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The Ten Verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, Ranked

The eleven-minutes-plus closing track on American folk-rock balladeer Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, “Desolation Row” is a rambling, evocative surrealistic trip through history, literature, society, and politics, with poetic images and resonant vignettes featuring enigmatically-sketched characters separated through ten verses. Each of these verses close with a line referencing the titular location, a place both romantically symbolic and agonizingly real, a grimy but indistinctly paradisical setting for the grinding suffering of proletarian life whose simple truths are repeatedly desired by the song’s numerous broken dreamers and fallen luminaries.

Like the modern poems that it references and self-consciously resembles (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a clear touchstone, and not just because its author appears in the lyrics), “Desolation Row” can be a difficult work to approach interpretively, so dense is its allusiveness and ambiguous is its symbolic imagery. Perhaps through the current online media ranking listicle format, that interpretive work of one of Dylan’s greatest compositions can be done in a manner that is as readable as it is modestly insightful. Therefore, here is an analytical ranking of the ten verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.

Desolation Row from Paul Tattam on Vimeo.

10. Verse 3

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

The weakest of the verses of “Desolation Row” reads like a parody of its strongest: poetic descriptions turned on their heads by wry jokes (the astrologist frustrated by a clouded night without celestial reference points for her predictions) and suggestions of social inversion (the dandy Good Samaritan preparing for a bacchanal) alongside a classic decontextualized gnomic Dylan couplet (“Everybody is making love / Or else expecting rain”). What drives this verse to the bottom, though, is the unclear shout-outs to Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike most other figures referenced by Dylan in the lyrics, these aren’t really doing anything, and it’s uncertain if they are there of their own accord or as the fortune-telling lady’s “things”. Most of the better verses in the song build a tone, a mood, and a character as well, but this third verse is just there, existing. Sadly, it’s filler.

9. Verse 10

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Or’s that some kinda joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

The song’s final verse offers a clever departing post-modern reframing of what has come before, returning to the ordinary and mundane realm of gossiping letters, broken doorknobs, and petty disagreements after the phantasmagorical name-dropping of the first nine verses. It’s a self-conscious and self-deprecating move in classic Dylan form: these iconic figures from literature and history and the imagination embroiled in their symbolically-elevated struggles are just stand-ins and aliases for mutual acquaintances of the narrator and his letter-penning frienemy. The reductiveness of it is knowing but kind of archly so, as the fiery young Dylan could often be, especially in his immediate post-electric period when much of his folk fanbase was calling for his head as a sell-out betrayal (ironically, “Desolation Row” is the sole acoustic folk track on Highway 61 Revisited). Separated musically from the dreamscape verses by a trademarked wheezing harmonica solo, these lines are far less imaginative and striking as those that led up to them and grate slightly in their suggestion that none of those words really mattered or meant a thing. Ever ready to confound, Dylan does return to the semi-chorus repetition of the titular locale at the end, however, suggesting slyly that maybe it wasn’t all such a lark after all.

8. Verse 6

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on the pennywhistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The difficulty in the verse ranking begins to show at this point, when the quality distinction between Dylan’s word clusters becomes so fine and slight that prioritizing one over another becomes a matter of personal preference. So I will say that Verse 6 is more or less one of my least favourite. Its ambiguity is nearly impenetrable and there are few truly memorable phrases that jump out and arrest your attention. Dylan is on an anti-medicine kick, one supposes, challenging the authority of medical professional in his iconoclastic way, but little of it coheres, let alone enthralls. The verse’s rhythm has a good flow, anyway, which distinguishes it a little from those ranked below it.

7. Verse 1

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad, they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The opening verse of “Desolation Row” is a scene-setting one, and as such is far from its finest. That said, for a song full of the surreal, the seemingly-unlikely opening line is actually a chilling reference to an all-too-real American horror: the lynching of African-Americans in the South, which often manifested as twisted communal events which would sometimes be photographed and commemorated with prints and cards for sale depicting the extrajudicial execution of other human beings. The reference to the restless riot squad, itching for “somewhere to go” to violently put down uppity citizens, is also a wry critique of the pre-conditions of police brutality. But why are the passports being painted brown? Is this a reference to a fascist bureaucracy? And the blind commissioner stuff just does not land.

6. Verse 7

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get outta here if you don’t know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

A priestly Phantom of the Opera presiding over a fashionable feast, ostensibly thrown to punish the consummate romantic lover Casanova by inflating his ego with flattery before tearing him down again. The young Dylan’s notorious distaste for social functions and the polite niceties that sustain them is expanded here to a tableau of institutionalized social torture, directed by a posing cleric of the church played by a refined gothic-romantic monster of the underground. It’s not the strongest verse or the point most worth making, but it’s certainly consistent.

5. Verse 5

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Most of the verses that feature historical or cultural characters mix them together in provocative combinations. Not (precisely) so Verse 5, which casts “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood” as a sad faded figure “with his memories in a trunk” who “was famous long ago” as a musician. Dylan has often returned to the tragic street-level ramblings of the homeless as a contemporary urban iteration of the nomadic hobo culture that fascinated his musical hero Woody Guthrie, and Einstein/Robin Hood (the modern paragon of scientific genius hiding in the guise of the mythical inequality-leveling sylvan outlaw) strikes a transient pose, bumming cigs, “sniffing drainpipes” (drug addiction?) and “reciting the alphabet” (low-key mental derangement?). Religion is poked in the eye again, with his monastic friend engaging in the sin of envy. Breaking the top half of the rankings among such marvelous collisions of words is no mean feat, but describing this engimatic figure as “so immaculately frightful” is the kind of magnificent use of language that defines Bob Dylan at his best.

4. Verse 2

Cinderella, she seems so easy
It takes one to know one, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

I can now admit that, as a younger man, I nursed a considerable crush on Dylan’s insouciant Cinderella with “her hands in her back pockets / Bette Davis style”. This image raises this verse’s profile above a couple of those ranked just behind it in my estimation, although the suggestion that the insufferably moony Romeo is confronted and perhaps brutally beaten for his romantic excesses (one of many suggestions of genuine sentiment being strongly punished by an uncaring social order) provides a dark lining to Cinderella’s attitude and casual cleaning at the conclusion.

3. Verse 9

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Dylan’s vocals gain such an uncanny force by the latter stages of “Desolation Row” that it elevates his lyrics and their meanings. This verse scarcely needs elevating, featuring his deepest and most evocative name-drop reference: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the exemplars of modernist poetry, fighting in the captain’s tower of the doomed Titanic, that maritime symbol of Gilded Age ambition and inequality. The whole verse has a marine theme from Neptune (the Roman god of the sea, linked disturbingly to that most infamously nasty emperor, Nero) to the great passenger liner to fishermen and mermaids and even the laughing calypso singers (reflecting the folk-scene vogue of Caribbean music, just as the fishermen holding flowers reference flower-child hippie subculture). There’s a troubling privileged escapism to these “windows of the sea”, as Dylan suggests the complacent rich elite walking the decks of their yachts and ignoring the socioeconomic deprivation (or does it represent a form of proletarian authenticity here?) of Desolation Row. There’s no need to interpret “Everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?'” as anything less than an invocation of the sharpening political divisions of 1960s America, divisions all the more stark and calcified a half-century later.

2. Verse 4

Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia’s verse is a singular character sketch, like Verse 5 but stronger, more focused, and more sympathetic. Dylan’s stance towards women in his songs is decidedly mixed; as great as his definitive song “Like A Rolling Stone” is, for example, it rather glories in schadenfreude at the diminished circumstances of its fallen elite socialite female lead before disingenuously suggesting that her poverty represents a kind of freedom. But here Dylan summons an empathy and understanding of the plight of Hamlet’s callously discarded girlfriend that even William Shakespeare fails to possess in one of the central texts of the English literary canon. Too much examination of and empathy for Ophelia would expose the Prince of Denmark’s self-involved quest for the irresponsible body-count-generating recklessness that it is. But Dylan feels “so afraid” for her and her lonely, suicidal, faith-driven romanticism. He sees her as a modern figure of tragic alienation, and gives her the most sublime of his images (“And though her eyes are fixed upon / Noah’s great rainbow”), delivered with a growing vocal force that exposes the prejudices against his singing as dull and unfounded. And yet this romantic aspiration of Ophelia’s is, as we know, ultimately fatal, and her eyes rise to the sky but continue to linger on the dirty gutters as well.

1. Verse 8

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

The most sinister and sharply political of the song’s verses is also its most powerful and hardest to shake. Employed by Alan Moore in his seminal graphic novel Watchmen to drive home his darkly serious vision of conflicted superheroes in a world of injustice, corruption, and oppression, the opening lines suggest an authoritarian regime rounding up dissidents and intellectuals before detailing their confinement not in dank prison holes but in the death-house production centres of industrial capitalism. This work-prison of productive exploitation suggests continuity from ancient feudal privileges (the reference to castles) and is overseen by not only the subalterns of state power but by the ordinary middle-manager insurance men. Desolation Row here is the last bastion of freedom, an enclave of liberty in a sea of strife. “Desolation Row” in general explores social decay, institutional breakdown, and the fuzzy margins of democratic capitalist society. But in this stunning verse, sung with waxing force by Dylan, the general critique becomes scaldingly specific: capitalism is the new force of oppression in the world, a sinister force to be feared and resisted.

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Categories: Culture, Music

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.

Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters at the Art Gallery of Ontario: An Alchemy of Passions

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

One evident truth about filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is that he is fascinated with monsters, the occult, and the dark side of the world. In Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, that fascination is detailed and quantified, expounded and expanded upon, given various compelling forms, and followed down every rabbit hole that the prolifically imaginative Mexican director is willing to allow the public to access. This exhibition of a variety of objects from del Toro’s personal collection opens this weekend at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto after successful runs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year and the Minneapolis Institute of Art earlier this year.

The AGO and these two American art museums co-organized the exhibition with del Toro’s intimate involvement. Besides loaning a great number of items from his overstuffed creative-inspiration manse outside of Malibu which he calls Bleak House (after the Charles Dickens novel, his favourite of the author’s works), del Toro recorded the audio tour for the exhibition (which can be heard here) as well as contributed quotations and context for the printed interpretive materials, and even chose pieces from the permanent collections of each institution that complemented his own displayed memorabilia and art collection. Dark etchings by Goya and Delacroix from the AGO archives, along with psychologically troubled modern art works, match his preferred aesthetic of darkly beautiful, monstrous Gothic arcana quite well.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now in his early 50s, del Toro made his own independent films and television in Mexico (where he met and became close friends and sometimes collaborators with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican contemporaries who have outstripped him in critical success and awards recognition in Hollywood). Moving to the United States, he worked as a special-effects artist before winning enough attention with films like 1993’s vampire film Cronos to begin directing larger-budget work in the 1990s, beginning with Mimic in 1997.

Del Toro has held to the pulpy realms of the fantastic and of horror for his greatest commercial successes: inventive comic-book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy and its sequel, as well as the more generic kaiju action blockbuster Pacific Rim (which is also getting a sequel). Alternately, he has made resonant and personal fantasy- and metaphorically-tinged historical dramas like the Spanish Civil War-set The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the latter widely considered his finest film and winner of three Academy Awards (all in technical categories; Iñárritu’s more stately but inferior prestige picture Babel overshadowed it that year); his latest yet-to-be-widely-released film, The Shape of Water, is evidently in this vein as well, and is already his most critically-acclaimed work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A prolific producer and a novelist as well (his vampire book series, The Strain, was co-written with Chuck Hogan and adapted for television), del Toro has been such an overflowing fount of projects that a great number have either not been made by him (he was connected to this year’s new hit versions of Beauty and the Beast and Stephen King’s It at one point, and he dropped out of The Hobbit movies due to delays) or not been made at all (his famously unmade passion projects like screen versions of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

The constellation of influences – horror movies, Gothic literature, Victorian culture, comic books, genre popcorn flicks, Disney animated features, Expressionist and Surrealist art and film, politics and history, lapsed Catholicism and mystical spirituality – visible in his films is embodied in the displays of At Home with Monsters. The exhibition is organized rougly into theme rooms echoing similar theme rooms in del Toro’s Bleak House, a veritable cabinet of curiosities transposed from the house-filling collection of eclectic possessions. Props, costumes, conceptual drawings and designs, and even life-sized maquettes from his own films (including the Master from The Strain, the Angel of Death from Hellboy II, and the Pale Man and Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth) join other props (notably some items from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most del Toro-esque thing Francis Ford Coppola ever made, for sure), paintings, sculptural recreations of movie monsters like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and gothic lit authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft, and Victorian artifacts. There are even copies (original and browsably digital) of del Toro’s byzantine notebooks, written in Spanish, English, and maybe some arcane Lovecraft-style code languages as well, and overflowing with sometimes terrifying sketches and drawings. There’s even a re-creation of Bleak House’s Rain Room, a relaxing library and dream writing space which fulfills del Toro’s childhood fantasy of a room where it rains 24 hours a day (I hope he placed a washroom in the near vicinity).

The overall effect of At Home with Monsters is to give the impression of a voluminous, polymath-esque mind manifested in an effluvia of objects which are then emptied into gallery spaces and assembled in a sort of chaotic order. A goodly portion of the appeal of del Toro’s films is the density of their visual design and the alchemy of sources and influences in their writing, themes and structure. At Home with Monsters is a display catalogue of those sources and influences, a practical table of contents of Guillermo del Toro’s passions and interests, an ingredients list for his intricate, peculiarly-flavoured film recipes. It’s a fascinating glimpse for fans of his work, and perhaps an attractive carnival funhouse gateway for potential new fans as well.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

The Confederate Lost Cause, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right: The Roots of the American Moment

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The events of this past week, which have revolved around a far-right rally and march in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned predictably deadly, feel definitional of the fraught current moment in American politics and society. A complex web of long-simmering ideological subcultures and raging-id grievances combined in this event. Ostensibly organized and headlined by a variety of far-right internet and alternative-media figures to protest the debated removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) in Charlottesville, the so-called Unite the Right rally last weekend became a magnet for right-wing groups from neo-Nazis to neo-Confederates, pseudo-intellectual white nationalists to heavily-armed “patriot” militias, the Ku Klux Klan to the smugly ironic online “alt-right”. The glue holding together these disparate pieces and giving them some desultory but dangerous sense of cohesion and social validation is a shared allegiance to President Donald Trump. His golf-course attire of light slacks, white polo shirt, and red “Make Americ Great Again” hat was even an unofficial uniform for many of the reactionary marchers.

The Unite the Right cohort were confronted by a prominent and critical swath of media coverage for their Friday night torchlight event and a strong showing of diverse but not ideological-fixed counterprotesters, united more than anything by their opposition to the white supremacist ideals being advanced by the chanting marchers, on Saturday. Violent clashes erupted between the opposing sides, culminating in a terrorist car-ramming attack by a far-right-connected young man who took the violent rhetoric of his confrères all too seriously. His attack killed one person and injured 19 more, but also turned general public opinion even more strongly against the fascistic rightists than it had initially been.

The aftermath of the deadly rally has become even more disconcerting. Amidst arrests, chastened media-shy Nazis losing their jobs, and denunciations by politicians of both parties, the reaction of President Trump was watched most closely. After running a victorious presidential campaign that featured the most openly racist and authoritarian tone in modern memory, Trump’s team continued to cultivate close ties with many of the very far right groups involved in the rally, who were also among his most loyal supporters. His chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was a key figure in this new resurgent extreme Right through its most prominent media mouthpiece, Breitbart News. Moreover, Trump himself often echoed the language and beliefs of this troubling slice of the spectrum, spouting racist conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and anti-left insults like a particular belligerent Redditor.

Trump first partially hijacked an intended inoffensive White House statement of dismay and denunciation with ad-libbed equivocation about the “many sides” to blame for the organized gathering of proponents of a violent ideology descending into violence. Then, after delivering a seemingly-forced stronger repudiation of the specific hate groups involved in Charlottesville’s tragedy, Trump alarmingly and semi-incoherently ranted out a series of Fox News talking-points and responsibility-deflecting YouTube comments blaming the essentially imaginary “alt-left” for the violence and insisting that there were many “good people” among the Nazi apologists chanting about exterminating Jews and threatening African-American churches with burning tiki torches. Even for wearied observers used to new descents into the muck by this most odious President, not to mention the savvy critics who have noted that Trump’s only consistently-held belief (besides his own continued self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment) is his racism, the sight of a sitting President openly and vociferously defending no-fooling Nazis and KKK was shocking.

How did America reach this moment? The contributing factors stretch on back before the founding of America or even the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, to be frank, but the shock of Charlottesville has a set of clear antecedents. The rally’s impetus, the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, links everything back to America’s founding sin: slavery. Furtively outlawed after the Union defeated the rebellious Confederate States of the South in the grindingly bloody Civil War in 1865, the enslavement of black people, and the racial order of white supremacy that mandated it, was thereafter transmuted into different forms: Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial violence, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary on these mechanisms of structural racism, 13th, offers a strong summation of their intent and effects.

In cultural and discursive support of these structures, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy gained prominence almost immediately after the Southern surrender at the end of the Civil War. Valourizing the bravery and sacrifice of Confederate Army soldiers but eliding the truth that what they fought for was the enslavement of African-Americans, the Lost Cause manifested itself in many ways, from the founding and periodic resurgences of the KKK to cinematic fictions of Southern nobility like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. But through the first decades of the 20th Century, it manifested noticeably across the South and beyond with a flurry of monuments honouring Confederate generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as political figures like Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rebels against government authority who would have been hanged as traitors in previous times and historical periods, these Confederate figures were instead enshrined as heroes in the public spaces of the old Confederacy (and in a surprising litany of non-Confederate states as well).

The commemoration of these monuments (many of which were cheap and mass-produced for quick distribution to counties across the country) not only rallied white citizens to the Confederate values of white supremacy reflected in then-contemporary social, legal, and political elites, but it also served as an implicit statement and even a threat to the African-American minority and its white allies that trangression of this order would meet with the full force of its vengeance. Combined with the increasing official usage of the infamous Confederate Battle Flag by state governments of the South, these monuments to slaveowners and slavery-defenders were a clear message: the White Man is in charge here, and don’t you forget it. Thus, the gradual progressive effort to remove these flags and statues from America’s public spaces is understood by right-wing white nationalists as a symbolic prelude to their feverish nightmare fantasies of “white genocide”.

While the cultural and discursive battles of the Lost Cause narrative have worn on, another parallel force arose on the American Right in recent decades: the so-called “patriot movement”. Focused around white-dominated (but not necessarily or inherently racially-demarcated) state militia groups, gun-ownership activists, and anti-government libertarian extremists, “patriots” conceive of gun control campaigns and legislation as the opening parry in the establishment of an authoritarian suppression of individual rights in America. The development of this subculture is traced indelibly in two films from PBS’s American Experience which aired, with serendipitous confluence, in the weeks following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President earlier in 2017: Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City especially acts as an illuminating history of the anti-government ideology that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led him to commit one of the worst terrorist acts of American history: the bombing of Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995, which killed 168 people. The events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 – a deadly stand-off between law enforcement and an isolated and armed family – as well as outside of Waco, Texas in 1993 – where a 51-day standoff between a fundamentalist Christian sect and the FBI lead to shootouts and an infamous conflagration that killed 76 people in total – figured vitally into the self-conception of the patriot movement and into McVeigh’s motivation for his mass murder. But the films also detail surprising unorthodoxies in the belief-systems of their principle actors. Ruby Ridge raid target Randy Weaver was a conservative Christian who socialized with white power groups but did not share their racial views; Waco’s Branch Davidians might have constituted a cult, but David Koresh’s followers were an inclusive and racially-diverse cult; Tim McVeigh began doubting his government’s intentions after serving in the Gulf War, his stated objections to what happened in Iraq reflecting progressive anti-imperialism more than right-wing ideas.

Often appearing in public heavily armed but purporting to be fundamentally law-abiding, current “patriots” may not sympathize with many of the beliefs of Lost Cause neo-confederates or white power groups, but they feel that they share the same enemies (liberals, the federal government, cultural elites). And they also increasingly share the same champion: Donald Trump. Add Evangelicals and cultural conservatives to his basket of deplorable acolytes, as well; although they were not necessarily wielding torches in Charlottesville, the relative silence of these groups in the aftermath of this past weekend makes their sympathies, or at least their perceived best interest, crystal-clear.

The absurdity of looking to a petulantly unstable, hideously narcissistic, and incompetently corrupt New York City business tycoon far more interested in golfing weekends than in ethnic cleansing to achieve their oppressive goals will surely dawn on even the most obtuse of these new fashionable Nazis and their loose affiliation of fellow-travellers sooner or later (though they’re mostly stunningly dim, so perhaps not). Donald Trump will disappoint and betray them as he always does to those who put their faith and trust in him. He can do no better. But racist white supremacists have far more reason for confidence in his dedication to their cause than anyone else, and he has signalled once again that he is firmly on their side.

Much of the criticism of these new young Nazis, most of whom are little more than wishy-washy weekend fascists trying on a shocking costume as they stumble around in search of an identity, has focused on the unAmerican-ness of fascism. But as we’ve seen, the ideological bedrock of the Lost Cause and the patriot movement is deeply entrenched in American history. Indeed, in both cases, much of the heavy lifting of self-justification of baldly undeniable treasonous resistance to the authority and legitimacy of American government is achieved by a historical appeal to the founding national myth of the Revolutionary War. Confederate rebels during the war (and their venerators well afterwards) thought themselves the Second Coming of the Sons of Liberty, defending the social order enshrined by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence from a changing, confused, bastardized nation that had lost its way. From their self-given moniker, it should likewise be obvious that the patriot movement considers itself the heirs to the righteous rebels of the 1770 & 1780s, upholding their constitutional right to keep themselves well-armed in the event that they would need to revolt against government tyranny once again.

The alt-right, as the social-media-savvy millenials arguing for everything from anti-Muslim laws to unfettered gun ownership to rollbacks of LGBT and minority rights to old-fashioned racist views of the inferiority of blacks to whites with Facebook posts and Tweetstorms and YouTube video essays, have marinated in the juices of the various Lost Causes of the Right for their entire adult lives. They can trumpet these ideas without understanding them, without conceiving of the contours of their consequences, and certainly without having witnessed the damage those ideas can do. They dip their toes in water that runs deep and cold, toss around casual extremisms in meme form like so many skipping stones as the ghostly corpses of past horrors float up beneath the surface like in the Dead Marshes. But the past cannot be simply retweeted. Its roots entangle us all, and they will drag us down if we do not cut ourselves free from them, from time to time. Now, Americans appear to be coming upon just such a time.

Canada 150 and the National Identity of Plausible Deniability

This year, Canada’s annual national holiday, Canada Day on July 1st, will be the focal point of well-funded and well-marketed government- and private-sponsored commemorations and celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. The political union of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, approved by British Parliament under the British North America Act in March of 1867, the Dominion of Canada went into effect on July 1, 1867, a century and a half ago this very day.

As much as Canada 150, as it is officially dubbed, is not much more than an excuse for slightly-juice-up Canada Day parties and any number of corny consumer tie-in and promotions (see Tim Horton’s unappetizing-looking poutine donut, notably only offered in American locations), the country’s sesquicentennial has also been greeted as an opportunity to reflect on national identity, character, and history. Although there is little to suggest that Canadians are particularly invested in thinking about these things, the media and pundit classes relish any sliver of a chance to pontificate on the subject of Canadian-ness.

Canada 150 represents considerably more than a sliver, and in all seriousness does demand a sober consideration of the ongoing Canadian project. The anniversary, and specifically its demarcation of a particular, official Anglo-Canadian political milestone and applying it to the entirety of a diverse country, has sparked more contentious discourse from non-white-Anglo minorities, including Francophone Quebeckers, recent generations of immigrant Canadians from outside of Christian Europe, and especially First Nations peoples. Not only is this latter group’s Canada count much higher than 150 (it’s somewhere up in the thousands), but the white European dominion over their lands fêted on Canada Day does not have such positive associations for Native peoples, to put it mildly. For many indigenous Canadians (political activists and ordinary citizens alike), Canada 150 is a birthday party for exploitative colonialism, and they’ll have to be forgiven for not waving a tiny maple-leaf flag.

We’re told by that same sober class of thought-leaders that Canadians in general aren’t much for waving flags, but it isn’t really true. Canadians are just as prone to the inartful display of empty nationalism as citizens of any other nation-state, particularly on the summertime national holiday or its proxies at other times, mostly during sporting events or Tragically Hip concerts. Nationalism is a team-colours blanket to throw over a complicated, messy history and a present order that falls short of best intentions, obscuring unacknowledged horrors and underappreciated triumphs alike. Nationalism is a conformist, assimilatory impulse that discourages the very displays of multicultural diversity that are just as often praised as one of Canada’s finest features. Nationalism is not a guaranteed malevolent force, but it’s a force that we might wish Canadians mistrusted and discarded as readily our thinking class believes they do.

Inevitably, on occasions such as Canada 150, the question is posed to the national ether, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” An answer that might strike some as flippant but is perhaps more descriptive than it appears at first glance might be: “Plausible deniability”. Being Canadian, as has been often observed, is a definition of identity through opposition: it means not being British or French, with their lamentable imperial histories and still-rigid class divisions; it means not being American, with their larger-scale disavowed sins against visible minorities, clumsy international influence, crass capitalist mass discourse, and endemic habit of parochial cultural self-sabotaging. I once called this identitarian tendency “exceptional unexceptionalism”, and still think it applies to the Canadian self-image. Smug Anglo-Canadian unity-and-assimilation-yearners (and there aren’t many other voices available to be heard in Canadian media) lament the ambiguous terms of Canadian identity, but that ambiguity frees Canadians from a crushing, irresolvable sense of historical responsibility for collective mistakes, the kind that seems to be dooming America to political stagnation and unbridgeable social rifts in the Age of Trump.

Perhaps this plausible deniability is a neat, slick trick at evading the consequences of past nation-building as nakedly if not always as violently racist as that Canada’s southern neighbour. But maybe a certain liberty lies in this ambiguity of Canadian identity, too, an inherent allowance for difference and fresh meanings that lets people in instead of shutting them out. Conflicts on this point are beginning to creep into our politics on the right, with failed Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposed citizenship tests for “Canadian values” literally enforcing governmental standards of identity on entrants into the country. But the nation’s generally welcoming attitude towards Syrian refugees, for example, shows that social and cultural norms resist such clamping down on openness; while a certain definite amount of hostility exists towards these refugees in particular and Muslims in general, especially on the Canadian right (which lies in a semi-embryonic culture-warrior state when compared to U.S. conservatives, which is currently encouraging but should be more worrying to Canadian progressives), elected politicians of all ideological stripes in this country still find it more advantageous than not to make welcoming public gestures to these newcomers and align policy in a similar direction, which is far from the case in the U.S. and many European nations.

Combined with a general (indeed rather remarkable) consistency of social and cultural stability in the country’s history, the lack of a fixed identity, of clear-cut terms of cultural qualification (let alone racial, ethnic, religious, etc.) for membership in the Canadian family grants a level of freedom that even woke progressives who are inherently distrustful of that oft-misapplied and appropriated term ought to convince themselves to appreciate. It can be tempting to dismiss Canada as more of a well-run publically-held corporation than a country, and a preference for economic prosperity over social fairness can lead to deep social pains, as can be seen in America (and often in Canada, as well, to be honest). Maybe Canada’s openness is better understood in such terms, as the eagerness of a retail nation to attract and not to alienate potential new customers.

Therefore, Canada’s collective marketing effort damps down ugly exclusionary impulses but also, we must acknowledge, past instances of corporate malfeasance as well. Canada 150 is just such a marketing campaign, in many ways, an accentuation of the good and a glossing-over of the bad. As you wave a maple-leaf flag, don red-and-white paraphenalia, down a few brews, or exercise your complete right to do none of the above, spare a few thoughts for both the good and the bad in Canada’s 150 years and beyond. It’s a step towards a honest way forward together, at least.

Categories: Culture, History, Politics