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Film Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Ready Player One is about a dystopian socioeconomic reality existing alongside a utopian technological fantasy. Notorious as a desperately obsessive compendium of 1980s popular culture featuring namedropped references to almost countless movies, television shows, video games, comics, and other media products (key moments include the protagonist winning a game of the ’80s arcade staple Joust and re-enacting an entire scene from the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames word-for-word), Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel is quite divisive among pop culture geek fandom for these “remember this?” nostlagia bombs as well as for the mid-level stalker-ish behaviour and toxic masculinity of its main character, arrogant teenaged super-gamer Wade Watts. I haven’t read it, but film adaptation nut and YouTuber Dominic Noble has, so check out his (spoiler-ful) video on it if you want to know more (he also reviewed the film and how it differs from the book, which you can watch here; I may borrow from his expertise here and there in my write-up, especially as regards book content).

What emerges from the 2018 movie adaptation of Ready Player One co-written by Cline and veteran screenwriter Zak Penn and directed by Steven Spielberg (whose work is treated reverently in the book, as a giant of 1980s American cinema, flattery that no doubt interested him in helming the film) is that Cline’s world-building details and his narratives themes contain, or possibly unwittingly conceal, a noticeable if tonally neutered critique of contemporary American post-capitalism and its subordinate culture industry dominated by intellectual property juggernauts slugging it out for overwhelming box office grosses and fleeting attention primacy in the cultural discourse. Jenny Nicholson’s video critique of the movie finds Cline’s breathless invocation of pop culture touchstones superficial and meaningless; I’m not sure I disagree, but in the margins beyond authorial intent, there’s some grim critical considerations going on as concerns the implications of the dystopia/utopia dichotomy of the text.

Ready Player One is set in 2045, where a series of social and economic calamities (brought about by an energy crisis in the novel, the Corn Syrup Droughts and Bandwidth Riots are mentioned as catalysts for collapse in Watts’ voiceover narration, which sound buzzy and punchy until you think about them for a second and they cease to make much sense) have reduced the world to widespread poverty, starvation, and general deprivation. Our Marvel Comics name-alike hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertical trailer park slum in Columbus, Ohio known as the Stacks, a low-income neighbourhood of mobile homes rising in stacked towers of precarious-looking scaffolding. Having lost his parents in the aforementioned catastrophic unrest, Watts lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). But where he really lives, where everyone in the world spends their most important time, is in the Oasis, a virtual-reality massively multiplayer online role playing game that constitutes an entire alternative universe as well as the sole remaining driver of the global economic system (in the book, it’s where education happens as well; Wade attends high school in the Oasis).

A vastly expanded and monopolistic hybrid of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft and something like alternate-reality social digital network Second Life, the Oasis features avatars of players vying for rewards and coins that carry real-world value. In addition to its economics being based on in-game micro-transactions, the Oasis is a single-life game for players; if your avatar dies in the Oasis, it is rebooted from the beginning, depriving players of all the leveling-up, improvements, items, and rewards that they have earned and, in many cases, spent real money on. Noble, a seasoned gamer, sharply criticized both the micro-transaction aspect of the Oasis, a charging method from video game developers that is extremely unpopular in gaming circles, and the single-life conceit, feeling that losing everything you’ve built up for your avatar at one stroke would be such a harsh result as to prevent the Oasis from achieving such widespread popularity. What this system does accomplish, however, is create a large class of players buried in crushing in-game and out-of-game debt, which they must then work off in corporate workhouse debtors’ prisons called Loyalty Centers, toiling virtually in the Oasis until their debt is paid off (which for many is never).

The Loyalty Centers are run by a massive tech corporation known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who under the leadership of scheming CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, who is far better than such thankless bad guy roles but carves out some decent moments) seek to control and further monetize the Oasis with intrusive, blanketing advertising. Control is competitively up for grabs because a key design element of the Oasis, and the main video game-style quest in the story, is a challenge open to all users to gain sole dominion over the Oasis for themselves by solving three puzzles planted as “easter eggs” (a term for hidden secrets for fans to seek out in games or even other visual media) by its late mad-genius creator, a widely-revered Steve Jobs-like tech savant named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who only turns out for Spielberg now, it seems), before his death. Players known as “gunters” (shortened from “egg hunters”) make finding Halliday’s concealed clues and keys their main goal in the Oasis, studying his memories for hints in a library/museum archive and memorizing his pop-culture obsessions, certain that the answers to the puzzles lie there. Halliday’s obsession with 1980s pop culture serves to explain the avalanche of said references in the book, if less so in the movie (which I will not entirely spoil but tend to run more towards the IP owned by the film’s production studio, Warner Brothers; no Star Wars stuff, for example, as that IP is owned by rival Disney). The movie’s challenges in this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-derived contest for heirdom are not not based in pop cultural references, but they link more closely with Halliday’s personal social interactions, especially those involving his fallen-out business partner and Oasis co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).

Wade’s Oasis avatar is called Parzival; the name is a reference to the Grail myth, though possibly more via John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur film than original Arthurian stories, knowing the source; the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail also makes an appearance. Parzival is a dedicated gunter, alongside his hulking virtual best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, whose real-life identity as an African-American woman is supposed to be a twist but is ill-concealed) and his sometimes allies the samurai-esque Japanese brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Early in the film, Watts/Parzival encounters another legendary gunter, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), during a run at the first quest challenge, a car race through a virtual Manhattan involving exploding obstacles, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and King Kong vaulting off the Empire State Building to smash any racer who lasts to the cusp of the finish line.

Although Parzival and Art3mis are rivals for the keys and the final egg, they begin a flirtation/romance that proceeds quite precipitously (the book takes place over a less compressed time period than the movie, and Watts goes full stalker after Art3mis breaks it off with him, which the movie at least avoids). They are aligned against Sorrento and his army of corporate-owned gunter avatars known as Sixers (so called because they have numbers and not names as Oasis callsigns; both Nicholson and Noble note that they are dubbed “Suxxors” by Wade and his friends in the book, a dumb online-gamer detail that feels true and is therefore missed in the movie), as well as a pair of shadow-agents: a champion-level online operator known as i-R0k (T.J. Miller) who Sorrento sends after Parzival after the latter solves the first egg challenge, and a real world super-investigator named F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) who tracks down Art3mis’ real-world alter ego, Samantha, who is active in a resistance movement against IOI’s socioeconomic tyranny.

Ready Player One proceeds as a video-game-style sci-fi adventure, but for once the saturating CGI effects of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster actually have a realistic and believable context: the Oasis is an entirely digital world, after all, therefore everything looks like a computer game because it is one. Spielberg doesn’t let the computer-generated artifice get in his way, though; he delivers a fairly cracking entertainment that mostly holds together at the seams, and his technical mastercraft is impeccable as always, aided by his usual cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (yes, the same man who shot Schindler’s List also shot a movie in which Mechagodzilla fights a Gundam). Pay attention to the circular movement of the camera as Parzival approaches his vehicle (the DeLorean from Back to the Future, natch) before the first race scene; Spielberg and Kamiński can impart fluidity and drama to even a small connective moment like this. Their craft, elegance, and cinematic savvy are evident in the final battle between IOI and the unified independent gunters (which controversially includes the Iron Giant blowing shit up despite being an animated metaphor for non-violence) and especially in the memorable second key challenge set-piece, set inside an impeccable, callback-heavy re-creation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that is a clear film-geek highlight (and more fodder for thinkpieces about Spielberg’s fraught relationship with Kubrick’s legacy, whom he met and befriended on the Overlook Hotel set; as if more such fodder was needed after A.I.).

Ready Player One is not without its problems. Wade and Samantha’s relationship in the real and virtual worlds is a little dull and stilted and lacking in real building emotion from the young actors, and indeed everything happening in the Oasis is far more interesting and engaging than any of the real-world conflicts. Spielberg is a master film craftsman, but he has his favoured conventions and slots them in dutifully, especially at the film’s climax: he cannot help but drop a blatant audience-signalling shot of cheering observers to underline the final moment of triumph, and police arrive to collect the villain at the end for purely formulaic reasons. This latter throaway moment raises any number of questions about the nature and power of actual government authorities in this world that are not remotely addressed in the rest of the movie, which casts the corporate giant IOI as the main antagonistic and coercive locus of power.

Indeed, the Oasis and IOI are the vehicles for post-capitalist critique in Ready Player One, which again may not be entirely intentional and indeed may cut against the grain of Cline’s purpose. It isn’t hard to read Cline’s 2045 context as a sci-fi commentary on contemporary modern America, with its crumbling social and physical infrastructure, massive socioeconomic inequality, smothering corporate dominion, debtors’ servitude, and all-consuming media monoculture focused increasingly on technologically-enabled escapist fantasies (Noble mentions that all of this, in addition to the book’s background of most political leaders being shallow, spotlight-seeking television personalities, struck him as far more real and applicable in the context of the 2018 film release than that of the 2011 book release). The Oasis is great, immersive fun in the in-film diegetics and for audiences to observe, but it’s an opiate of the people writ extremely large (its name gestures to this: a literal wellspring haven of refreshment and pleasure in an arid and unforgiving desert environment). Spielberg, Cline, and Penn seem to acknowledge this to some extent, dropping a unplugging-time note in the denouement about the future of the Oasis under its new management (as Noble observes, however, shutting down the world’s main animating economic, social, entertainment, and educational engine for two weekdays each week would have major consequences).

This older-generation moral to the young to shut off the video games and spend some time outside dammit occupies space in Ready Player One alongside a core theme about how authority, authenticity, and belonging are understood by online gaming communities and even weaponized as self-justifying mechanisms and against inclusionary efforts in such communities. Halliday’s easter egg challenge, at least in theory, is a Willy Wonka-esque test of worthiness in an heir to control of the Oasis; the victor will, by completing Halliday’s byzantine esoteric challenges like a tough game on a high-difficulty setting, prove themselves to be a better and more authentic avatar gamer than anyone else. There’s a self-righteous gatekeeping habit to online gamer communities noted by video essayist Harris Brewis (a.k.a Hbomberguy) in his superb video on gamer-centred webcomic Ctrl+Alt-Del that is encoded in Ready Player One‘s larger conflict between scrappy, talented independent gunters and the deep-pocketed infinite resources of the underhanded corporate giant IOI, a conflict literally embodied in the conflict between Wade and Sorrento. The former logs onto the Oasis in a makeshift repurposed abandoned van, the latter has a futuristic top-of-the-line gaming rig in his office but has to jot down his password on a sticky note because he can’t remember it. Watts has studied and memorized every detail of Halliday’s life and compendious pop culture obsessions and honed his skills in hours of gaming labour, while Sorrento can only trade John Hughes movie references with Watts if he has a team of dozens of lab-coated IOI-employed researchers feeding him the info via earpiece. Watts calls out Sorrento as a fake corporate vulture, unconcerned with anything but growing profits and not sufficiently appreciative of the animating truths and fulfilling experiences of the Oasis and Halliday’s pop-cultural overlay in the way that Watts is, as a true gamer.

Hbomberguy highlights a didactic Ctrl+Alt+Del comic ranting angrily about this precise tense dichotomy between the consumers who self-identify as superior scholars of games and guardians of their ultimate cultural capital and see the corporate monoliths expending real capital and the labour of its employees into making those games for them as greedy, bottom-line-focused capitalists ready to deform the treasured experiences and betray the dollar-loyalty of these “real” gamers for profit. This gatekeeping impulse is not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, and can easily be marshalled against perceived interlopers and unwanted intruders to the gaming world, especially women, minorities, and anyone who dares to challenge and shift the often toxic male power fantasies of the video game realm. These community practices and poses have led to far more problematic and antagonistic political views about diversity and progressivism in video games (ie. Gamergate and its spinoff ideological communities and pernicious effects) that has minted much of what is now known as the alt-right, one of the most disturbing and damaging political movements in the history of the internet. Ready Player One reproduces this dichotomy in its central narrative and thematic conflict uncritically, erecting a shorthand framework of intertwined morality and cultural savvy to establish IOI and Sorrento as the antagonistic force against authentic gamer Wade Watts and his friends. As with many corporate capitalist villains in blockbuster movies, there is little substantive in the ideological dimension of Sorrento and IOI that leaves space for their capitalist assumptions to be critiqued via an oppositional pedagogy, even if they do maintain their equity base via a sizable system of debt-burdened indentured servitude.

The centrality of this dialectic between consumer and producer amidst the gamer and geek culture context favoured by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One, book and film, reveals the inadequacy of any critical commentary in either text as well as the complicity of both texts in capitalist media processes. Cline, like his insert protagonist Wade Watts, doesn’t want to abolish or even reform the capitalist monoculture represented by the Oasis. He only wants to conquer it and thus prove his superiority in the enjoyment of it and in his comprehension of its cultural value. If dystopian narratives imagine exagerrated nightmare scenarios to highlight real social ills and utopian narratives imagine idealized scenarios to suggest how those ills might be ameliorated, Ready Player One, for all its screencraft and pure entertainment, is an oddly dissatisfying hybrid of the two. A utopian dystopia where endemic social problems don’t matter as much as beating a video game or quoting a line from a 1980s movie. Perhaps inadvertently, Ready Player One is a more biting critique of our culture than its creator could have ever intended or fathomed.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

COVID-19, Waco, and the Paradox of American Authoritarian Individualism

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

In the United States of America, the response to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic and its interrelated public health, social, and economic effects has been a disaster that has clarified not only institutional failures and governmental shortfalls but also national political and ideological divisions. Faced with a global health emergency and the attendant ripple consequences of economic stagnation due to mass business closures related to shelter in place orders and social distancing guidelines, the U.S. has predictably fractured along partisan faultlines while federal, state, and local governments have simultaneously varied their responses wildly from place to place and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Governors from Washington to Ohio to New York to Florida have managed outbreaks and resultant social and economic struggles with different levels of swiftness, competency, rhetoric, and ideological rigidness.

Critics of President Donald Trump’s administration, meanwhile, have found no lack of fodder in the federal response. Trump and his minions in the White House, Cabinet, and Congress dismissed and downplayed early warnings of the pandemic from as early as the last stages of 2019, and missed one critical window after another for preparatory action. Once COVID-19’s deadly spread in the States (deaths have risen to around 50,000 by the time of publishing, with a devastatingly large percentage in the country’s largest urban area, New York City) was impossible to deny, Trump and his team settled into a cycle of reply based in incompetence, wishful thinking, cruel diminishment of death tools, political gamesmanship, and naked opportunism. As Trump shifts blame for the crisis to foreigners and to domestic political opponents at lower levels of government, berates critical reporters in daily briefings and muses aloud if injecting people with disinfectant will kill the virus, and echo-chambers dubious (and possible more deadly) miracle pharma cures in chorus with a phalanx of Fox News propagandists, the media and state governments report a haphazard project of federal seizures of vital protective supplies and ventilators, apparently for distribution to friendly Republican-run state governments and/or price-gouging sales by hastily-established corporations linked to right-leaning plutocrats and GOP donors.

Most dangerously, Trump and the American Right has increasingly parroted the desirous discourse of that wealthy donor class to restore their profit margins by re-opening the economy as soon as possible, instead of observing social-distance protocols in a serious capacity at least until the graphed curve of increasing cases and deaths flattens and preferably until a vaccine is developed. This discourse has frequently ventured to its logical conclusion and culminated in open calls for essential-service labourers and the vulnerable elderly (the latter very much among Trump’s base of support) to sacrifice their lives for the greater economic good of their free market betters. The morbid cruelty and self-serving avarice of such arguments were amplified last week by a coordinated set of clearly astroturfed protests, funded and organized by nationwide Republican groups. Crowds of a couple hundred people, closely resembling the attendees of Trump’s now-shuttered political rallies, descended on state legislatures across the country to decry the unacceptable violation of their freedom represented by widespread quarantine efforts that stretched well beyond government restrictions and into reasonable market-based responses. This Trump-loyal petite bourgeoisie, mostly made up of small business owners whose generally underpaid employees would shoulder the burden of viral exposure risk just as frontline health care workers and grocery clerks currently are, demanded that the nation re-open, in at least one laughable case so they can buy lawn care supplies again.

The irresponsible and often lethal incoherence of the Trump-captured American conservative movement has been on full display during the pandemic and especially at these protests. The pandemic response has represented an intractable dilemma of balancing the need for collective action with the still-dominant American gospel of self-sufficient (or more accurately self-serving) individualism. The gulf between these opposing social and political tendencies has become partisanized and hardened to the point of driving a stagnant stalemate between left and right, Democrat and Republican, with the most vulnerable (minorities, immigrant groups, women, the elderly) suffering the cost, even before the descent of the pandemic.

In a predictable but very dangerous fashion, the collective public-health COVID-19 response of quarantines and closures and social distancing has become politically identified with liberalism, which in recent Democratic Party discourse and electoral platforms emphasizes government action and welfare-state support to address endemic socioeconomic issues, in a limited manner in socialism-skeptic America, of course, and always with the partnership of private corporations whose profit-hunger drives most of those issues in the first place. Conservatism’s anti-government perspective (at least when that government is not run by conservatives) and corporate-catalyzed hostility to social assistance has not only blunted the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, its increasingly open and shameless xenophobic parochialism has sparked unproductive initiatives (Trump’s only solution to any problem, of course, being to close U.S. borders) and anti-Asian discrimination. But mistrust of and hostility towards the perceived quarantine regime has also coalesced on the right (although nominally leftist splinter groups like anti-vaccination activists have gravitated there as well), leading to objections to continued social and economic closures as unacceptable tyranny by the oppressive state (although never by the actual head of state, of course, as long as he is Republican, in which case state oppression is seen to benefit them, at least until it doesn’t).

Trumpist conservatives have revealed in their ideological response to COVID-19 and its effects a roiling maelstrom of internal contradictions that ought to collapse their worldview into inchoate invalidation. But like all authoritarian belief-systems, and especially the most notorious ones such as fascism and Stalinism, Trumpism’s power lies not in resolving these contradictions in a Hegelian dialectic as Karl Marx proposed as the essential component of class relations, but in leaving them unresolved and unrestrained within and without the bounds of ideology (this is one border Trump will never seek to close). There ought to be a debilitating paradox in this strain of American authoritarian individualism, which denounces employment insurance supported by higher taxes on the wealthy as being oppressive tyranny on par with the Nazis and the Holocaust while unquestioningly supporting police brutality against minorities and chanting along with a President’s sing-song calls to imprison his political opponents, which threatens gun-toting violence in support of personal liberties but cannot conceive of expressions of that liberty beyond buying stuff and saying racist things.

Add in the conservative movement’s total melding with evangelical Christianity, and the twice-divorced, impossibly crude, serial adulterer and sexual harrasser Donald Trump’s seemingly-incongruous embrace as a holy champion by those same evangelicals, and the contradictions merely multiply. Patriarchal religious hierarchy, and the strived-for theocratic ideal of church authority over not only believers but civil society as a whole, is at its core a poor fit for the consumer-centric individualism ingrained in the American psyche by decades of corporate power and influence, a core belief that animates American conservatism today more than any other. Evangelical Christians’ theologically dubious dedication to prosperity gospel rhetoric serves to justify the worship of mammon that characterizes the Republican Party and is especially central to Donald Trump’s public identity.

Yet control by religious authority, as by political or corporate authority, ought not to coexist with or tolerate the tendency towards radical individualism, expressed in differing intensities by conservative-adjacent groups like America-First nationalists, libertarians, militias, doomsday preppers, and anti-government survivalists. How can one political ideology demand of its adherents self-erasure of identity in the form of total subordination to connected political, corporate, and religious power structures and resultant linked conceptions of communal belonging while also trumpeting complete socioeconomic self-reliance and inviolable freedom from centralized control? A liberal skeptic might pronounce, not without justification, that these versions of individualism, religion and authoritarianism are at the very least deeply misshapen and deluded and at most purposeful manipulative propaganda deployed cynically by power elites to maintain their privilege. But these anchors of belief are held with fervent firmness by their acolytes, creating a tapestry of overlapping, chaotic paradoxes that make the degraded conservatism of Trumpist ideology more difficult to pinpoint and therefore to discredit and contain.

This tension between these modes of authoritarian collectivity and of rugged, self-preservational individualism is explored with unexpected nuance, complexity, and potency in a television miniseries about a very different but appositely resonant incident in relatively recent American history. The Paramount Network’s six-part narrative dramatization of the shocking and enduringly controversial 1993 standoff and siege between the Branch Davidians religious commune and U.S. federal agents (first enforcement agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a.k.a. the ATF, then the FBI) at the Mount Carmel Center outside of Waco, Texas aired in early 2018, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the tragic and troubling event. Waco was praised for its tension, attention to accuracy and detail (the production built, shot in and around, and then burned down a replica of the Mount Carmel Center), and strong performances, especially from Taylor Kitsch as self-styled messianic Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and Michael Shannon as senior FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. It was also criticized for an excessively sympathetic portrayal of Koresh, who took numerous group members as wives and mothers of his children (including a 14-year-old girl) and psychologically manipulated and abused his perceived cult of followers to ensure their loyalty, even before the stubborn intractability of his apocalyptic religious vision forbade compromise with the authorities over a 51-day siege and eventually contributed to the tragic inferno that engulfed Mount Carmel during a FBI tear gas raid on April 19th that claimed the lives of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and Koresh himself.

In my view, it’s a testament to the nimbleness of the writing by brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle (along with Salvatore Stabile and Sarah Nicole Jones) and the depth of Kitsch’s performance that Waco is able to clearly establish both Koresh’s persuasive charisma and his disturbing authority and control over his flock. The central problem faced by Waco from a storytelling perspective is that the historical events offer up no clear good or bad side (as real, non-propagandist history frankly tends to do), no obviously sympathetic protagonist for the audience to latch onto and identify with in their struggle. Does one make heroes of the trigger-happy, militarized zero-tolerance feds, or the polygamist, statutory-raping religious fundamentalist cult leader raving about the end of the world, with a fanatically loyal entourage and a stockpile of illegal firearms?

The Dowdles and their co-writers tackle this dilemma by basing their narrative on two published sources and by casting those sources as key sympathetic characters on each side. Noesner’s book is one source, and Shannon’s expert FBI negotiator is depicted as the voice of reason in the law enforcement response, emphasizing communication, goodwill, and even limited and entirely pragmatic expressions of understanding and empathy in achieving resolution to the standoff. Noesner’s talk-first approach is contrasted with the privileging of fear, psychological torture, intimidation, and finally open force preferred by tactical commander Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), a strategy that leads to the tragic conflagration and mass death that was neither side’s intention (any death-cult mass suicide fantasies attributed to Koresh and his followers are repeatedly disavowed). Waco also draws from the first-hand account of Mount Carmel survivor David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) for perspective from inside the compound, and therefore characterizes Thibodeau as the kindest, most decent, most doubtful, and most well-meaning Branch Davidian for audiences to latch onto.

Waco characterizes the tragic conclusion to the standoff, depicted with harrowing, operatic intensity in the final episode (the Dowdles are known for their horror films, and they summon a sense of incipient terror in the raid and inferno sequence), as being the result of mistakes on both sides. It presents numerous Branch Davidians wondering why their government is out to get them and won’t just leave them alone, but does not shy away from either the moral horror or the legal jeopardy of Koresh’s polygamy and child marriage (although Texas law at the time allowed someone under the age of 18 to marry with parental consent, anyone over the age of 18 having sex with a person under the age of 17 is guilty of statutory rape, regardless of consent) and includes a lingering shot with ominous scoring of the group’s considerable arsenal of modified automatic weapons hidden in the building’s vault. It also depicts the feds as constantly and non-productively working at cross purposes, with the ATF commander ignoring the warnings of an undercover agent (John Leguizamo) that the Branch Davidians know they’re coming and rolling in guns blazing (this initial raid resulted in 6 dead Branch Davidians and 4 dead ATF agents, losses that made neither side eager to back down), and then the FBI tactical division undermining advances made by Noesner in negotiations. This latter cutting off of outreach efforts at the knees is crystallized in an illustrative incident: with the community’s mothers unable to produce milk for their babies due to stress and malnutrition, Noesner laboriously negotiates to provide the besieged with milk in exchange for the release of some of the children inside, but Decker undoes any progress in building trust and cooperation by cutting electric power to Mount Carmel, which causes the milk to spoil without refrigeration.

Waco repeatedly presents Noesner as a kinder, better alternative to the militarized policing represented by Decker (who is put through an agonizing first-hand realization of the terrible costs of his tactical focus before the end), while counting on the dispiriting knowledge that despite the Mount Carmel catastrophe, America’s authoritarian police state tendencies still won out in subsequent years. One could expand this dichotomy to the wider scope of American imperialism, with soft-power diplomacy contending with hard-power military intervention in the superpower’s foreign policy and military intervention usually winning out, to the general detriment of the countries being intervened in and to America’s global reputation as well. But in both of these cases and especially the one presented in Waco, the field of dichotomous perspectives is highly limited and arguably even false; this is a tug of war of tactics alone played out inside the boundaries of the same overarching strategy and goals of the law enforcement superstructure, a debate between agents of state power about the most efficacious methods to compel citizens to obedience to the dictates of that power. No matter which “side” triumphs, authoritarianism wins in the end.

Waco is most complex and difficult to parse when dealing with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. On the one hand, the miniseries presents them as real people with human concerns and foibles and not as brainwashed cultists (although their weaknesses make them easy marks for Koresh’s pitch, in their own ways), and when disaster strikes at the series climax, their horrible deaths and desperate attempts to save their loved ones and themselves are given the full clear-eyed emotional representation of high tragedy. But the Branch Davidians are also paradoxical personifications of American authoritarian individualism. There is a strong far-right, anti-government, guns-right-extremist element to the group (which is what attracts the ATF’s attention to them in the first place, with related illegal weapons purchases), a perspective driven by the apocalyptic religious millenarianist separatism favoured by Koresh, with his repeated eagerness to read events at the compound through the prism of the Book of Revelations. The government, as with all of secular society, is out to get them and prevent them from living their lives on the basis of their beliefs, in their view, and it’s a view that is a pre-requisite to armed conflict and even mass sacrifice, however often the Brand Davidians deny that they intend to turn Mount Carmel into another Jonestown.

But alongside this familiar strain of radical individual freedom is the collectivity and erasure of self that characterizes marginal religious fundamentalist movements, which operates not as a contrast to conceptions of radical individualism but as fanatical corollary of them. The Branch Davidians dress up their lifestyles at Mount Carmel in bright garments of love, family, and belonging to present themselves to the world in a positive light; Jacob Vasquez, the undercover ATF agent played by Leguizamo, is not a little seduced by good vibes of the community, and is worked on with subtle persuasion by Koresh. Koresh leads the group in Bible study sessions and plays secular rock music with smouldering rock-star magnetism (the first-episode scene in which he meets and recruits Thibodeau, who is a underemployed drummer, at a nearby bar features him and his band playing The Knack’s “My Sharona”, an ironic/unironic choice considering it’s about being in love with an underaged girl). But like the hidden arsenal of guns glimpsed when Koresh enters a walk-in vault freezer to get ice cream, darker truths lurk behind this friendly facade.

Koresh enforces strict celibacy on the community’s other men while insisting that he himself has a right to sexual congress with any of the community’s women that he chooses. The FBI comments pointedly that when self-styled prophets like Koresh claim to be receiving the revelations of God, one of those revelations tends to be a command to sleep with as many young women as possible; one could apply this observation not only to other fundamentalist cults but to the early history of now-mainstream religions (for what is a religion but a widely-accepted cult, as a religious scholar points out on a local radio talk show?) such as Mormonism and Islam. More than anything, Koresh’s practices of polygamy and child marriage are what turns normal people against him and his followers, and he isn’t unaware of the legal problems these practices place him and his people in either (he asks Thibodeau to marry his underaged wife Michelle, played by Julia Garner, in order to mitigate the legal jeopardy).

Why does he do it, then, besides the obvious corporeal desires and/or genuine belief? Waco presents Koresh as an expert psychological manipulator and quietly ruthless authoritarian figure (he had to be to rise to his position of power in the Branch Davidians, whose pre-siege history is absolutely wild and entirely cutthroat), and two mirroring scenes demonstrate how keeping multiple wives who bear his children functions in compelling loyalty and obedience and preserving his power over his followers. During the siege, Koresh is approached first by his chief lieutenant Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) and then by David Thibodeau with requests to allow women and children that they care about to leave the compound, which in both cases would have saved their lives.

Schneider, a former theology professor at the University of Hawaii originally from Wisconsin (hence Sparks’ well-observed Midwestern accent), was convinced to join the Branch Davidians upon hearing Koresh’s interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelations, and became the group’s top recruiter. He and his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough) are unable to conceive, but she has a child with Koresh. Judy was injured in the ATF raid, and Schneider asks Koresh to allow her to leave with the baby, although he has every intention of staying. Koresh refuses the request, invoking his privilege to decide as father of the child. This is reflected in Thibodeau’s later request in a far deteriorated situation to leave and take Michelle and her daughter Serenity, with whom he has bonded, with him; Koresh will let Thibodeau go, demurring about the influence of his concerned mother (Camryn Manheim) outstripping his own, but again refuses to relinquish his hold over his wife and child. Taking multiple wives and reproducing with them is not merely a base expression of degraded horniness or an overly literal reading of now-outdated Biblical practices; it is a way for Koresh to extend the tendrils of power through his spiritual family by transforming it into his actual genetic family.

The Branch Davidians that emerge from the Waco miniseries are a specific and paradoxical American archetype: authoritarian individualists, emphasizing their freedom of choice and liberty from state coercion (represented by the contrasting factions within the FBI and the ATF) while simultaneously subsuming their identities and their agency to the unquestioned total authority of a sainted leader whose own manipulative and amoral conduct is frequently anything but saintly. It’s an authoritarian power relation, redolent of cults of personality around leaders such as fascist Hitler or Mussolini, communist Stalin or Mao, the Kims of North Korean juche, and, yes, the Fox News fantasy of Donald Trump’s greatness. Like Koresh but unlike the (often pitiless) secularism of the other listed examples, Trump has found the patriarchal appeals to ultimate authority fundamental to Evangelical Christianity useful in buttressing and expanding his power, although they are unlike each other in nearly every other way (Koresh memorized the entire Bible, for example, while Trump probably couldn’t autonomously quote from it if he tried). And like all of these earlier figures, Trump has found the paradoxes inherent to an authoritarian mindset to not be hindrances but to be highly beneficial and even transcendent of authoritarianism’s ideological contraints. In a time demanding productive collective action, Trumpist authoritarian individualism is a collective inaction of a counterproductive and even lethal type.

“Up to My Ears in Miserable, Quote, Unquote ‘Art'”: The Monitor by Titus Andronicus, Ten Years On

April 16, 2020 Leave a comment

Rock and roll is dead. Musicians will continue to play classic songs of the genre, and even continue to form bands, craft songs and albums, chase the rock star dream. Heck, before a global pandemic made live concerts one stunning impossibility among many, they remained a hugely popular draw for income-starved rock groups. But gradually at first and then practically all at once, the rockists watched as their favoured musical genre and privileged subculture, so long held up as the bastian of artistic authenticity in the shallow midst of popular music’s frantic swirl of the pursuit of the new, vanished up the tightened sphincter of its own self-importance as that self-importance ceased to be backed up by vindicating mass appeal. Be it due to ephemeral changing trends or imperceptible shifts in culture or changes in digital music-making technology and delivery methods and mass media engagement, rock sunk back into the muck of subgenre fragmentation, all while new forms of pop and urban music dominated the mainstream charts and static radio, and the hyper-polished corporate monster of modern country music captured rock’s former bread-and-butter demographic of working-class conservative whites. The kids don’t care about rock music anymore. It’s been some time since they did, and there isn’t much to suggest that this might turn around anytime soon.

This was only slightly less true a decade ago in March of 2010, when a ragged New Jersey-formed indie-rock group named Titus Andronicus released their second album, The Monitor. It was at the tail-end of the indie wave of the 2000s, and the torch of authenticity and immediacy that indie-rock had kept burning as a rock subgenre hadn’t yet flickered out, despite many principals of the indie world slipping into the skins of major-label radio and touring juggernauts. The Monitor might have been the final flare-up of that guttering flame. It’s fiery, aggressive, righteously bombastic, slamming together punk’s confrontational energy and blunt directness with the reaching, operatic ambition of album-era classic rock; it’s so steeped in terms of authenticity and immediacy that it’s almost painful to look in the face at times, when it isn’t thumbing its nose at the very idea of living with any integrity in a debased, defaced, disgraced, and destroyed reality. This wasn’t rock’s last hurrah, and despite the album’s expansive ambition, the band would hardly have so swelled a sense of vitality to claim to have crafted the creative capstone of one of the most important cultural movements of the past century. But it was a creative opus steeped in history as much as in the present, in the continuity of helpless stasis and the eternality of boundless ennui. In terms of the album-centric conception of rock’s defining long-play masterpieces, it’s hard to think of another album since The Monitor that approaches the heights of achievement of the genre’s classics.

Flipping past the ghostly 19th-century photograph on the album cover, long-dead men in uniform leaning in momentary cool leisure as if posing for a historical-proxy band portrait, The Monitor‘s opening moments are indelibly striking. It’s an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address, one of the future President’s first published speeches and an early highlight in his remarkable career as a political orator. Read in voiceover by poet and teacher Okey Canfield Chenoweth, it’s a title-page epigram in aural form, a thesis statement for the glorious, rambling, epic journey to come:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe and Asia could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or set a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be it’s author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.

Lincoln referred to the United States of America as a nation that cannot be conquered from without but can destroy itself from within via its own internal contradictions. For Lincoln in 1838 as well as until his death, the most forceful and dangerous of those self-destructive contradictions was always slavery. Endemic compromises and half-measures to address the deep divisions between white and black, slave and slaveowner, free state and slave state, North and South would continue for over a decade after Lincoln uttered these words in Springfield, Illinois, until in the early days of his Presidency, the American Civil War would break out over the slavery issue’s political instransigence. Intractable semi-solutions and politically-engineered gridlock would do no longer in 1861; slavery would live on or it would die with suddenness, and either way this resolution of last resort would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Freedom not only ain’t free, it’s practically unaffordable.

The Monitor was the brainchild of Titus Andronicus singer, guitarist, and lyricist Patrick Stickles, the band’s primary figure and rock-poet cynical savant. It’s a record of his personal turmoil, doubts and grievances (the band’s debut album was entitled The Airing of Grievances, after a line in Seinfeld‘s iconic “Festivus” episode), as well as a stealth break-up album. But it was also inspired by Ken Burns’ seminal multi-hour PBS documentary The Civil War, which for all of its flaws and foibles (centering of neo-Confederate Lost Cause historical perspectives chief among them) remains the most powerful and widely-consumed history of America’s “Second Revolution”. As Ryan Leas details in his 10-year retrospective essay on the album for Stereogum a month ago, Stickles plucked the fascinating but utterly non-decisive sideline battle between two ironclads (half-submerged steel gunships, clumsy and dangerous proto-submarines) for both the album’s title (the USS Monitor was the Union ironclad warship that slugged it out with the Confederate USS Merrimack) and for the album’s core theme of being mired hopelessly in any number of intractable stalemates whose rare victories are entirely pyrrhic: in politics, in economics, in the culture war, in relationships, in psychological equilibrium, in extracting even a shred of meaning from human existence.

The Civil War is notoriously the war that never really ended; the battlefield conflicts over the preferred American system of social and economic inequality merely moved into the political and cultural spheres, where they endure, unresolved and unresolvable, to today, pre-determining divisive partisanship and crippling attempts at legislative problem-solving and social understanding. The fundamental polarity of this long American civil conflict, absolutely key to understanding the history of rock music, is evoked directly by Stickles in The Monitor‘s roiling centerpiece “Four Score and Seven” (again, a Lincoln quotation, from his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address), which segues from slow, quiet laments for shaken moral equilibrium to furious recriminations before settling into a seemingly endless wailed refrain: “It’s still us against them”, only chased by an anguished primal scream admission of “And they’re winning” and a final neutron-bomb explosion of a rock and roll instrumental coda.

The thing about this refrain and its dispiriting endcap is that in context of The Monitor as a whole, Stickles could have equally sung the line as “And we’re winning” and, whatever the absolutely literal implication of those words, it would have come across as no more or less triumphant or deflating (the album’s second song, the richly sarcastically-titled “Titus Andronicus Forever”, consists almost entirely of the related, repeated refrain, “The enemy is everywhere” over blasting power chords, while its second-to-last companion track “…And Ever” repeats the structure over rollicking ragtime piano). One imagines that Stickles, ever-cognizant of the looming legacy of rock history, could very well have recorded or performed differing versions of the song, the identity of the likely victors swapping each time in the lyric sheet in reflection of his attitudes and opinions of the metastatic moment, like John Lennon repeatedly flipping the script concerning violent rebellion against injustice in “Revolution”. The Monitor is a long-form tone poem about the negation of hope and the freedom of disillusionment, and it lands on either side of the line between optimism and despair multiple times within the space of the record, even in the space of a song or a single line.

It’s in the quasi-literary permanence of Stickles’ dominant pose as a relentlessly self-aware romantic fatalist that The Monitor overmasters the pretentions of finding thematic and emotional common ground between the deadliest war in American history and a mid-20s indie rocker’s navel-gazing crisis of meaning and conscience and belonging. Following the opening Lincoln quotation from Okey Canfield Chenoweth (identifed by Leas as Stickles’ high school teacher, although I couldn’t find that info anywhere else so we’ll have to take his word for it), the band launches into “A More Perfect Union” (a phrase from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, made current in 2008 as a title of an important campaign speech by the most self-constructedly Lincolnesque of Abraham Lincoln’s political heirs, Barack Obama), an unlikely punky rave-up shout-along anthem that self-consciously draws from a well of proletarian authenticity so popular in rock history as to now be shallow and dry: being from New Jersey. As if aware of the long, fraught tail of New Jersey experience being purposed as shorthand for poetically elevated suffering, Stickles fires directly at the state’s grandest artistic avatar’s most potent expression of struggle and wanderlust: “Tramps like us / Baby, we were born to die” comes the scraping cry from Stickles’s vocal cords, a parodic reference to Bruce Springsteen’s enormous shot-across-the-bow anthem “Born to Run”. The import is clear: whatever the Boss told you 35 years ago, now there’s nowhere left to run.

Structured in movements like a classical composition in the manner of all of The Monitor‘s longer songs (all but two of the ten tracks top five minutes, and five songs stretch past the magical 7-minute mark of notoriously-lengthy rock hits like “MacArthur Park” and “Hey Jude”), “A More Perfect Union” shifts through more apparently confessional lyrics in its middle section (Leas notes that Stickles had moved to the Boston area for a relationship that did not last, snapping into focus the rootless push-and-pull between his native New Jersey and “the lights of the Fenway” with a “cruel New England winter”). Then, like a supremely improbable blood-red sunrise, an uncannily familiar lead-guitar melody lines segues into an utterly rousing adapted-lyrics singalong of “Battle Cry of Freedom”, a popular and enduring Civil War ballad written to extoll Unionism but also adapted for Confederates, which then turns into another Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, with Stickles plucking the tune’s original lyrics about the martyred radical abolitionist John Brown alongside the “Glory, glory, hallelujah” chorus. It’s a stunning composition when pulled apart or just when listened to without digging further, with layers of musical history from modern times and the Civil War era combining with the personal psychological explorations of rock poetry.

The rest of The Monitor is not as singularly arresting as either “A More Perfect Union” or “Four Score and Seven” are as individual compositions, but the boozy, lurching rock-opera singalongs deepen the themes of trapped, cynical alienation with unlikely flashes of inspiration and redemption, all knit together by further voiced-over quotations from Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, and William Lloyd Garrison read by Chenoweth as well as the band’s indie-rock colleagues: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls, and Nolen Strals of Double Dagger. “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” closes with the most unlikely affirmational refrain imaginable: “You will always be a loser” (“and that’s okay”, growls Stickles as the scorching guitars begin to fade). The gauntlet is dropped on wordy, super-extended titles, a mainstay of indie-rock (think Sufjan Stevens) and fine art (think J.M.W. Turner) alike: “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem)” is the longest, and ties together the titular Shakespeare nod with more Civil War references and a head-spinning lyric that adapts a catchphrase from the old Scooby Doo cartoons into a moment of imagined accountability for explotative rich and powerful warmongers.

“A Pot in Which to Piss” commences with Ramone quoting Jefferson Davis about accepting the crowd’s plaudits during his inagural address as President of the Confederate States of America while having premonitions of “thorns and troubles innumerable” in the coming armed struggle with the North, and personalizes those thorns and troubles with images of bullying, abuse, and sore criticism. This is the song most illustrative of Stickles’ deceptively elegant balancing of smothering pessimism (“Nothing means anything anymore / Everything is less than zero”; “You’ve never been a virgin, kid / You were fucked from the start”) and bruised but unbowed determined resistance (“There’s a white flag / In my pocket / Never to be unfurled”). This forever-contradictory dichotomy is summarized succinctly in the song’s (maybe the album’s) most incredible line (in an album full of incredible lines) of ambiguous implication: “I’m at the end my rope / I feel like swinging”, exasperated, anguished finality culminating in death, liberty, or some macabre and philosophically broad combination of both.

“Theme from Cheers” demolishes the sitcom-derived romanticization of alcoholism, a raise-your-glass drinking song about the depressing, regretful loop of raising your glass to drink. “To Old Friends and New” is the album’s most sustainedly pretty and moving moment, a classic-rock, lighters-aloft piano ballad duet with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak that is (mostly) sincere and heartfelt about keeping it together through hard times, if often subversively so, in Stickles’ standard mode (“We can build a nice life together / If we don’t kill each other first”; “The reasons for living are seldom and few”). “It’s all right / the way that you live” is this song’s grand singalong finale, and it feels for all the world like a secular benediction, the understanding and sympathetic utterance of a wise holy man. It’s little wonder that The Monitor inspires such devotion and deep identification from its appreciative fans, a powerful investment that Stickles has struggled to live up to with further Titus Andronicus albums over the past decade (which have admittedly produced a certified banger or two).

The Monitor arrives at the promised destination of its core historical touchstone with the 14-minute closing epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, the name of the naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in 1862. The historical battle took place over two days, and it feels like the song named after it stretches on for that long as well. Titus Andronicus is hardly everyone’s cup of tea musically speaking, their punk-ish aesthetic clashing with standard assessments of aesthetic beauty in quite purposeful ways, and grinding through loud, dirty guitars, deep-thud drums, and Stickles’ favouring of tonsil-shredding wails and growls over more standardly pleasing pop singing over the extended periods of time that their longer songs take up can be a chore for the uninitiated or the disinclined. Add in a 2-minute (absolutely epic) bagpipe solo and you’re unquestionably going to turn some people off. But if you can get through it, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is every bit the grandiose conclusion that an album of The Monitor‘s massive but never overwhelming ambition deserves. Stickles’ words, sung with exquisite self-loathing, are a panoply of struggles against depression and sadness and moral judgement and defeat and cultural indoctrination and crippling, fatalistic irony. They also return with raw emotional devastation to the Boston heartbreak that partly inspired the album and came up obliquely in “A More Perfect Union”, which is now the impetus for a pained litany of self-recriminations and predictions of substance-abuse coping mechanisms spat out as the narrator retreats to New Jersey in shame.

The confessions in the middle of “The Battle of Hampton Roads” are rockism in its purest distillation, grounded in the beknighted assurance that only with a guitar and a raw, vulnerable, imperfect voice can the deepest and most authentic truths of the artist’s soul be communicated with the directness and power that they demand. In the same way, The Monitor is perhaps the last true rockist masterpiece, a loose concept record full of Big Ideas and penetrating themes connected across personal experience and cultural consciousness and political history, animated by ambitious, well-crafted, powerful music. It is, to quote Stickles in “Four Score and Seven”, “miserable quote, unquote ‘Art'”, which he self-deprecatingly claims that he “struggle(s) and… stammer(s)” out of himself until he’s “up to my ears” in it. Of course, rockism is, and always was, arrogant, entitled nonsense, no matter how fervently your younger self believed it was true (and mine certainly did). Rock music does not and never did hold a monopoly on authenticity or artistic truth, and the implication that it did is myopic and small-minded (and quite possibly racist and/or sexist to boot). Rock and roll did not die when its claims to ultimate authority were undermined by vanishing market share, and fundamentally equating commercial popularity with artistic importance (however occasionally the two overlap) is a fool’s errand as well.

But The Monitor both embodies and overcomes these pitfalls and genre cliches. This essay on its meaning and importance from the retrospective distance of a decade makes it sound hopelessly portentous, but the truth is this record is a ball, a goddamned party. Its full-throated singalongs can be subversive and self-deprecating, but that renders them all the more cathartic. The skill and precision of the songs’ construction and the hairpin turns of collective musicianship that allow for their execution is impressive but also bone-deep irresistible in indefinable ways, as only fine music can really be (its great indie-rock contemporary work from that year, The National’s High Violet, functions in a similar way if not more so, with its more inscrutable lyrics and downbeat tone). It’s immediate and persuasive art, above all, not at all dry or intellectualized, even if it is intellectual. And now, perhaps even more so than in 2010, The Monitor communicates something fundamental about America, about Americans, and about all people: destruction and danger comes not from without, to be deterred with walls and travel bans, but from within. Patrick Stickles embraces his unseen enemy in the final stanza of the album, calling it “my darling” and begging it, “Please don’t ever leave”. For all of its darkness and rage and cynicism, The Monitor is about self-care and improvement, about looking the demons that haunt us in the face and admitting that we let them in and can’t count on anyone else to drive them out, so we best do it ourselves or else learn to live with them. This is applicable to personal psychology as much as to politics, culture and society: live forever, or die by suicide. There is fatalism to The Monitor, but in the end, there’s hope and solidarity to be found in relentless defeat, and that’s what shines through.

The Nuanced Dualistic Masculinity of Letterkenny

One of my recent favourite creators of soft-academic video essays on pop culture and entertainment is Jonathan McIntosh, whose Pop Culture Detective channel on YouTube features detailed, compelling, and well-argued video dissertations on the political, ideological, and psychological implications of tropes common to film, video games, and television. McIntosh is particularly insightful on the subject of masculinity and its depictions – toxic, troubled, insidious, and otherwise – in entertainment. His excellent dual video essays on the “adorkable” misogyny and the complicity of geek masculinity of the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory are a video-essay lecture opus that deconstructs the often ugly sexual and gender politics of the most popular comedy on American television. Watch these intelligent and devastating 41 minutes and you’ll never want to watch a minute of The Big Bang Theory ever again (if you ever did in the first place).

McIntosh’s Big Bang Theory analysis put me in mind of another (much, much funnier) television sitcom that models both traditional and modern masculinity in complicated, nuanced, and often contradictory ways. The popular Canadian streaming hit Letterkenny, set as it is in a small Canadian town (based on co-creator and star Jared Keeso’s rural hometown of Listowel, Ontario) and peopled by farmers, hockey players, emo/goth meth-heads (known as the Skids), First Nations, and other sundry local oddballs, might be expected to be grounded in traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and gender politics, which is to say the patriarchal, privileged, misogynistic discriminatory arrogance of the contemporary political North American Right. This sort of stereotypical conservative masculinity is unfortunately very familiar and sadly resilient, as personified in its current exploded avatar Donald J. Trump, and recently and vividly played out in disheartening political theatre south of the border with the sexual assault allegations which very nearly derailed the nomination of conservative movement stalwart Brett Kavanaugh (of “I like beer!” infamy) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The country certainly has no monopoly on the hallmarks of this traditional toxic masculinity: tendencies towards racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, dishonesty, or bullying, to say nothing of discomfort with women or people of colour in positions of power, insensitivity to differing cultural or ideological identities or perspectives, or distrust of open displays of male emotional sensitivity and preference for assertive and often violent shows of strength to resolve conflicts. The city can lay claim to the same flaws in the masculine character, and it would be urban liberal snobbery of the purest strain to assume that these dirtbag qualities are only possessed by rural men (perhaps together we can envision a glorious future wherein the country and the city join forces against their implacable mutual enemy: the suburbs). If the hicks that are the centre of Letterkenny – Keeso’s Wayne, Nathan Dales’ Daryl, K. Trevor Wilson’s Squirrely Dan, and Michelle Mylett’s Katy, Wayne’s sister – are carefully defined as non-judgemental and tolerant of other races, persuasions, and creeds, the main duo of hockey players, Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr), do conform to the worst stereotypes of dim-witted, vain, womanizing male athletes, to the consternation of some who might hope for those stereotypes to be at least modestly moved beyond.

If Letterkenny is often at pains to establish its ag-hall protagonists as politically correct and mildly woke (or at least not openly bigoted), then its dominant masculine comedic discourse of heavily colloquial and homosocial chatting, joking, and chop-busting frequently runs towards the crude, and thus towards homophobic comments and negative suggestions of feminine qualities. Both of these less-enlightened turns are present among the first clutch of jokes in the series’ very first scene, even, and it’s hard to guarantee that none of Letterkenny‘s numerous involved dialogic digressions don’t also veer occasionally in such directions. Local pastor Glenn (played by series co-creator, co-writer, and director Jacob Tierney) is likewise a way-over-the-top flaming homosexual stereotype, and the First Nations characters from a nearby reservations led by queenpin Tanis (Kaniehtiio Horn) can veer close to the offensive as well. A brief survey of media articles on Letterkenny, in truth, turns up thinkpieces from right-leaning publications like The National Post and The Federalist. The show’s alignment can be tough to pin down, but it has certainly been embraced by certain conservative circles.

But masculinity is not chiefly concerned with political alignment, nor necessarily with prejudice or the lack thereof. It is above all about how men act, speak, and present themselves, how they interact with women, with other men, and how they think and feel about themselves. In these matters, Letterkenny can also be difficult to pin down, if for no more reason than its prioritizing of its jokes, with plot developments and even consistent characterization often left aside in favour of the big laugh. Still, even before Katy’s more consistent presence in the hicks’ jawing sessions after the first season shifts their nature to less mannish tones, Wayne, Daryl, and Dan only occasionally venture into the sort of lurid discussion of sexual matters or conquests that one might expect in the company of young men (extended simulations of orgasmic porn star exclamations aside), and when they do, Wayne (and indeed the other two as well) expresses care and discomfort (“It’s impolite to kiss and tell”), and the discussion is closer to sex ed than random horny chatter. It’s weirdly open and respectful, and even more weirdly sweet. Even in the locker room of Reilly and Jonesy’s hockey team, the expected “locker room talk” is conspicuously minimal: volumetric sex-related trash-talker Shoresy (voiced by Keeso) is a despised antagonist, and after Katy breaks it off with Reilly and Jonesy, their main encounter with the hockey-adjacent girls known colloquially as “puck bunnies” involves scaring one such woman off (with Katy’s invaluable aid) in order to improve their team’s on-ice focus.

In relationships, there is a similar respectfulness. Katy is characterized as sexually active, but make a negative comment about it and you have her formidable brother to answer to. Daryl is awkward and naifish towards the opposite sex, and when he does get a girlfriend at the end of Season Five (Kim Cloutier’s Anik), it’s practically in a soft-focus fantasy sequence, as she appears out of the blue to confess her love for him despite barely interacting with him previously. The Skids are understood to be basically asexual, with the exception of a brief and unsuccessful relationship between Katy and lead Skid Stewart (Tyler Johnston) early in the series that is forgotten about quickly afterwards (Sarah Gadon recurs as a more enigmatic sort-of love interest to Stewart). Wayne’s love interests include the bookish homebody Rosie (Clark Backo) and Tanis, who becomes pregnant by him in a season-ending cliffhanger and then discusses her choice to have an abortion matter-of-factly, with his level-headed understanding and even agreement.

Indeed, Letterkenny‘s protagonist Wayne is a key focal point in the show’s nuanced and difficult-to-pigeonhole vision of masculinity. We’ve discussed his respectfulness of both men and women (at least those judged deserving of this respect; those who aren’t, we’ll get to) and his absence of prejudice and indeed sensitivity to suggestions of bigotry. But in Keeso’s often near-monotone performance and even in the actor’s wardrobe, we see that Wayne is emotionally reticent and undemonstrative of his feelings, a Clint Eastwood-like strong, silent type (who, like most of the characters in this talky sitcom, is rarely silent). In his lack of emotional display and in his shirts, he is quite literally buttoned-up, an embodiment of traditional masculinity’s imperative to men to hide their feelings in all circumstances. Contemporary psychology tells us that this sort of emotional bottling is unhealthy to both the mental well-being of men and to their relationships with those around them, but it doesn’t seem to do Wayne much damage. When he does become unbuttoned emotionally, it’s played for laughs, as when he grows so heated while discussing Katy’s loss to Stewart in Letterkenny’s prestigious Adult Spelling Bee that he hilarious tears his trademarked button-up shirt open.

Any consideration of the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny would be terribly remiss if it didn’t address one of the show’s consistent features: its numerous fight scenes, which with their stylish slow motion and rock-music accompaniment constitute a fairly textbook audio-visual glorification of violence. Wayne begins the series as a legendary tough-guy scrapper whose ex-girlfriend (Kalinka Petrie, later more fully characterized as the team-poisoning puck bunny) had made him foreswear punch-ups. Through the first season, he defeats a series of challengers to his crown of Letterkenny’s fight king, and begins a recurring theme of providing fistfulls of comeuppance to various jerks, rez gangs, snobbish city slickers, Quebeckers, tiki-torch-carrying alt-right racists, and, of course, the ultimate source of insidious evil in this fallen world: degens from upcountry.

Taking recourse to physical violence to solve disputes is toxic masculinity at its most brutish and blunt. It’s also depicted patriarchally as a men’s-only activity; Katy and other women mostly stand aside during the regular donnybrooks. But as Letterkenny continues through its current run of six seasons and five holiday-themed specials (so far), fighting becomes, if only through comic inversion, a perverse way of building community. The people who scrap with Wayne and his friends – Reilly and Jonesy, the musclebound Tyson (Jay Bertin) and Joint Boy (Joel Gagne), Tanis’ rez crew, even the Quebecois “hiques” – later become his allies and friends, often called upon or calling upon him when it comes time to vanquish the marauding orcish hordes of the Letterkenny universe, those hated degens from upcountry. Fighting, comically romanticized and glorified as it is on Letterkenny, is not a destructive social force, but one that brings people together.

It’s worth keeping in mind, of course, that Letterkenny is a comedy first and foremost, and as mentioned focuses on the laughs well before giving any care or consideration to consistent characterizations, themes, or ideas. Its comedic nature also renders it especially slippery as a text about masculinity; it can be difficult to pinpoint when exactly Letterkenny is lampooning the harsher elements of traditional masculinity and when it is celebrating them. There is a species of nuanced dualism to the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny, a concerted effort to retain traditional markers of masculinity and integrate them with positive elements of more modern and progressive ideas of what it means to be a man.

One of the first season’s highlights is the second episode, “Super Soft Birthday”, in which Wayne and Katy throw an annual birthday party for Daryl that, as the name implies, revels in “soft”, childish, even feminized elements: pink balloons and streamers, a bouncy castle, a pony with a braided mane, tiaras and feather boas, cupcakes and cotton candy, and colourful and sweet alcoholic drinks. Letterkenny at once ironically contrasts this super-softness with the stereotypical hardness of rural masculinity (Wayne does fight Joint Boy when the latter crashes the party, after all), but it also unironically enjoys this super-softness, because it’s just fun, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The super-soft birthday is Letterkennian masculinity in a nutshell. Letterkenny is comfortable with a more fluid and open conception of masculinity at the same time as it locates a certain old-fashioned value in traditional masculine definitions, which it also feels free to rib gently. It’s a nimble and nuanced dance that is always buoyed by humour and good nature, and despite its cruder and less sensitive moments, it’s a dance of the masculine that gets Letterkenny through.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television

The Fyre Festival Documentaries and the Late Capitalist American Moment

February 9, 2019 Leave a comment

If any one contemporary event can be said to come closest to embodying a succinct-yet-nuanced summation of the semi-fraudulent, endlessly aspirational, wildly unmoored state of American Late Capitalism at this moment in history, it is surely 2017’s Fyre Festival. As depicted from differing, distinct, and uniquely compromised angles by a dueling pair of streaming documentary films released this year – Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud – Fyre Festival promised to be an exclusively, luxury music festival on a tropical island in the Bahamas that would play out in the e-spotlight of social media, a baccanalian carnival of online influencers, beautiful people, celebrities, swimsuits, alcohol, and popular music. A sort of Coachella in the Caribbean for wealthy millenials, Fyre Festival was supposed to be the next big thing in terms of culture and online buzz and profit, but sputtered out in a spectacular implosion of shoddy half-completion, cut corners, disorganization, and rampant financial crimes.

It’s important to have a solid grasp of the narrative fundamentals of what happened leading up to and on a desultory April weekend on the Bahamanian island of Great Exuma in 2017 before leaping off from those happenings to a wider understanding of what they reveal about the contemporary American social economy. For that purpose, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix, directed by Chris Smith, is a more detailed blow-by-blow chronicle and thus worth watching first.

In broad strokes, American entrepreneur/serial con artist Billy McFarland masterminded Fyre Festival, with the support of rapper and public hype-man Ja Rule, his overstretched staff at Fyre Media, Inc. (the company behind a semi-successful talent-booking mobile app that the festival was conceived of to promote), patchily-paid international event professionals and local Bahamanian labourers, and controversial social-media marketing firm Jerry Media (a.k.a fuckjerry, who are the problematic co-producers of the film). What followed was a litany of foolish decisions, shambolic planning on an unrealistically compressed timeline, an endemic lack of funds, and above all a virulently fantastical tone of upbeat positivity and yes-man assurances that it would all work out no matter how disastrous things seemed to be trending. When paying festival attendees and complimentary-admitted social media influencers arrived on Great Exuma, they found a half-finished festival site in a construction quarry dotted with disaster-relief tents, bad food, no running water or portable toilets, and a slate of cancelled performers. The situation dissolved into chaos quickly, attendees struggled to return Stateside as social and traditional media erupted with schadenfreude mockery of the shambles of an event, and McFarland’s astoundingly-scaled crimes of fraud and misreporting would land him in prison.

Fyre makes this all abundantly clear and entirely wacky and entertaining. There are countless mad details dropped by the cadre of half-bemused, half-ashamed interview subjects from whom Smith cobbles together the festival narrative. There’s the initial intended site for the festival, a private Bahamanian island with half-feral pigs and no infrastructure at all that was once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Flown to the site by a pilot who learned to fly (and to perform dangerous zero-g drops for the amusement of McFarland, Ja Rule, and their entourage) from Microsoft Flight Simulator, the Fyre team shot a gauzy, enticing promo video featuring famous supermodels frolicking on the beaches. The clip attracted notice on social media alongside Jerry Media’s orange-tile Instagram event announcement post that “disrupted” the feeds of numerous top influencers (including Kardashian dynastic daughter Kylie Jenner, who commands a ludicrous quarter-million-dollar fee for such a promo post). But despite the buzz it generated, the promo’s brash mention of the countercultural Escobar association broke a specific stipulation of the island’s owners, who immediately pulled their agreement to lease its freehold for the festival.

Settling instead on the more-populated Great Exuma, McFarland and crew set a date less than four months from the New Year’s announcement, which also happened to coincide with a regatta weekend that is Great Exuma’s busiest tourist time of the year. A casually pragmatic local fixer and traumatized, nearly-bankrupted local restaurant owner give a local view of the chaos and lack of fiduciary compensation for workers, who considered kidnapping organizers and holding them for ransom just to make something for their time and effort. The detail that most illustrates the over-the-top lengths that McFarland and the organizers were willing to go to have the festival go forward – holding the event even in a diminished form was their sole hope to recoup the investment that they had made – has also become the defining viral moment of the Fyre Festival documentaries: a gray-haired male veteran event producer admits to being fully prepared to perform fellatio on a Bahamanian customs agent in order to get their shipment of booze cleared to enter the country.

Primed for the larger sweep of Fyre Festival’s failure by Fyre, moving along to Fyre Fraud, the Hulu documentary directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, is even more eye-opening. Fyre Fraud might be less blessed with wild, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details of savage greedy weirdness, but it is a smarter, more nuanced, and quietly, self-righteously outraged film from which no one involved in the event escapes unscathed. Although Fyre Fraud paid Billy McFarland for an interview to be used in the film, they use the material gleaned from this sit-down to comprehensively expose him for a shameless grifter and pathologically-dishonest confidence man, not only in the case of Fyre Festival but in prior ventures like Magnises, the over-inflated metal credit card for status-obsessed millenials that he came up with, as well as in shoddy ticket scams carried out while on parole for his Fyre-related fraud charges. McFarland is a fast-talking and convincing grifter but also one epically foolish enough to run a huge con fully in the public eye, where he wouldn’t be able to hide from what he must have understood would be its inevitable embarrassing unraveling. This film also reserves pointed criticism for Jerry Media, whose involvement in the Netflix doc becomes an evident pre-requisite for sparing them any such criticsm in that film, as well as painting McFarland’s earlier ventures – especially Magnises – as essentially legitimate before he jumped the legal shark with Fyre Festival.

Fyre Fraud also makes a stronger case for Fyre Festival as an illustrative, symbolically-charged moment in the Late Capitalist zeitgeist in the United States. It shows how McFarland ingratiated himself with wealthy venture capitalists and corporate titan mentors (including at least one charged with massive securities fraud), how he inflated projections and financial reporting at every company he founded, how he sold false bills of goods to nearly everyone who crossed his path. McFarland is presented not as an abberation but as an entirely predictable and even encouraged creature of America’s new Gilded Age of tremendous accumulated wealth, sharp income inequality, and exploitative rip-off capitalism. It likewise connects Fyre Festival’s buzzy pre-event marketing profile to the #FOMO-focused experience consumption of millenials locked out of traditional displays of affluence by the wealth-hoarding of the aging 1% elite, to the forced-cheer positivity-selling fabulism of the social media influencer image presentation, and to the magical thinking, creative-class economic insupportability, and consequence-free assumptions of white American privilege. It does not notice, nor really does Netflix’s Fyre, the disturbing neo-colonial implications of how black Bahamanians (the literal descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean) were made to labour long hours for no pay in the service of white leisure and profit.

Moreoever, Fyre Fraud registers, quite pointedly, how this all went down in the first months of the presidency of Donald Trump, a self-promoting grifter-elite capitalist par excellence whose ostentatious image of wealth is his prime selling feature in the public eye (besides, of course, his virulent white nationalism and generalized cruelty to others). Fyre Festival, of course, is not Trump’s fault (nor was it Vladimir Putin’s, one supposes), but what is clear by the end of Fyre Fraud is that the same confluence of forces produced both American disasters. The hard-sold expectation of wealth and prosperity ended for Fyre Festival attendees in the self-same disaster shelters that greeted citizens rendered homeless by destructive hurricanes. As on-the-nose as the metaphor may be, this extreme contrast of promised luxurious comfort and delivered bare-subsistence is the animating socioeconomic contradiction of Trumpist America. If only his regime would end with as few desperate victims as Fyre Festival ultimately claimed, but one ought not to hold one’s breath.

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.

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