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

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada 150 and the National Identity of Plausible Deniability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Culture, History, Politics

Music and Images of Special Magnificence: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert

December 3, 2016 2 comments

First performed in 2008, the live symphony orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning musical score for the first film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogyThe Fellowship of the Ring, has come to the composer’s hometown of Toronto for the first time. The score is performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, and soloists, and is conducted by Ludwig Wicki, whose Switzerland-based 21st Century Symphony Orchestra was the first to play Shore’s classic score live in concert with the projected film and who has toured the world in the years since conducting globally-renowned orchestras. Working closely with Shore (as he has with many other major film composers on similar projects), Wicki has trained himself to conduct his musicians and singers to the film’s cues themselves, presenting a seemless aural and visual experience in top-notch orchestral halls around the globe.

I haven’t the trained music-writing expertise to comment knowledgeably on Shore’s compositions or the specific performance of them by the TSO itself. Music writer Doug Adams does have that expertise, and has demonstrated it in his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (excerpts from which can be read in the TSO’s program for the concerts, downloadable from their website). For a more easily digestable analysis of Howard Shore’s use of themes or fellowshipinconcertleitmotifs in his Rings scores, check out this excellent video essay by the “Nerdwriter”, Evan Puschak.

I can only scratch at the surface of their superior analyses, but scratch I will. The Fellowship of the Ring is my favourite film of Jackson’s trilogy, and really, my favourite film period; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but the TSO viewing was probably somewhere in the twenties. There is much to love about it, from the masterful cinematic storytelling to the committed performances (Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, of course, but also Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Sean Bean’s doomed Boromir, and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the poised clownish hobbits, Merry and Pippin) to the impressive totality of its visual design and execution. But as time has passed and initial passion has turned to enduring appreciation, it has become more evident that Howard Shore’s music might be the best thing about Fellowship as well as its sequels.

Shore’s music is remarkable varied and often rousing and magnificent in its own right, but the way it melds with Jackson’s filmic images, supplementing and amplifying the moods, tones, and meanings onscreen, is what makes it special. In live concert performance alongside those images, the score’s great transcendent success in this role is particular emphasized, granting a symphonic grandeur and flow to Jackson’s film in collaboration with its composition, camera movement and motion inside frame, colour, and editing.

The effect was always evident in Fellowship‘s highlight sequences. Look at Arwen’s flight to the Ford of Bruinen, astride a galloping white horse, safeguarding a mortally wounded Frodo from the black-clad and black-steeded Ringwraiths in pursuit of the One Ring that he carries: shot and edited with pulse-pounding exhiliration, Shore’s music drives and expands the pace of perhaps the most exciting riding sequence in film history. Or the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, the relentless deep rhythms and staccato male choir Dwarvish chants soundtracking a desperate chase through the carved caverns of Moria and portending Gandalf’s fall into shadow, which is gorgeously lamented by a boy soprano solo.

This contrast of deep and harsh with high and ethereal, a hallmark theme and tone of Jackson’s film, is perhaps most memorably imparted in Fellowship‘s most resonant visual metaphor: a craning wide shot from above of the grim industrialized pits of Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard scored by a cruel mechanical march, suddenly interrupted by the delicate naturalistic hope of a fluttering moth scored by an elegiac, angelic vocal solo. Even seemingly incidental sequences of narrative advancement become streams of artistry when Jackson’s imagery and Score’s music work effortlessly together: witness the intercutting of the Fellowship travelling down the River Anduin out of Lothlorien with Saruman’s Uruk-Hai strike force thundering through the woods after them.

Shore and Jackson even reach into film music history to heighten the effect of the trilogy’s battle scenes. Watch and listen to the lead-up to the battle in Balin’s Tomb in Moria. Notice how Shore’s music picks up pace and timbre as the Fellowship are confronted with signs of impending attack and prepare to fight for their lives, building to a crescendo as the two forces collide and then dropping away entirely to be replaced by the brutal cacophony of clashing steel and battle cries, the symphony of hand-to-hand death? This is a direct borrowing from/homage to the Battle on the Ice from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev likewise climaxing and then dropping away at the moment of joined battle. Jackson liked the effect so much that he repeated it in The Two Towers (the Warg attack sequence) and The Return of the King (the Rohirrim charging the Haradrim’s war oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelennor Fields).

Howard Shore mixed diverse influences from centuries of music (from Romantic opera like Wagner to the abstract dissonance of 20th-century composition) to create a memorable score for a memorable film, and witnessing his music in live performance with the movie further entrenches both score and film as impressive and moving modern works of art of vision and grandeur.

Categories: Culture, Film, Music

An Emotional Farewell to the Tragically Hip and the End of an Era in Canadian Nationalism

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.

Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hiphipkingston1 records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.

Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.

But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.

If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.

Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.

Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.

He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was hipkingston2over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.

This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?

The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.

It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.

It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.

White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics, Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Quickshots #30

Letterkenny (CraveTV; 2016)

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

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

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

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

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Cappadocia and Ephesus

Outside of the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, over 60 million Turkish citizens make their lives everyday in a land of fertility, antiquity, and variability. Anatolia, the vast land bridge between Eastern Europe’s southern fringe and the Middle East, has been a key crossroads (and stronghold) of civilizations for thousands of years, leaving a heritage deeper than almost any other place on earth. The modern Turkish people are simply the latest in a long line of stewards of this land, and their connection to its past can be visualized in the ancient site of Ephesus in the west and in the photogenic, spiritual fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Turkey.

Ephesus was one of the largest, richest, and grandest cities of all of the Greco-Roman world, a wealthy port with over half a million inhabitants at its peak. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (now scattered ruins in a swamp), and a major centre of the goddess’ IMG_4760religious cult. The import of faith to the city, or perhaps merely its importance and relative remoteness from both Rome and Jerusalem, attracted early Christian figures. St. Paul preached in Ephesus’ great theatre (whose acoustics are still remarkable today) and wrote letters to its citizens urging conversion to Christ, while St. John the Evangelist is said to have fled the Holy Land with the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion. Legend has it that both of them lived and died in and around Ephesus, and in the Byzantine era great churches were built there in their honour. There are vistas above and outside of the modest modern town of Selçuk in which the ruined Temple of Artemis and St. John Basilica can be viewed in a direct line with the historic and still-used Isa Bey Mosque, a continuity of edifices of faith over centuries of time.

The ruins of Ephesus themselves are not so ruined. Decades of painstaking reconstruction, much of it funded and performed by Austrians, have left Turkey with one of the best extant physical expressions of ancient civilization anywhere in the world. Columns, walls, sarcophagi, avenues, market squares, forums, statues, fountains, latrines, mosaics, terraced residences, even suspected brothels are laid out in exquisite wrecks, a sketched civic plan on an epic scale. Nagging qualms about the historical ethics of such large-scale restoration and reconstruction might rise to the surface at the sight of modern bricks and mortar, but the overall effect is so staggering, so evocative of a vanished way of living, that it is impossible not to be converted to the value of the exercise.

No such reconstructions are needed to emphasize the fascinating singularity of the beauty of Cappadocia. A landscape of arid canyons, wind-carved high buttes, and towering rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, Cappadocia attracts tourists today (well-served by its scattered small towns, particularly Göreme, with its Wild West IMG_4966by way of Anatolia feel), but it has drawn visitors for centuries, many of them more humble and fearful for the future than European or East Asian vacationers.

A remote and inviting refuge for early Christians fleeing bursts of Roman imperial persecution, Cappadocia was widely inhabited and carries the distinctive signs of that habitation. The soft volcanic rock of the region, which rain and wind has gouged into the mysterious hoodoos of the fairy chimneys, is also easily dug into by human tools. Its caves maintained a cool temperature year-round, and housed entire underground cities, as well as less subterranean residences, storehouses, artisans’ shops, monasteries, and churches. The latter, painted with often spectacularly colourful Byzantine Christian frescoes dating back as far as the 10th Century, can still be seen today, a series of UNESCO-protected testaments to an isolated but tight-knit troglodytal existence.

The landscape of Cappadocia is almost a metaphor for Turkey in living rock. Initially appearing samey and undistinguished, formed by forces beyond the human, the variety and multitude of Cappadocia’s geological forms reveals itself with longer acquaintance. Individual pinnacles, valleys, and canyon walls have been eroded into objects of particular beauty by the forces of nature, and the fairy chimneys shaped by human hands into a more intentional art of no less aesthetic force. Like the Cappadocian landscape, Turkey has been eroded by the forces of history, and continues to be. But that erosion and purposeful efforts by Anatolia’s successive generations to carve a society and culture distinct and reflective of their milieu and experiences has given modern Turkey a uniquely appealing form to face the world.

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Istanbul

In spite of, if not quite in defiance of, recent ISIS-connected terrorist attacks and the agitations of the Kurdish minority in the country, I have recent completed a vacation of approximately twelve days in Turkey. Tourism and foreign visits to Turkey in general, such a vital sector of its modern economy, have been curtailed by official travel warnings and general apprehension in the West at current conditions there. This is unfortunate, as the Turkish Republic is a rich and fascinating nation with a deep and vital history and many world-renowned (and less famed) sites to explore. It is not without its issues both internal and external, but there is much about it to reward the mildly braver traveller.

Many of Turkey’s chief attractions are concentrated in its bustling, sprawling, ancient metropolis of Istanbul. One of the world’s great cities for nearly two millenia, the urban region now known as Istanbul was one of the great capitals of the medieval world, both under that name under the Ottoman Empire and before it as Constantinople, the capital IMG_4299city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Most of Istanbul’s great sights date from its dual imperial periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; some, like the great bulky landmark Hagia Sophia which was a church, a mosque, and now a museum, were a focus of both regimes. Like Granada’s Alhambra or the Mesquita of Cordoba, the conflicts and divisions of history have left their signs and scars upon the architecture itself in Hagia Sophia: monumental Qu’ran scripture in Arabic calligraphy alongside sparkling golden mosaics of holy Christian figures. Norse visitors (perhaps members of the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantines) have even left enigmatic runic graffiti on a balustrade as a humbler witness to history’s passage.

These dichotomies, trichotomies, and multichotomies of history, politics, religion, and ethnicity are likewise writ large onto Istanbul’s very cityscape in dramatic ways. Istanbul occupies both banks of the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Sea of Marmara (and thus the Mediterranean, and thus the Atlantic) to the Black Sea and has often been considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, West and East, Christianity and Islam. The modern Istanbul echoes these divisions within the singular multiplicity of the contemporary global metropolis. The Bosphorus still separates European and Asian Istanbul (though a underground subway tunnel recently open as a tentative causeway), with the lion’s share of the major attractions and modern constructions on the western banks of the strait and a more conservative Muslim population residing on the east side.

The further boundary of the Golden Horn, spanned by the Galata Bridge, makes the division tripartite and evokes a political dimension special to the modern republic. The districts of Galata, Beşitkaş, and Beyoğlu in the general vicinity of Taksim Square vibrate with the artistic and commercial energy of a modern cosmopolitan capital. Iskitlal Avenue is one of the world’s truly exciting pedestrian boulevards, flanked by shops, cafes, bars, cinemas, theatres, consulates, churches, mosques, schools, museums, restaurants, and magnifcent architectural facades, with the ribs of Victorian arcades and winding side-streets snaking off from its central spine. It’s little wonder that the IMG_4328anti-civilization fanatics of ISIS targetted this hive of human activity in their recent deadly bombings, but if the continued hum of bodies and dreams on this avenue barely over a week later was any indication, the zealots have discouraged few from attending on this bazaar of mercantile gathering.

Behind the display of past fascinating history and current capitalist prosperity lie deeper cleavages in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ambitious (and always inherently authoritarian) republican project of modern Turkey. The conservative, fundamentally religious, and increasingly restrictive current regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eroded the secularist nature of the nation as envisioned by Atatürk and has cracked down on political dissent in recent years, in particular since the popular protests focused on Taksim in 2013. I spoke with one of the Taksim protestors who sees little to be salvaged from a liberal, artistically-geared perspective in Turkey as it is developing under Erdoğan, a mix of encroaching Islamic prudishness, capitalist callowness, and iron-fisted authoritarianism with diminishing tolerance for the kaleidoscopic viewpoints of the modern world.

Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, is full of contrasts, often stark, often subtle. Those contrasts can be marked clearly on its historic landmarks or almost imperceptibly to the cursory glance of the average visitor on its society, culture, and politics. It can be seen in the funky alternative spirit of the Taksim districts, the mercantile aggressiveness of its vibrant shops and restaurants, and the traditional rhythms of established life for hundreds of years. The latter shifting continuity of civilization is even more evident outside of the largely modern metropolis of Istanbul, and will be a more forefront concern of my second piece on my Turkey visit, encompassing the region around the ancient city of Ephesus and the Cappadocia area.

Care for the People on the Edge of the Night: David Bowie – 1947-2016

January 11, 2016 1 comment
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David Bowie, a few days before his death (Photo by Jimmy King)

This thinkpiece on the death of David Bowie will undoubtedly be lesser than most of the plethora of eulogistic tributes that haved budded across the Internet like a fresh, sad spring today. Unlike millions who glimpsed even some fleeting, twinkling reflection of their own quotidian struggles in the music, words, performance, and public image of David Robert Jones, who passed from life late yesterday at the age of 69, Bowie’s art did not uplift me at critical or vulnerable times in my development. It did not save me from despair, inject me with a timely elixir of hope, or steel my spine against the homogenizing imperatives of conformist society and culture. It is not a failing of Bowie’s work that it did not touch me somewhere deep and true when it mattered most. It very much could have, but vagaries of context and circumstance kept David Bowie at a certain remove in my not-insubstantial music fandom as a younger man, and only tentative forays into his voluminous and intimidatingly varied ouevre have followed since.

One doesn’t require intense personal investment to acknowledge and appreciate the breadth and depth of influence of a cultural giant, of course. I could consider David Bowie’s artistic variation, career longevity and image reinventions, his seemingly boundless creative curiosity and tremendously open and insightful intelligence. I can muse over the legitimacy that his embrace of countercultural difference in the midst of an era of encroaching hegemonic conformity of consumer capitalism gave to all those who felt likewise different, who conceived themselves in resistance to centralized forces somehow. I could boldly state that David Bowie created what we now know as “indie” music and culture, for good or ill, and I wouldn’t be wrong.

I won’t do any of these things, but I will briefly consider, in two very famous and definitional musical examples, how David Bowie tapped into the fundamental anxieties of modern life in the 20th Century and molded those fears and uncertainties into grand and moving artistic statements.

The first example, without much doubt, has to be the immortal title track from Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes”. The song was a hit at its edited three-minute version, with the ubiquity of that single edit such that, as a non-specialist in Bowie’s work, I wasn’t even aware that a more patient, grand, complicated, and magnificent six-minute version had featured on the album.

The story behind “‘Heroes'” has passed into cultural legend: its subject is a tragic pair of lovers locked in an embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, their doomed romanticism and messy, fragile humanity fêted and magnified by a triumphal anthem of great magnitude. Composed and recorded by Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno within a literal stone’s throw of the Wall, the dark penumbra of authoritarian oppression haunts its aural footsteps, invoking the ominous converted into the transcendent with the most strenuous and inspired effort.

On certain level, it is classical Romanticism, reifying sentiment and gilding love as the most vital bulwark against the dead-eyed conformity of central-state control. A flower growing up from a persistent crack in the grey concrete barrier between freedom and tyranny. But Bowie reproduces Romanticism in order to deconstruct it, to render it as more difficult and less rote, and to suggest that politics, too, is not so cut and dry. Those quotation marks around “Heroes” are so often forgotten by a culture thirsty for easy glorification, the ironic distance they were designed to impart (and that is fully apparent in Bowie’s remarkable vocal performance) far too frequently trampled by platitudes that buttress status quos no less oppressive and limiting to some world citizens as the Wall was to East Berliners.

Bowie grounds social, cultural, and political nuance in the relatable messiness of romance, and contrasts it with chivalric fantasies: “I will be king / And you will be queen” alternates with “You would be mean / And I’ll drink all the time”, dreams and faults get equal time. By symbolically associating doomed lovers with the harsh consequences of the seemingly intractable ideological differences of the Cold War, Bowie elevates his musical tableau to the plateau of myth. By refusing to conceive of this tragic love in the glow of fantasy and returning it to recognizable complexity and difficulty, he likewise demystifies the epic black-and-white, good-and-evil dichotomy of the Cold War, suggesting that it too cannot be painted with too broad a brush.

The underlying socioeconomic and political struggles (which were always already personal in his work) behind “‘Heroes'” are revisited and recalibrated in Bowie’s closing verse in “Under Pressure”, his lightning strike of a hit collaboration with Queen in 1981. In a song best known for Freddie Mercury’s trademarked vocal calisthenics and John Deacon’s iconic bassline (later sampled by Vanilla Ice), Bowie’s contribution is often overlooked, but his verse building into the song’s coda (“But love’s such an old-fashioned word…”) is a thesis statement for better collective living. Perhaps the most succinct and powerful paean to the platonic ideal of the robust, empathetic welfare state ever committed to a recording device (all apologies to LBJ), Bowie manages to do what artists so seldom do when faced with interminable, impossible struggle: reach out for a practical solution, a solid lifeline.

What did the life and art of David Bowie mean to me? Not as much as it might have meant to many, many others, and I bow to their thoughts on the matter of his passing. But writing and singing, with his singular mastery of modulation of emotiveness and implication, words like “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night”? That will never not mean a great deal as we pass through a hard, open world of pain and wonders.

Categories: Culture, Current Affairs, Music

Star Wars: The Product/Text Saga of American Capitalist Fantasy

December 17, 2015 2 comments

Since there are no rocks left for anyone to hide under at this point, much of the world is surely aware by now that the seventh installment in the gobsmackingly popular space opera adventure saga of Star Wars, entitled The Force Awakens, opens this coming Friday. Like movie geeks across the globe, I’ll be seeing it and certainly reviewing it here. However, there is much to say by way of introduction about Star Wars and its place in our popular culture that may be useful to record prior to viewing and reviewing the film itself. This is partially to focus critical faculties more directly on the content of The Force Awakens as a film of its own, and partially to situate it in a prefatory manner as part of both a larger cinematic narrative saga as well as a prime product of American consumer capitalism.

Born a year after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, I was a smidgeon too young for the so-called Original Trilogy the first time around, and entirely too old and culturally-savvy for the tonally ambitious but ultimately highly flawed Prequel Trilogy upon its millenial release. I won’t pretend that Star Wars has given me much more than a handful of hours of entertainment throughout my lifetime. It certainly is not a cultural touchstone for me in the way that, say, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was. But like a lot of popular cultural products of great popularity built on mythological foundations, there is much to write about when it comes to Star Wars.

Broadly a good vs. evil parable about a band of ragged freedom-fighting rebels struggling against a monolithic empire of oppressive SW-THE-FORCE-AWAKENSspace Nazis, George Lucas’ Original Trilogy evokes the defining mid-century struggle of World War II but is not built from direct references to it. Rather, Star Wars is a heady pastiche of USC film school nerd Lucas’ cinematic and literary influences, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai warriors (the Jedi) and bickering travelling companions (the droids R2D2 and C-3PO) to the sci-fi desert planet and drug trade of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Tatooine and “spice” smuggler Han Solo) to the touchstones of WWII films that suffused the 1950s and ’60s (the Space Reich of the Empire, the final trench flight attack on the Deathstar, adapted from The Dam Busters).

Even with the mediated separation of this web of cinematic homages, a reasonably adult vision of a conflict marked by atrocities remains consistent throughout Lucas’ films. Mythic hero Luke Skywalker witnesses his poor hapless aunt and uncle, the only family he has ever known, reduced to gruesomely smoking skeletons by Imperial Stormtroopers, who also massacre Jawa scavengers; Princess Leia watches as her own adoptive planet, Alderaan, is vaporized by the Deathstar; Han is tortured in Empire, and Leia is enslaved as a sexualized object by the vile Jabba the Hutt in The Return of the Jedi. Droids are discriminated against in spaceport town bars, limbs are bloodily removed by lightsabers. For a supposed light, fun fantasy, Star Wars is full of horrors that mirror those of our world’s history.

But, in the Original Trilogy at least, this realism does not transfer to a nuanced depiction of good and evil. Star Wars is a cinematic text which provides broad hints of the nature of societies but does not ground the intergalactic conflict at its core in any forces endemic in those societies. Good and evil are not complete absolutes here; Luke’s Force training and vision-questing with Yoda on Dagobah involve him struggling with negative emotions that lead to the “dark side” of the Force that has ensnared Darth Vader, his erstwhile father whom he helps to redeem in the final struggle. But the struggle between good and evil is a matter of feelings, as is everything to do with the Force. “Trust your feelings”, Luke is told, a clear tell that the quasi-mysticism of the Jedi is reducible to little more than New Age, post-hippie feel-good self-help and improvement. As pulp playgrounds for Freudian psychoanalysis, the Star Wars movies may not have equals in our contemporary culture (Harry Potter, with its obsessiveness about phallic wands, comes close, mind you).

This high-flown mystical nonsense carries a great romantic pull for many in a secularized global culture disconnected from the processes of political power and domination of an elite that is equal parts Jedi and Empire but quite different from either, given capitalist greed’s intermittent hold on the motivations of the films’ characters. Whatever else might be said about it, Lucas’ much-maligned (but still commercially successful) Prequel Trilogy sought to widen and demystify the Star Wars Universe as well as to ground the titular wars of his first three films in something resembling a political reality.

In his clumsy, heavy-handed way, Lucas did impart a tale of good democratic intentions subverted by a sinister dictatorial coup and of an angry, confused but not heartless young man making the wrong choices and stumbling into darkness. It’s not a matter of much debate that he did not do any of this very well. But by introducing scientific proofs to the Force (the dreaded midi-chlorians) and depicting Darth Vader’s tragic fall in awkward and diminishing strokes (dislike of sand, “romantic” slaughter of Tuskens, “Noooo!!!”), Lucas shrank his creation’s scope instead of expanding it. The Force, like the Catholic faith, was revealed to rely on great reserve of ineffable mystery to keep it vital. The Prequel Trilogy, while it may have been a hit with children as Lucas claimed, was a disillusioning experience for the franchise’s original fans, and bands of apostates roamed internet discussion board and comments sections like medieval flagellants, denouncing the transgressions of their Holy Film Father. But as corporate entertainment giant Disney well understood, Star Wars, creatively bruised but still as lucrative and valuable a product as ever, was not a franchise to be left fallow. But a fresh vision, or perhaps a retro-fitted, remixed one, was needed.

There may be no better filmmaker in contemporary American cinema for this task than J.J. Abrams. A smart and effective narrative filmmaker with a developed sense of non-specific visual style and fannish bonafides, Abrams excels at reconstituting and re-combining recognizable and nostalgically appreciated elements of the genre films of his youth (the late 1970s and early 1980s) into viscerally and emotionally satisfying filmic mixtapes of sorts. Films like Super 8 or his Star Trek reboot are not terribly original per se, but run discernable tropes of, respectively, early star-wars-1-vaderSpielberg classics (Close Encounters of the Third Kind in particular) and, well, Star Wars itself through contemporaneously fashionable structure of sturdy humour, CG spectacle, and brusque action and suspense.

The latter instance of Star Trek is especially instructive. Even before it was announced that Disney had bought the Star Wars rights and was planning new films, Abrams was boldly treating its rival space franchise as an audition to take over the continuing adventures in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve written about what this interwoven choice of style, philosophy, and thematics has meant to Star Trek, as classically square as any socially-conscious sci-fi product in existence and wildly different from the breezy, quasi-mystical cool of Star Wars that Abrams, who has openly stated his preference of lightsabers to phasers set to stun, decided to evoke. Trek fans have, in some circles at least, openly revolted against Abrams’ take on their beloved fictional universe, his attempt (largely successful, for what it’s worth) at making it as hip and appealing to a mass audience as Star Wars.

It’s worth recalling the shape that the Star Trek property was in before Abrams took the reins for the new films, mind you. Its final, little-loved television iteration (Enterprise) was off the air, ending a near-two-decade run of consecutive programs, and the recent Next Generation films had petered out commercially and were judged to be creatively moribund. An injection of new ideas and energy was acknowledged to be necessary, but it’s more debatable whether Abrams’ “destroy the village in order to save it” approach was quite as necessary. Retconning away the entirety of the previously-established Trek canon with a time-travel paradox certainly freed up his films (and the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond, to be directed by Justin Lin in his stead) to blaze a different path, but not merely the storytelling content but the rhythms, motions, and themes of Abrams’ Star Trek took on a Jedi-esque character as well, quite contrary to the established flow of the series.

Whatever one might think of what Abrams did with Star Trek (or with its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a kind of elaborated cover version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), the template suggests his approach to The Force Awakens, which many critics and preview audiences have already seen and some have noted mashes up key features and tropes of the beloved Original Trilogy in a contemporary actioned-up package (not that action sequences are out of the franchise norm; it is Star Wars, after all). This return to the familiar was always going to be welcome after the aforementioned 1999-2005 prequels, which strove for the unfamiliar but were overall poorly executed and often woefully out of touch with changing audience tastes (they also suffered badly in comparison with contemporary speculative franchises like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Harry Potter, all of which stole their lunch money quite thoroughly).

One effect of the Prequel Trilogy on the new sequel trilogy was to simultaneously raise and lower expectations. Despite the mess of hype and cascade of corporate tie-ins, Abrams truly has only to make The Force Awakens a competent entertainment without obvious, glaring flaws to convince most that Star Wars is “back” (not that it ever really went away, despite a ten-year absence in the big-screen new release arena). Anything more than that will likely be greeted as a transcendent instant classic. Of course, enormous box office receipts are basically assured either way, and the only pecuniary disappointment will be if the film doesn’t break every grossing record on the books. Film buffs and fanboys/girls may have more stringent aesthetic expectations, parsing each character, narrative, and visual choice that Abrams makes for its implications in the wider lore and into political ramifications beyond.

This concurrent low-level artistic pressure and complete lack of commercial uncertainty in the case of The Force Awakens speaks to the curious and singular position occupied by Star Wars in our popular culture. Its ubiquity and general level of recognition seems hugely disproportionate to its aesthetic quality even while its groundbreaking commodification from its earliest days in the public sphere is precisely appropriate to our order of irresistible consumer capitalism. Star Wars, above all, draws ravenously from cultural texts across the spectrum (including, most cannibalistically, itself) in the crafting of a product ideally positioned to make maximal amounts of money. Star Wars is American capitalism writ largest, text as product, product as text. The Force will always be with us, as long as we’re willing to pay for it.

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Politics