O.J. Simpson, and it unmade him. His grand tragedy, though it is very much of his own making as well, lays bare many fundamental truths about what America is at its core. But no conclusion or message in O.J.: Made in America is easy or simple, and preserving the saga’s troubling complexity is the finest accomplishment of Ezra Edelman’s sprawling opus.

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters (2016; Directed by Paul Feig)

Above all a fun and enjoyably slight comedic concoction, the Ghostbusters reboot has ignited a disproportionate firestorm of online controversy that, absurd though it is, has given it a certain frisson and importance it might not otherwise have had. It’s a little hard to believe, and will be even harder to believe in the future, that a vocal minority of online male movie “fans” (a term that they hardly deserve, given their conduct and mindset) has targeted this new Ghostbusters with vociferous criticism (often of an ugly misogynistic and/or racial nature) simply because its creators had the audacity to cast four women actors as its spectre-chasing leads. And yet, it has.

Ghostbusters is a homage-drenched remake of the 1984 film of the same name that is one of the most loved highlights of the Saturday Night Live-derived manchild wave of American film comedy that has dominated the genre since Animal House at the start of the 1980s. Director Paul Feig has made a name for himself in Hollywood by applying that genre’s elements to films featuring female stars (predominantly Melissa McCarthy, his collaborator on Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and this film). Would this new film be seen as fundamentally feminist if not for the surge of sight-unseen hate of a small cadre of fandom whose sheer volume serves to inflate their influence beyond their numbers? With Feig at the helm and woman scientists in the ghostbusting overalls, most likely. Feig’s is a 220px-ghostbusters_2016_film_posterlow-key feminism, concerned predominantly with allowing his female comedy characters to be as boorishly lively and big-heartedly self-involved (and, in the case of this film, as obsessively scientifically-inclined) as the genre’s usual male protagonists. It might seem like a mild and unambitious project on Feig’s part, but given Hollywood’s nagging gender representation issues, it presents as modestly revolutionary.

The female versions of those archetypal protagonists gradually coalesce into the titular apparition-fighting squad over the movie’s first hour. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abigail Yates (McCarthy) were grade-school besties with a shared interest in the paranormal, which they parlayed into an education in science and physics and even a co-authored book about ghosts. From there they diverged, however, Erin forsaking the academically dubious pursuit of ghosts in favour of the more proper pursuit of tenure at Columbia while Abby experiments with spirit-tracking and -containing technology in the basement-level lab of a dodgy scientific institute that has forgotten that she even exists. In exchange for Abby’s promise that she will stop selling the professionally-embarrassing ghost tome, Erin brings her old friend and the latter’s moderately-askew engineer compatriot Jillian Hotlzmann (Kate McKinnon) to a preserved 19th Century Upper West Side mansion struck by a sudden haunting.

Following a goopy ecto-sliming and a viral YouTube video of mortifyingly nerdy excitement at the spectral encounter, Erin is not only denied tenure by her stern dean (Charles Dance) but shit-canned from Columbia entirely, and her expected landing place with Abby and Holtzmann in their funded lab also evaporates. Frustrated by academia’s disdain for their chosen field, the women go into private business for themselves as an apparition-dispelling service just like the original trio of Reagan-era science-spouting individualists that they broadly resemble. Wiig’s and McCarthy’s characters, by the way, are mixtures of different qualities of Bill Murray’s and Dan Aykroyd’s ‘busters from the initial film (both men have cameos here, as does most of the rest of the original’s principal cast), but McKinnon’s Holtzmann is a clear analogue to the late Harold Ramis’ mega-nerdy Egon Spengler, albeit with greater self-confidence, a wicked sense of humour, and a mischievous streak a mile wide.

Unable to afford the astronomical monthly rent on the familiar and iconic abandoned Manhattan firehouse (just one of a few references to how much the city has changed in three decades), they set up shop above a noodle house in Chinatown. They hire a vain, spectacularly dim-witted beefcake receptionist named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) and even add a non-physicist fourth member, subway attendant and city history buff Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Although their attempts to manage the city’s suddenly-spiking ghost problem meet with skepticism and resistance from the authorities represented by the mayor (Andy Garcia) and his chief of staff (Cecily Strong), the skills and expertise of the reluctantly-named Ghostbusters will prove particularly useful as the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead is nefariously breached in Midtown Manhattan.

In this element, it does seem that the anti-feminist internet trolling of the project, which began as soon as the decision to invert the gender of its cast principals was announced prior to production, worked its way into the writing of Feig and Katie Dippold. The primary living antagonist of the new Ghostbusters is a creepy, anti-social, misanthropic loner named Rowan (Neil Casey), a luxury hotel janitor with delusions of grandeur and obsessive occult plans of unleashing a paranormal apocalypse on New York City. The character seems like a provocative caricature of the disdainful internet Men’s Rights Activists who have plagued this film since its inception, a personification of the basement-dwelling young men with raging senses of inadequacy and bitterness manifested as a sense of superiority to everyone around them, a runaway stereotype of the Angry Male Online. It’s a sly choice by Feig and Dippold, and not one that goes unnoticed.

There might be a touch of gleefully inverted stereotypes in Hemsworth’s Kevin as well (although Janine, Annie Potts’ no-nonsense secretary from the original film, was a perfectly capable New York woman), but Hemsworth ghostbusters2016throws himself into the character’s stupidity with such good-natured enthusiasm that it’s hard to imagine anyone but the meanest troll objecting. Wiig, McCarthy, and Jones are funny people with professional timing, delivering sometimes hilarious, generally amusing lines properly. If my praise sounds qualified, it might be because McKinnon so utterly steals the show as the brazenly geeky, diagonally-inclined Holtzmann that any other sparkles are dimmed by comparison. She’s so singularly peculiar that she’s worth watching every moment she’s onscreen (eyeball her body orientation as she enters the Aldridge Mansion in the early stages; even in a nothing bridge scene like this, she’s totally switched on). The ghostbusting tech and the ghoulish visual effects deserve mention for much the same reason. There’s now so much CGI in Hollywood blockbusters, the only way to distinguish your work is with distinctive and often twisted design. The ghosts are so designed, and the tech – blasters, traps, ghost grenades, the modified hearse Ecto-1, even a handheld “ghostchipper” – reflects the crooked brilliance of its creator, the wondrously loopy Holtzmann.

Feig and Dippold build in persistent references to both previous Ghostbusters movies, though few of them have any sort of vital function in the film, functioning more as gags and intertextual doodles than anything else. These rapid-fire homages are less reverent than the loose, too-casual structure and vaguely anarchic tone that Feig creates, granting the 2016 Ghostbusters more or less the same flaws of construction of the 1984 Ghostbusters (the music, headlined by Fall Out Boy’s take on Ray Parker, Jr.’s iconic “Ghostbusters Theme”, is unquestionably worse). The advances in visual effects in the past 30 years really show (we love the earlier movie, but those ‘80s effects did not age well), and the action scenes are pleasingly amped up as well (Holtzmann goes to town on a swarm of ghouls in the Times Square climax in particularly badass fashion). It’s also a proudly New York City movie (even if it was mostly shot in Boston and Australia), in close touch with what the city now is but also what it once was: New York’s colourful past literally comes back to haunt its corporatized present in the supernatural vortex of the climax, with ghosts from its previous eras emerging from the pavement like miasmatic history to be dispatched by our heroines (“Oh my god, you killed a Pilgrim!”).

Although some will never be able to accept heroines spearheading a recognizable, bankable blockbuster movie franchise, Ghostbusters demonstrates that the representational transition need not be a bumpy one. It’s far from perfect, but so was the 1984 film. Parsing the various features of Feig’s film, it’s roughly approximate to Ivan Reitman’s acknowledged classic in most important ways (minus, of course, the originality). It even improves on the original in not only the ways mentioned above, but by excising the problematic “romantic” subplots (one of which came across as more than a little creepy at the least).

More than the male Ghostbusters (one of which was 75% out to get laid above all), the female ones are dedicated professionals (even if they are basically inventing their profession as they go along), absorbed in their work with little time for the distraction of sexual entanglements. Erin is allowed a bashful schoolgirl crush on the pretty Kevin, but Abby isn’t into him or anyone else of the opposite (or same) sex, nor is Patty (Holtzmann, although played by the openly gay McKinnon, seems unlikely to be interested in spending the night with anything other than a sodering gun). Ultimately, these women are into ghosts, and into the sense of comradery, belonging, and collaborative accomplishment that chasing the unsettled dead as a team grants them. They haven’t the time for men, they’re too busy bustin’. That might be this consistently enjoyable, occasionally delightful new Ghostbusters‘ clearest middle-finger to the baying MRA sorts as well as its most robust feminist statement.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #30

Letterkenny (CraveTV; 2016)

A sophisticated Canadian small-town comedy of maximal linguistic inventiveness and expert deadpan timing, Letterkenny comes across as being scripted by a particularly foul-mouthed Tom Stoppard, to paraphrase a colleague. In fact, it’s the creation of Jared Keeso (best-known to Canadian television audiences for his Gemini-winning role as hockey-commentating demagogue Don Cherry in a pair of CBC TV movies), who also stars as poker-faced semi-farmer local tough guy Wayne. Keeso co-wrote the six-episode initial season with Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky), who also directs and appears as the barely-closeted local preacher, and the former draws extensively from his youth experiences in Listowel, Ontario letterkenny(population 6,867) for the comic scenarios, oddball characters, and nigh-impenetrable slang dialogue of Letterkenny (which is itself an Ontario town, albeit a ghost town).

Much of Letterkenny, especially in its early episodes, consists of Wayne and his buddies (Nathan Dales, K. Trevor Wilson, and Michelle Mylett as his attractive sister Katy) reclining on the family farm – next to a dust-collecting produce stand, on the porch, in the dining room, or in front of the barn – and shooting the breeze in colloquial language so colourful as to make Trailer Park Boys seem bowdlerized in comparison. These scenes alternate with and sometimes cross paths with sequences featuring a group of local black-clad, alternative-culture “skids” led by Stewart (Tyler Johnston) as well as the dense hockey lingo of local junior players Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr). The latter figures especially function on the sidelines of the main episode plots as hilarious Shakespearean clowns, going on extended runs of jargon-y jock braggadocio about working out, scoring goals, and scoring girls while doing little or none of the above. Their material is likewise drawn from Keeso’s experiences, as he himself played hockey extensively in Ontario’s lower junior leagues.

Letterkenny infuses small-town hick life with a rapid-fire complexity of expression that one associates with cosmopolitan urbanity, or perhaps it simply uncovers and amplifies a complexity of expression that was already there in the rural context, waiting to be given a proper artistic voicing. Keese and Tierney patiently tease out running jokes over the six episodes before resolving them very enjoyably in the finale (there’s a slowly-growing tale of two locals who allegedly committed carnal acts with an ostrich with a particularly glorious drawn-out punchline). Tierney utilizes his experience and skill as a prolific under-the-radar Canadian filmmaker to compose the Sudbury-shot Letterkenny in a series of symetrically-framed shots reminiscent of the po-faced comedies of Jared Hess or snatches of Wes Anderson.

But it’s the dialogue that hums and crackles, an inspired rough-hewn music of yokel expressiveness that punctuates in laughter coaxed out as much in appreciation of the sheer creativity of its constituent words as on the strength of its zingers or punchlines. Even if Letterkenny sometimes calls out for subtitles (which the streaming platform which commissioned and shows it, Bell Media’s CraveTV, does not provide), it’s an excellent and linguistically unpredictable slice of a certain kind of vestigial rural Canadian life that frequently makes for our country’s most notable television comedy. I dare you to watch the first episode’s cold open below and summon the fortitude to give this inspired Canuck comedy a “hard no”.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television

Television Review – The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

The Jinx (2015; Directed by Andrew Jarecki)

Illustratingly subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, The Jinx joined Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the radio podcast Serial in a minor swell of true crime documentary series last year. As the subtitle indicates, it examines the often strange case of Robert Durst, the eldest scion of a wealthy Manhattan real estate dynasty who has been suspected but never convicted in the deaths of his wife, best friend, and next-door neighbour over the space of twenty years.

But The Jinx is not simply a true crime documentary but an often slippery, compromised biography of Durst himself, who emerges as an alternately diabolically brilliant and clumsily imprudent character of baroque weirdness and mental insecurity. Director Andrew Jarecki, who made the wrenching, acclaimed documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans, gained unprecedented access to the paranoid and media-shy Durst, filming twenty hours of conversations with him over several years. Jarecki was not new to the subject of Durst, having directed All Good Things, a fictionalized version of the Durst saga starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that is almost completely forgotten but hooked Durst with its even-handedness. Durst’s trust in Jarecki is sorely tested as the filmmaker is confronted with a growing body of evidence that his subject may indeed be a murderer, and Jarecki’s comfort level with the sting-like nature of his unfolding documentary is likewise strained.

The Jinx lays out the odd circumstances of those titular “deaths” revolving around Durst in a deconstructed manner. First is Durst’s wife, Kathie, a medical student who vanished in the winter of 1982 somewhere between their country home in South Salem, New York and Manhattan, possibly after Durst dropped her off to catch a train, probably (but unprovably) prior to that. No body was ever found and police didn’t look seriously into Durst until 1999, though a later New York DA and many of Kathie’s friends were convinced that he killed her. Jarecki is less clear and open with this particular part of the saga, but it seems clear that the Dursts’ early happy union in Vermont became permanently poisoned when he was pushed back into the family business by his father. They argued frequently, and many friends and acquaintances testified that he physically abused her. But without a body, not much could be pinned to Durst or anyone else.

The subsequent two deaths occured a year apart in 2000 and 2001, and both brought charges against Durst. Durst’s close friend, confidant, and media spokesperson Susan Berman was murdered first in an execution-style shooting at her home in Los Angeles. Berman, whom many of those suspicious of Durst believe to be the gatekeeper of his secrets, had told others that she was about to publically reveal something huge. This may not have been about Durst, as her case is complicated by her ties to her mobster father and her revelations of secrets from the mob life, but there are definite reasons to suspect Durst for the crime (and indeed he was charged and arrested for it during the airing of the series).

The third and most bizarre death was Durst’s killing, dismemberment, and disposal of septagenarian Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001. Living in the isolated Texas coastal city to avoid the glare of the public eye, Durst was using a woman’s name as an alias and even dressing as a woman to disguise himself. His cantakerous neighbour Black saw through the ruse, and though Durst claims they were friends, it seems more likely that Black threatened to blackmail him by revealing his whereabouts. At any rate, Black was shot dead, cut into pieces, and dumped into Galveston Bay by Durst, who stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty when his defence team argued that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, or in self-defence at the worst. Without Black’s head (Durst returned to the dump site the morning after leaving Black’s remains, almost certainly to better hide the head), the theory could not be disproven, and Durst walked.

Robert Durst may indeed be a serial murderer (he has been faintly connected to at least two other mysterious deaths), but the portrait that Jarecki paints of him in The Jinx is of a very strange and unfortunate man with deep emotional and mental problems that his wealth and privilege have intermittently insulated him from (this would be the titular jinx). His mother  committed suicide when he was a boy (one of Jarecki’s re-enactments paints this as a particularly haunting moment), his father neglected him, his younger brother pushed him out of the family business. He’s private and anti-social but weirdly chatty with Jarecki, and oddly incautious for a man evading suspicion for multiple killings: while on the lam after the death of Morris Black, Durst was notoriously caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket. This anecdote, amusing though it might be, betrays a streak of guilt and perhaps an unconscious desire to face the consequences for his crimes that would serve to explain Durst’s startlingly uncareful hot-mic mutterings of a self-incriminating nature, to say nothing of a note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police informing them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s address that may be the smoking gun for his recent arrest for that murder.

As The Jinx moves along, Jarecki himself becomes more and more of an active onscreen character, especially as a new discovery among Durst’s documents (which he willingly gave Jarecki’s team access to) sheds new light on the cadaver note. In its closing hour, The Jinx becomes more than just an absorbing baroque non-fiction crime saga with an elusive, enigmatic Asperger-esque lizard-person as its protagonist. It becomes that post-modern documentary feature mainstay, an examination of the nature, reach, and limitations of the documentary form itself. What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their subjects in a documentary film, especially as that subject is increasingly exposed (perhaps even employs the film itself to expose himself) as a cold-blooded killer? The Jinx suggests that the truth is paramount, even when that truth is highly obscured and the effort to uncover it leads a filmmaker to betray his subject.

Film Review: Look Who’s Back

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) (2015; Directed by David Wnendt)

Everyone knows Adolf Hitler – Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, self-styled dictatorial fascist Führer of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party, primary architect of World War II and the Holocaust, and general consensus Worst Man in History – died in his bunker beneath besieged Berlin in April 1945. What David Wnendt’s satirical film Look Who’s Back presupposes is… maybe he didn’t. Or he did, but then mysteriously came back seven decades later to become a media celebrity and ride the unsettled wave of European xenophobia to a sinister political comeback.

Based on the best-selling German novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (its German title more directly translates as He’s Back) alternates between the staged and acted sequences of its plot and unscripted Sacha Baron Cohen-style interactions between its Hitler (Oliver Masucci) and ordinary German citizens, which almost invariably reveal a disturbing level of agreement between modern Germans and the charismatic monster who haunts their country’s history. There’s a core of biting satire at the heart of this film, but it’s frequently buried beneath layers of awkwardly broad Germanic comedy and errors of historical inattention.

Reappearing in the middle of Berlin on the former site of the bunker which hosted him in his final days, Hitler holes up in a newsstand and digests the developments of the previous seventy years. He’s sought out by a hapless freelance documentary filmmaker named Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), who caught the Führer’s inauspicious return in the background of footage he was shooting for a limp human-interest piece that he hopes will save his job with commercial television station MyTV. Blown away by what he believes to be a comedian’s dedicated and seamless impersonation of the Nazi leader, Sawatzki takes Hitler on a road trip across Germany in his mother’s floral delivery van, filming as they go. His footage convinces rival MyTV executives (Katja Riemann and Christoph Maria Herbst) to take a chance on using Hitler for some offensive anti-immigrant humour on a “politically incorrect” comedy show, but the Führer goes off script and strikes a deeper chord with the German public.

Look Who’s Back is very much a product of Germany’s contemporary cultural and political context, and as a result can be a tad obtuse to an outsider. A montage of blundering domestic politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, is accompanied by the withering disdain of Masucci’s Hitler, who pines for his principled rivals of the leftist Weimar period and finds surprising common ground with the Green Party’s environmentalist protection of the Fatherland. Although Masucci is excellent – funny and menacing in turn, sympathetically baffled by modern trappings but with the chilling adaptability of a charming political cobra – the supporting cast around him is mostly reduced to goofy behind-the-scenes media and office scenarios. Like the broadly offensive comedy show (Whoa, Dude) on which Hitler debuts, the general comic tone outside of Masucci’s improvised interactions with the general public does not imply the most positive things about the state of German comedy. One must note a clear exception: a spot-on parody of the best-known scene from Downfall, the acclaimed drama about Hitler’s last days, that will spark immediate appreciative recognition from internet meme aficionados.

There are glaring errors in Look Who’s Back‘s version of Adolf Hitler as well. Told by the newsstand attendant about his many Turkish customers, Hitler wonders if the Ottoman Empire had turned the tide of the war in the Axis’ favour, despite having been on history’s scrap heap for two decades by the 1940s. Even more difficult to swallow is an incident in which Hitler shoots a dog dead for biting him, the later-revealed footage of which is a serious hiccup in his rise to fame with MyTV. Look Who’s Back passes the episode off as being consistent with Hitler’s appetite for harsh discipline and cruelty, but it’s known that Hitler was also a vegetarian who deeply deplored cruelty to animals and had a particularly strong affection for canines.

Despite these hitches in its step, Look Who’s Back returns with a dogged satirical focus to its central point: despite generations of official legal and educational efforts to dissuade Germans from the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, a resurrected Hitler would find much sympathy and even enthusiasm for his ideas of populist nationalism among modern Germans. It is, of course, a cliche to liken even relatively mild expressions of conservative authoritarianism or racism or xenophobia to the views and practices of Hitler and Nazism (Godwin’s law and all that). But Timur Vermes (a co-writer on the script of Wnendt’s film version of his book) sees in Europe’s Islamophobic unrest ripe conditions for the rise to power of far-right demagogues of the Hitlerian type, and Wnendt makes that comparison explicit in the film’s closing moments (“I can work with this,” Hitler thinks, riding in an open Mercedes convertible and being greeted by a troubling number of Nazi salutes). Germany is not above another Adolf Hitler, Look Who’s Back suggests. Faults of its construction and comedic sensibility prevent it from making this point as strongly as it might have done, but the point is there, hard to miss and important not to dismiss.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Black Lives Matter’s Toronto Pride Protest and the Other Side of Inclusiveness

Toronto’s generally quiescent political scene, engaged in low-level rambling skirmishes over transit plans and minor public policies for much of the term of establishment-friendly Mayor John Tory, erupted this past weekend over a high-profile protest launched by the political action group Black Lives Matter Toronto during this year’s Pride parade through the city’s downtown. Halting the parade’s progress with a half-hour sit-in on its route, the invited activist group extracted a set of concessions from the parade authorities for future Pride events (although statements after the event from the organizers who signed the agreement indicate that they consider it non-binding). Black Lives Matter demanded greater representation, funding, and opportunities for black LGBTQ persons in future Pride activities, but also more controversially took aim at the police, whose discriminatory targetting of black persons is the core problem that the wider BLM organization aims to address.

BLM Toronto asked that police floats and booths be barred from future Pride events, at least those “accompanied by uniformed, armed” officers, which they referred to as a “stark reminder of the history of brutality faced by the LGBT community and visible minorities”. It goes without saying that this was a controversial demand, and discussion of the “no police” concession as well as BLM’s protestation tactics in general burned up media of all sorts through the city and across Canada and the world in the wake of the long weekend. Mainstream Canadian media, one of the most whitewashed institutions in the country, harumphed at the rudeness of these uppity rabble-rousers, and conveniently-placed gay Toronto Police officers made the media rounds criticizing the proposed exclusion of an official police participation in the parade. Even conservative media outlets like the Sun, hardly beacons of tolerance and acceptance of gay rights at any other times, became pride_logoovernight converts to their protection when it meant using them as a cudgel against more despised minorities (similar rhetoric buttresses the right-wing media’s frequent eruptions of Islamophobia).

Much of the foofaraw swirling around BLM Toronto’s protest can be traced down to the changed and changing nature of the Pride event, and most especially its public perception and socio-political role. One obvious riposte to those criticizing the protest is that the Pride parade’s origins lie in political activism, so engaging in further activism in its midst is hardly inappropriate but indeed appropriate. This argument, however, disregards how far Pride has come from its beginnings as a strident protest against the stigmatizing and criminalization of homosexuality. The raids on Toronto bathhouses conducted by Toronto Police over 30 years ago, for which chief Mark Saunders tentatively apologized for in the lead-up to Pride Week, were among the catalysts for the early Pride marches in the city and an open expression of desired rights by a then-radical and socially-marginalized alternative subculture.

Today, Pride is much altered from its more agit-prop early years, or even the comparatively adults-only display of open sexuality that followed. It has become an officially-sanctioned, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly, thoroughly mainstreamed public festival of celebration and inclusiveness. Even if conservative and bigoted elements of society remain quietly uncomfortable with it – as displayed by the firm, repeated refusal of Toronto’s previous mayor, the late Rob Ford, to attend to parade, a clear dog-whistle to the prejudiced portion of his Ford Nation voting base – Pride has achieved a level of cultural acceptance that was hoped for but only barely imagined by those who birthed it. This growth of popular tolerance and acceptance mirrors that of LGBTQ lifestyles and civil rights in general, but also reflects the altered form of political activism in favour of LGBTQ rights.

Pride was once about (and partly still is about) fighting for a right to be allowed to exist, to live as you are and not as the straight bourgeois order insisted you must be. With that ground won and much more, the LGBTQ rights movement takes aim at the stubborn vestiges of discrimination in the law. Legal actions and government lobbying, the practical paths to civil liberties, have taken precedence. If Pride events still have a political dimension and have not been reduced to a simple excuse for a party, they have moved towards a role of shaping the public image of gay life as fundamentally positive, as “normalized”. They are about raising “awareness”, that vital social justic buzzword that can sound like a call to self-satisfied inaction when uttered in the wrong way.

But Pride’s gospel of inclusion has meant that it has allowed many parties and forces to claim a share of it, to use it for ends that often differ from and sometimes even contradict that which the event is understood to mean. For LGBTQ persons, Pride is supposed to be a celebration and legitimation of their identity, an idealized if ephemeral safe space of not merely tolerance or acceptance of that identity but a much-needed glorification of it. For friends, allies, and loved ones of the LGBTQ community, it’s a way to openly express support for that community, still so often besieged by prejudice. But for a great mass of the public and for society’s institutions in particular, Pride is an opportunity to safely and enjoyably establish their bona fides as an open-minded and accepting wider community, no matter their views on and conduct towards the LGBTQ world every other day of the year.

This patina of positive image-branding for politicians, corporations, small businesses, and other insitutions is not universally rewarded; publically displaying acceptance of homosexuality is more expected in Canada or Western Europe than in much of the United States or Russia or certainly than the Middle East or Africa. But the key point to grasp is that as much as Pride has always belonged and still does belong to the LGBTQ community, the drive towards inclusiveness has meant that it belongs, to some extent, to everyone. And when everyone owns a piece of something, they will all have expectations of what it ought to be. And many of those who feel Pride belongs, at least in part, to them did not approve of BLM protesting in its midst as they did. They have bought into Pride, and this is not what they feel they have paid for.

For Pride, winning the sanction and even the support of government, police, and corporations has meant giving representatives of those bodies a seat at the table, a piece of the rainbow pie. Black Lives Matter Toronto, representatives (self-appointed, perhaps) of another discriminated minority whose image-burnishing possibilities have proven less attractive to the forces flocking to Pride, want a piece of that pie, too, even if they need to resort to radical activist tactics to get it. One unsettling truth exposed by BLM bringing Toronto’s Pride parade to a standstill on Sunday is that despite its embrace of inclusion and its annually unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream of Canadian society (that was sitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whooping it up in the middle of the parade, and even the Conservative opposition marched the route), the event and by extension the LGBTQ rights movement still has less space than it ought to for other minorities. In a country frequently smug about its progressive tolerance but afflicted with unsightly racial blind spots, perhaps this weekend’s exposure of the fragmentation of minority interests that would be stronger if united in solidarity will begin to be remedied.

TV Quickshots #29

The Night Manager (BBC; 2016)

BBC’s handsome, intelligent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1993 novel of espionage and infiltration is, more than anything else, a showcase for its stars. le Carré’s original story delved into the interconnections between international arms dealers and global business as well as the internal politics of British intelligence agencies. This six-part miniseries, directed by Susanne Bier, updates its context to the present day, with invocations of Egypt’s Tahrir Square unrest and the Syrian refugee crisis. Floating in the gilded shadows and profiting off of all such political crises is “the worst man in the world”, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a Teflon-coated upper-crust Brit arms dealer. British intelligence bulldog Angela Burr (a pregnant, pugnacious Olivia Colman) has nipped at his heels for thenightmanageryears, but not only cannot catch him but can only fleetingly glimpse her quarry.

A golden opportunity to pin Roper to her board at last is presented to Burr in the form of Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), the titular night-shift luxury hotel manager. Crossing paths with Roper and his associates at first in Cairo with tragic consequences, Pine (who has military experience) later meets Roper again in Switzerland and begins a covert effort in concert with Burr and her agency, and gradually with Roper’s girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), to bring him to justice as payback for the events in Cairo.

If The Night Manager has any handicap, it’s made manifest in its latter stage. After convincingly establishing high stakes and the potential for considerable collateral damage, matters are resolved extremely neatly and positively. Repeated emphasis is placed on the danger of Pine’s situation and just how difficult his sting on Roper will be, but it turns out to be fairly easy in the end. The predatory corporations and corrupt institutions that Burr and Pine fight through in order to take down Roper.

Still, it’s an involving package, and Hiddleston, Colman, and Laurie are all great, the latter particularly so with his deceptively laddy tone concealing a deadly aristocratic cobra. Hiddleston’s turn as the hotel concierge-turned-spy has sparked James Bond casting chatter (not that Daniel Craig is relinquishing that role yet), but really it simply galvanizes what anyone watching this actor for years has long known: he’s ruthlessly proficient in his charm, cold and warm in equal measure (often, dazzlingly, at the same time), with a laugh-and-smile combo that could punch holes in a safe door. Watching him, alongside Laurie and Colman and Debicki and Tom Hollander (as Roper associate Corkoran), is worth the price of admission alone.

The Americans (FX; 2013 – Present)

A spy saga of much greater and more troubled ambiguity than le Carré has to offer (in The Night Manager, at least), The Americans is also less likely to conclude quite so neatly. Created by former CIA spook Joe Weisberg and set in early 1980s Washington D.C., its protagonists appear, on the surface, to be a standard all-American couple with two children but are, in fact, deep-cover Soviet KGB sleeper agents deeply involved in stealing U.S. secrets, turning American citizens into informers and double-agents, and even infiltration and assassination missions.

Much of the series is based on Weisberg’s CIA experiences as well as The_Americansthe revelations of the Illegals Program, but its masterful execution and tangled, wrought thematic complexity and destabilizing meanings trumps any lingering tone of insider rib-elbowing. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) pose as humbly comfortable and non-descript travel agents, raising the increasingly rebellious Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) as dutiful and loving if sometimes forbiddingly strict parents. Meanwhile, what they’re really doing is serving the Soviet Union and the cause of worldwide Communist revolution, employing secrets contacts, combat skills, coded communications protocols, a plethora of disguises, and even additional secret identities, like a matryoshka doll of deception and subterfuge. When a FBI counterintelligence agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door, Elizabeth and Philip see it less as a threat than as an opportunity, as do their fellow operatives at the Soviet embassy.

In a television landscape dotted with antihero figures, a couple of KGB sleeper agents who work to undermine American interests and frequently kill U.S. citizens must very nearly take the cake. On a deeper level, The Americans presents both poles of the Cold War with as much balance and fairness as possible, its storylines and dialogue and character arcs expressing as much sympathy for the ideological and human struggles of KGB agents as the conventional American heroes at the FBI. On an even deeper level, though (there’s that nesting doll effect), the show questions the basic ideological assumptions of the Cold War and personifies those unsettled assumptions in Elizabeth and Philip (both lead actors, who have been in a real-life relationship with each other since the first year of the show, are superb, but Russell especially entirely shifts our view of her as a performer very drastically and impressively). Ideologically fanatical Soviet agents who doggedly protect their children’s freedom and safety in American society, they are caught between two diametrically opposed sides in a wider geopolitical conflict, while also faced with the core problems of any family unit and the fundamental disconnect between politics and the personal. Combine these fruitful dramatic and thematic stakes with a bold willingness to go for the jugular when it comes to those stakes and you have one of the most compelling narratives in a crowded television drama milieu.