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Film Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 26, 2020 Leave a comment

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020; Directed by Jason Woliner)

Do we expect too much of comedy? In our contentiously polarized culture war moment, it is no longer enough for comedic products to merely be funny, to succeed in their core light entertainment function of catalyzing the primordial cathartic release of laughter. Comedy that is not also trenchant and enlightening social commentary is often considered deficient, inferior, lacking in essential ambition (witness the negative reaction in many quarters to the undeniably popular comedy of Adam Sandler). The applicable definition of satire, long a vibrant but separate subgenre of comedy in case we forgot, has been stretched to encompass more and more sectors of the comedy realm, even some spaces that have been (and remain) basically apolitical in intent and execution. And of course in the rhizomatic online world of social media and creator platforms and neo-forums and political subcultures, the term “satire” has been misapplied to an ever wider and less consistent variety of humour that cannot support it, from parody Twitter accounts to mean and shouty response videos to outright expressions of reactionary fascism, racism, sexism, and anti-semitism that employ superficial snark and internet memes to paint naked prejudice over with a thin veneer of irony.

The conception of comedy as an art form serving a deeper and more vital social and political function as brazen truth-telling agit-prop delivered with a spoonful of humourous sweetener (the politics elevated above the catharsis) is obviously nothing new. Migrating from the comedy counterculture of boundary-pushers like Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to more popular figures like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and even Monty Python (on occasion) in the 1970s, the reified image of the comedian as a brilliant utterer of bullshit-dispersing blazing truths beneath the punchlines attaches itself to comedians (usually from stand-up) in every generation since: Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Bill Burr, and most recently (and with purposeful self-awareness in her semi-confessional Nanette one-woman show) Hannah Gadsby. But it’s also been co-opted to prop up lazy humour writers and performers who seek to swathe the deficiencies of their craft in the suggestion of trangressive bravery and to preemptorily defuse criticism of their work by characterizing it as a threat to free speech. Ricky Gervais, please step to the mic (or not, actually, we’d rather you didn’t).

To some comedy fans caught up in the heady rush of free speech endorphins, the truth utterance displaces the joke. There is a defensive element to this process, a knee-jerk response to prestige culture’s compartmentalizing of comedy as an unserious subgenre unworthy of recognition as important culture (the Academy Awards, for example, would rather nominate a superhero movie for Best Picture than a comedy, unless it’s made by a child rapist). But it goes beyond circling the wagons. That political issue you’re attempting to soberly discuss? Well, you just have to see Carlin’s bit on that, he gets right down to the truth quicker and more effectively than whatever political scientist or historian or other knowledgeable scholar you’re trying to cite.

But because comedy, like all art, is highly subjective, this will to truth interpretation is highly fraught and prone to problematic applications. The fuzzy and not always easy to delineate edge between satirical norm-challenging comedy and nasty, retrograde humour built on harmful stereotypes and prejudices is forever a deadly and noxious no-man’s-land of discursive quagmires, especially when it comes to sorting the humour that is simply reproducing and buttressing those stereotypes and prejudices as perceived accurate reflections of marginalized groups from the humour that summons those stereotypes and prejudices in exaggerated form in order to skewer, undermine, and ultimately defeat them. Bad faith political actors are absolutely hiding authoritarian, discriminatory tendencies behind the shiny cloak of ironic humour, labelling their racism as “satire” when it’s sincere and direly real and the impetus for dangerous and harmful public policy. The trappings of comedy are being used to advance the rise of a new fascism, make no mistake. But there are also a lot of people consuming comedy right now, as there surely always have been, who don’t get the joke, and furthermore cannot fundamentally agree who the joke should be directed at: the powerful who create, maintain, and benefit from systems of oppression, or those marginalized by those systems, of which the punching-down style of comedy is a base-level mechanism that feeds on and serves to reinforce their marginalization.

This brings us, belatedly, to Sacha Baron Cohen and his most famous comedic character: Borat Margaret Sagdiyev, the fourth-best journalist in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. Originally one of the Jewish Brit comedian’s outsized caricatures that gained prominence in his UK television sketch series Da Ali G Show (alongside the titular urban-culture poseur and flamboyant gay Continental fashionista Brüno Gehard), Borat is Baron Cohen’s most enduring and popular character for delivering his unique brand of outrageous comedy: a creatively-edited combination of scripted segments full of often-vulgar punchlines and sight gags and unscripted in-character interactions with innocent bystanders and sometimes even public figures foolish enough to let him get close to them (more on one of them later). The unscripted ambushes are Baron Cohen’s most controversial practice, sparking fretful conversations and thinkpieces about the ethics of sucking ordinary people into situations that may embarrass them and even damage their livelihoods for the purpose of a laugh, or in order to cast them as representative figures for satire of the society or culture that they are made to stand in for, problematic as that may prove to be.

The Borat character in particular has come in for broader-based criticism for his naifish but cartoonishly rampant prejudices and ignorance of the social norms and niceties of Western democratic society (which of course is the core point of the character, to throw those norms into sharper relief and lead us to question their normality). These offensive elements of his personality are all the more controversial for being made very clear to be the result of his lifelong indoctrination by the backwards beliefs and practices of his home country. Kazakhstan in the Borat Cinematic Universe is not the real-world Kazakhstan, of course; the scenes set there are filmed in Romania, Baron Cohen speaks not Kazakh as Borat but an amalgam of Hebrew and Polish, and only superficial details in the films and shows align with the real place. That muddled lack of specifity is not about plausible deniability alone, but also part of the joke. As Benjy Sarlin pointed out in a Twitter discussion today expanded upon by Jeet Heer, Borat’s Kazakhstan is a ludicrously extreme caricature of a post-Soviet Eastern European state as filtered through American parochial ignorance of the rest of the world. It’s a dark mirror, too, for a more extreme version of America’s own darker tendencies: stricken by poverty and retrograde social mindsets characterized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, unusual sexual practices, and above all antisemitism. This last subject is the fodder for much of Baron Cohen’s most envelope-pushing humour, in which the Jewish comedian (working very much from inside an established cultural tradition as such) emphasizes the irrational ridiculousness of raging Old World antisemitic tropes for satirical effect: witness the notorious “Running of the Jew” sequence from the 2006 Borat movie, or the recurring references in its sequel to Kazakhstan’s pride at aiding in the Holocaust, up to and including a celebratory national holiday. It’s all hugely silly, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t offended Kazakhs and spread an inaccurate picture of the country around the world, conceivably harming its international reputation. One thing you can certainly say for Borat is that you can tell that your satire is hitting its marks when you offend an entire nation state.

Borat exploded to wider notoreity beyond UK television comedy in 2006 with the release and surprise megahit status of his cinematic feature debut, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (like the title of its sequel, I won’t be typing this entire long title out every time I reference it; scroll up to read either one as we continue, if you need reminding). It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I was among those bowled over at the sheer reckless abandon of its hilariousness at the time of release, which I referred to in my review as “a comedic war of attrition”; I was hardly alone, as Borat grossed $262 million worldwide from a $18 million budget and became an enduring pop culture meme presence, especially online. For Sacha Baron Cohen, this was almost more of a curse than a blessing, however. Although distributor 20th Century Fox was eager for a follow-up to keep the profits rolling, Borat had become so famous after the film that Baron Cohen found it impossible to appear in public disguised as the character without being recognized, thus defusing his bread-and-butter awkward ambush stunts. Baron Cohen hid behind other disguises and chased that style in feature films Brüno and The Dictator with less success, and has worked steadily in Hollywood comedies and dramas since then as well. But Borat remained dormant, seemingly retired by fame and recognition as well as being likely incapable of satirizing American politics, culture, and society with the same bite during the Obama years as he did under the Bush Administration.

These circumstances are incorporated into the introduction of the narrative of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a return to hilarious form for Baron Cohen’s signature character that could not have been anticipated and yet so completely fits the barely-controlled alarming and stupid wildness of public life in 2020 that one could be deluded into believing that a re-emergence at this time in history was part of a grand design all along. Borat has been stripped of his journalistic privileges and sent to a gulag by Kazakhstan’s strongman head of state (who shares a name with the country’s real dictator, although otherwise is another comic caricature) for so thoroughly embarrassing Kazakhstan in front of the whole world in the first film, and when he gets out and heads back to America on a diplomatic mission (which I will explain in a moment), Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner (a vet of US television comedy direction) include a montage of the character being recognized by on-the-street millenials who ask him for photos and autographs and shout his catchphrases at him (Baron Cohen makes subtler hay of the non-sequitur-loving ironist online leftist meme status of Borat’s pronunciation of “My wife”, delivering the line with added relish the first time it’s spoken in the film).

But Sacha Baron Cohen is nothing if not creative with his comedy, and his Borat uses a series of disguises (which often lampoon American stereotypes in and of themselves) in order to get the same kind of outrageous interactions with ordinary Americans that he achieved in the first film. Freed from imprisonment and dispatched to America by a Kazakh government eager to impress strongman-friendly U.S. President “McDonald Trump” with the gift of an intelligent chimpanzee (who is also their Minister of Culture), Borat decides instead to substitute his 15-year-old daughter Tutar, who stowed away in Johnny the Monkey’s shipping crate and was, shall we say, instrumental in the ape’s disappearance. Played with movie-stealing firecracker energy and impressive commitment by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, Tutar is a half-feral wild child with even less conception of American customs than Borat has. She’s been tied up in a muddy animal enclosure her whole life and has been inculcated in the deeply patriarchal and misogynist cultural brainwashing of Kazakh society which treats women as animal-like breeding stock and little else. She aspires to live in a nicer woman-cage one day, and in her wildest dreams hopes to one day marry a rich and powerful old man like her heroine “Queen” Melania Trump, whose perceived trophy wife status is lampooned hilariously in a Cinderella-esque cartoon that she knows by heart. Eager for this future as well as to spend more time with her father, Tutar goes along with his plan to gift her to “Vice Premier” Micheal “Penis”, who “was known to be such a pussy hound that he could not be left alone in a room with a woman“; I don’t want this to devolve into humour-explaining, but that is such a fucking fantastic joke, I’m sorry.

And so Borat and his daughter wreak uproarious and often sharply satirical havoc across America. Borat learns about cell phones and communicates with his execution-threatening government via fax in a copy shop (it may be the “customer is always right” service industry mentality, but both the cell store salesman and copy shop guy seem like they’re in on the joke, a factor which can be hard to parse in the film’s person-on-the-street interactions). He visits a bakery and buys a chocolate cake which he asks to be decorated with the now-infamous alt-right slogan “Jews will not replace us”; the proprietor is happy to oblige (the whole episode is no doubt a comment on the Supreme Court case affirming homophobic business practices). He cuts hair for a little extra cash (really not sure why this scene was left in, honestly, it’s just killing time) and eventually falls in with a pair of Facebook-fed right-wing QAnon conspiracists (again, these scenes seem too involved at times to preclude some cooperation by his apparent marks) who bring him to an anti-masker “plandemic” rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Washington State. At one low point in his travels, he suicidally wanders into a synagogue dressed in an outlandishly antisemitic get-up expecting to be torn apart by ravenous Semites, only to have his prejudices against them largely dispelled by a couple of kindly old Jewish grandmothers.

His most public antics were earlier this year at the conservative policy conference CPAC, which were reported at the time but in neither case were known to be Baron Cohen’s doing: hoping not to be recognized and seeking to blend in with American Republicans, he entered the hotel hosting the conference dressed in full Ku Klux Klan robes and later donned a fat suit and Trump mask and interrupted VP Mike Pence’s keynote address to the conference on February 27th of this year (during which Pence touts Trump’s swift action to arrest the spread of the now-unchecked and raging coronavirus, a reckless propagandistic lie only more astonishingly terrible in retrospect) to offer his underaged daughter to the renowned over-pious theocrat before being escorted out by security.

But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has an unlooked-for emotional core and an animating central theme, and that is Tutar’s gradual and insidious realization of her worth as a woman and as a person from prolonged exposure to American norms around femininity, which for all of their well-recognized flaws certainly beat living in a cage or a barn. Most of the movie’s funniest and most satirically penetrating sequences revolve around these ideas and take full advantage of Bakalova’s brilliant comedic performance (I mentioned the Oscars’ antipathy to comedy earlier, but if that is to break down at any time, it might be this COVID-limited movie year and with a turn like this one). After swallowing a plastic display baby while enthusiastically devouring her first-ever cupcake, Borat cluelessly brings Tutar to a faith-based crisis pregnancy center to “get the baby out”, which the aghast pastor they speak to of course understands to mean an abortion (the miscommunication-based dramatic irony that drives this scene’s laughs is off-the-charts incredible; it should be taught in writing classes). They attend a debutante ball in Georgia and perform an absurd and graphic traditional fertility dance for the wealthy and staid fathers and daughters, thrusting the creepy patriarchal sexual politics of the affair right to the forefront. They arrange plastic surgery for Tutar to make her more attractive to rich American men. And after an African-American woman who works as a professional babysitter debunks the lies of the discriminatory Kazakh “woman manual” that both she and her father consider gospel when it comes to the nature of women (again, this is a bystander who must have been at least partly in on the joke), Tutar walks into a Republican women’s group meeting and extolls the virtues of newly-discovered female masturbation (she does not have a vagina dentata that will devour her hand like the book says after all), exhorting the scandalized conservative ladies to touch their “vagines” with her (“Somebody call her an Uber,” says one woman in a note-perfect accidental punchline). American society and culture has no lack of problems when it comes to women’s rights, the movie makes clear, but its freedoms are still attractive and inspirational for women worldwide whose home countries may not share them and are thus worth defending.

All of Borat and Tutar’s adventures lead them together to Manhattan at the movie’s climax, when having failed to gift her to Pence at CPAC they decide instead to get her to Trump via his personal attorney, former New York City mayor and current spittle-flecked Trumpist loyalist Rudy Giuliani. Leaked days prior to the movie’s streaming release on Amazon Prime Video, this scene is the clear “get” of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and therefore Baron Cohen structures the whole movie around it. The scene is already notorious: Giuliani is being interviewed in a hotel suite by a fully made-up Tutar who is posing as a foreign journalist who is not underage, flirting with her the whole time, after which they retire to the bedroom and he touches her suggestively before lying down and and putting his hand into the front of pants (he claims to have been tucking his shirt in but if you watch the scene you can judge for yourself). Baron Cohen as Borat then bursts in wearing lingerie and tells him that his daughter is 15 years old and thus “too old for him”, precipitating a quick exit from the situation by Giuliani and his security.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this moment as to whether you find it all that funny or all that revealing (Giuliani is not currently married and nothing suggests that any sexual interaction wouldn’t have been consensual). I certainly laughed harder at other times in the movie, although that may be because the scene was spoiled beforehand. The timing of the movie’s release certainly did not do Giuliani and the Trump circle any favours in regards to their already flimsy appearance of integrity and judgement, as he happened to have just been the focal point of their attempt to engineer a pro-Trump “October surprise” for the second presidential election in a row in the form of an obviously fraudulent story fed through the archconservative New York Post about a laptop belonging to the son of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden being found and turned over to the FBI with compromising emails connected to Ukraine. It’s all part of a convoluted Fox News World conspiracy theory that isn’t worth getting into here or frankly anywhere, and was already on its way to petering out without any noticeable polling effect before Giuliani got Borat-ed. It sure doesn’t make him look especially worthy of the benefit of the doubt, that’s for sure.

As I mentioned, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm sees Sacha Baron Cohen and his best-known character get their shared mojo back at an unexpected time, and it’s just when it was most needed. Baron Cohen stated two years ago that he felt he needed to do more with his comedy to address the alarming rise of reactionary ideologies like fascism and antisemitism and their threats to democracy, and resurrecting his most powerful comedic tool for doing so is a clear statement of intent. Even if Borat Subsequent Moviefilm‘s key themes run more towards women’s rights and freedoms, it touches on any number of other elements of our mad world of 2020, and saves its sharpest daggers for American conservatism’s terrible ideas and even more terrible governance, up to and including their conspiracy-drenched and downright inhuman mishandling of a global pandemic whose death toll rises every day (and is crescendoing anew just as this movie is released). In case this point might be missed or muddled by “ironic” alt-rightists (many of whom convinced themselves that Borat was a shadow-conservative humourous character despite the lampooning of the Bush Administration in the 2006 film), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ends with the iconic “Running of the Jew” festival being discontinued and replaced in a Kazakhstan now more woke under the influence of Borat and Tutar with the “Running of the American”, which I wouldn’t dream of detailing and thus spoiling beyond that.

When I say that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the kind of comedy that we most needed right now, what do I mean? Am I belatedly subscribing to the free-speech-aggrandized conception of comedy as a vitally important act of political resistance to power and putting this hilariously crude movie on a pedestal as just such an act? I’m not, although this is a movie that distills, exposes and productively mocks so much about the current moment that it cannot help but be used as referential shorthand for explaining the bizarre reality of Trump’s America and its dark but ludicrous shadows. If Trump loses the White House on or after November 3rd, it would be too much to credit this movie with playing a role in that result; its role in discrediting Giuliani in particular or TrumpWorld in general is minor, and I don’t feel that it preaches to anyone other than the choir on political matters, ultimately. But it’s in terms of comedy’s lighter but in many ways far deeper function, that of cathartic release, that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is such a well-timed and oddly comforting triumph. More potently and hilariously than almost any other comedy being produced in this seemingly satire-proof time in history, Sacha Baron Cohen’s surprising and highly satisfying laugh riot plays like gangbusters to a progressive audience worn down and disheartened by an uncontrolled pandemic, quarantine lockdowns, a shuddering and uncertain economy, eroding civil rights and democratic norms, persistent systemic racism, sexism, antisemitism, and even Holocaust denial, public policy based on fabulist conspiracies and corporate manipulation, and half-measure compromises being sold as the best possible positive outcomes. If all politics is personal, comedy can be personal and political simultaneously in a similar way. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a weird but welcome relief and comfort. Very nice! Great success!

The Masque of the Red, White, and Blue Death: Edgar Allan Poe, Donald Trump, and the Plague of the American Elite

October 5, 2020 Leave a comment

First published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1842, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror story The Masque of the Red Death tells a simple but richly evocative tale of an unfathomably wealthy and fashionably eccentric medieval duke who seals himself and a thousand fellow privileged nobility and entertainers in a magnificent abbey to safely revel away the hours while the titular deadly plague ravages the surrounding countryside. But death, like time, is not hindered by the walls of class privilege, and a masked figure personifying the Red Death brings the inevitable terror of mortality with it into the duke’s multichromatic halls. The duke falls dead attempting to confront the figure, and his guests follow suit in rapid succession. Poe’s final sentence makes the story’s pitch-black conclusion starkly evident: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Like this personage of the Red Death, The Masque of the Red Death casts a long and ominous shadow for a literary apparition of such brevity and simplicity. The story is a mere 2,417 words long (this essay is just a bit longer!), distributed across 14 paragraphs; now in the public domain, you can read it for free as an e-text on Project Gutenberg in the space of 15 minutes or so. Its meanings and textual implications are clear: death comes for us all, regardless of class, wealth, privilege, or bold defiance of its absolute dictates. Although the story’s obvious allegorical meanings have sometimes been de-emphasized by scholars of Poe’s works on the grounds that the influential American horror writer disdained didactic literature, its symbolism is on the nose enough to be taught in grade school English Lit class.

The duke Prospero – who is the only named character in the text, his moniker a very literal marker of his prosperity as well as a reference to the lead character of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a powerful lord who rules over a superficial paradise that conceals a darker reality – has arranged and decorated the seven halls of his abbey refuge in a horseshoe pattern and decorated each in a dominant colour scheme illuminated by brazier light filtered through similarly-hued stained glass Gothic windows: the rooms progress from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet and finally to a room of velvet-black whose light is filtered through scarlet panes. In this last room, which due to its creepy red-black ambience is avoided by the revelers like the plague, there is also a large ebony clock which rings out every hour on the hour like a resonant grave-bell, halting the light-spirited music and conversation in the other halls and spreading a ponderous silence as it rings out its undeniable herald of the inexorable advance of time. One can quibble with authorial allegorical intent if one wishes (Poe did ridicule the works of the contemporaneous Transcendentalists as “metaphor gone mad”, preferring meaning as an undercurrent just below the surface), but there’s little doubt what this is signifying, especially when Poe capitalizes Time in reference to the clock’s resonant reminders. Prospero meets his final fate before the clock and the Red Death personage in this velvet room, the definitive symbolic thrust.

It’s no stretch to extend Poe’s generalized themes of the “illimitable dominion” of mortality to class critiques, given that the upper-class privilege of Prospero and his lavish courtiers fails to protect them from the Red Death that they consider to be an affliction of the mere rabble to which they are, by their lofty social position, effectively immune. Edgar Allan Poe, for his part, is one of the common models for the popular archetype of the struggling artist, the starving underappreciated genius toiling in his cage of poverty, the literal poet in his garret. It is true that Poe had a difficult life which afforded him little comfort, marked by illness, alcoholism, and consistent penury, receiving little recognition or reward for his fictional output (he was somewhat known as an acerbic and uncompromising critic, which is cold comfort, believe me) during his lifetime. Indeed, his total earnings for The Masque of the Red Death, now one of the best-known short stories in the English language, added up to $12. Socialist political movements seeking to equalize the inequitous distribution of wealth and power of societies in Europe and the Americas were becoming active in both intellectual circles and on the streets during Poe’s life, and his work has often been understood by scholars through the lens of capitalist critiques. But his Gothic horror stories in particular used wealth and privilege as a pedestal of august heights from which his characters might plunge all the further into darkness, madness, and death. Trangression of class privilege is not a political project to Edgar Allan Poe so much as an aesthetic and symbolic tool to amplify his work’s dark implications about the human spirit.

The class politics potentialities of a story like The Masque of the Red Death have burst to the surface in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, however. Poe’s story has joined literary works like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z and previously discussed Hollywood movies like Contagion and Outbreak as epidemic texts that have drawn wider interest from readers and viewers in the time of global viral crisis. The Masque of the Red Death in particular has very recently presented as extremely relevant to the latest COVID-19-related developments in the United States, as noted in a tweet by Canadian writer and queer scholar Anthony Oliveira that largely inspired this essay (a similar analogy was drawn in a Los Angeles Times op-ed by David L. Ulin). The news that broke in the early morning hours of October 2nd that U.S. President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 was stunning but not precisely surprising, given his consistent downplaying of the threat posed by the virus, his undermining and even outright mockery of precautionary measures such as mask usage and social distancing, and the blanket response of the federal government (as well as of American capitalist society in general) to the pandemic that has prioritized the preservation and even expansion of the political and economic elite’s wealth and privilege at the very literal expense of the lives of ordinary American citizens. After a brief period of limited circle-the-wagons crisis unity when the virus first burst out of China and across the world in the early spring, the response of America’s powerful has settled back into avaricious self-interested crisis capitalism. Collective action will only be marshaled in the service of class solidarity. To quote Poe in Masque: “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

The event that has emerged as a particularly perverse and resonant echo of The Masque of the Red Death, like the eerie tolling of the ebony clock in the velvet room, is the one that Oliveira tweeted out in comparison: the ceremony held in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, September 26th to announce conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett as President Trump’s latest nomination to the Supreme Court in the wake of the death of iconic liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th. Despite a looming election that, just four years ago, Trump’s Senate-controlling Republican Party used as justification for refusing to hold hearings or a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s liberal SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP and conservative movement did not hesitate at all before steaming full-speed ahead on replacing the Democrat-appointed Ginsburg with Trump’s third conservative Supreme Court appointee, intending to hold Senate confirmation hearings and seat Barrett before the election in less than a month’s time. Reading the polls that show Trump being demolished by Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the coming presidential election (a recent poll taken after Trump’s disastrously belligerent debate showing but before his COVID diagnosis had him down by 14 points nationally), the GOP has seized on the chance to give themselves a 6-3 majority of conservative justices as a bulwark against a potential Democratic takeover of the White House and Congress, allowing them to potentially strike down the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, and any other left-leaning legislation passed into law by Democrats in the event of their opponents defeating them at the polls, and even to rule on installing Trump back into the White House in the case of a contested election which, with the President’s dishonest voter fraud rhetoric and the party’s full-court-press assault on voting rights, mailed ballot validity, and dissenting protest, they seem determined to force.

Despite the scandal-prone clusterfuckery of the past four years of the Trump-ruled GOP and above all the continuing, consistently-downplayed pandemic, the Republican elite could not help but bask and gloat in their apparently imminent and unstoppable triumph over the enemy in the decades-long struggle for America’s final, unelected, seated-for-life arbiters of the law (there are remedies, but whether the Democratic Party has the spine for the fight to administer them is an open question). The September 26th Barrett announcement was attended by Trump family members, Cabinet officials, Republican Senators and Congressmen, religious leaders, conservative legal grandees, and even the President of the University of Notre Dame, where the extremist arch-Catholic Barrett (who has been paid to speak to a homophobic hate group on five separate occasions, to give an idea of her views) teaches. As detailed in Kevin Liptak’s CNN article on the event linked above, coronavirus precautions were in place but largely for show: not-fully-reliable rapid tests were administered to guests who were admitted to the ceremony with a negative result and told that they could remove their masks, those unlikely symbols for a recklessly unwise right-wing culture war on public health measures (in The Masque of the Red Death, the infuriated duke likewise demands that the party-crashing figure of the Red Death be seized and unmasked). Photos and video of the event show well-dressed Republicans sitting closely together, chatting without social distancing, shaking hands, even hugging each other. For Americans who have not been able to safely interact with friends and family for months, even if those friends or family members were dying alone in a hospital, the implications of these visuals alone had to be infuriating.

But they became all the more infuriating and alarming when positive COVID-19 tests began to cascade across the ceremony attendees in the week that followed. First presidential advisor Hope Hicks, then Trump and his wife Melania, and then numerous Republican Senators and White House advisors and staff and the President of Notre Dame were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. As speculation and recrimination flew through the press and social media about when Trump knew he was COVID-positive and how many events he attended and how many people he exposed before (and after) being airlifted to hospital this past Friday, the Barrett announcement event became instantly infamous as a presidentially-run superspreader event, emblematic of the administration’s shambolic and blithely unconcerned pandemic response and the American elite’s arrogant assumption that their wealth, power, and privilege would make them immune to the plague that was disproportionately killing America’s poorest and most disadvantaged minorities.

In The Masque of the Red Death, Prospero’s abbey is ringed by a “strong and lofty wall”, “girded with iron”. Poe continues:

The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death”.

In the same manner that Poe intended his meanings to be evident just below the surface of the text like a looming, plankton-skimming whale, the implications of the right-wing American elite’s pompous sense of invincibility and privilege-girded security while death raged outside the walls are so clear as to barely be subtextual at all. That the coronavirus raged through them (though has felled none of them as of yet) as they fêted the coming undemocratic generational dominance of their fortress-of-greed power structures and did so specifically because of their personal disregard for pandemic precautions after months of undermining them in order to preserve the flow of profit in defiance of public health and safety for the country at large, well… that’s Irony discernable even in at a high-school English essay level of critical analysis. Edgar Allan Poe as a literary critic and theorist would find much to grimly appreciate in our blunt age of political and cultural subtext becoming inescapably bare text.

American power elites are hardly alone in their soulless disregard for pandemic precautions and mitigating sacrifices and the unrelenting emphasis of capitalist profit over more communal social health and economic security. Closer to home, as COVID cases rise in urban Ontario in general and Toronto in particular, the Conservative provincial government of Premier Doug Ford stubbornly bowed to its business lobby donor class and refused to meaningfully roll back the restaurant, bar, retail, and school openings that most likely led to the rise in cases in the first place, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government has likewise bowed to corporate interests in ending the CERB benefit payments that have kept the Canadian economy afloat since the pandemic closures began in March. The capitalist-democratic order of the neoliberal West is ever at its most rickety in the midst of crisis, and even if COVID-19 is yet to deal a decisive blow to that system and its overblown inequities, it has laid many of its core destabilizing contradictions as bare as they can be, to the point where even the Pope feels the need to point out that they cannot feasibly or morally continue. But the conduct of the courtiers of that opulent trickle-down order, welding the bolts that they might bid defiance to contagion while the external world fends for itself, is increasingly untenable and becomes ever more difficult to forget for those locked out (and locked down).

As The Masque of the Red Death makes painfully clear, however, it will not even protect the elites who wall themselves off from the rest of the world in manners figurative or literal. The coronavirus, its vesture dabbled in blood, stalks their magnificent halls and awaits them before the ebony clock of Time. Whether a literal personification of the COVID-19 illness or a figurative representation of the unpredictable social, political, cultural, and economic forces that may yet cascade irrevocably in its wake, the Red Death may still hold illimitable dominion over all, not matter their net worth or position of power and privilege.

American Reckoning: The George Floyd Protests and the Dimensions of Civil Unrest

June 5, 2020 1 comment

On the evening of May 25th, 2020, four Minneapolis Police Department officers responded to a report of a “forgery in progress” and rolled up to a food shop where 46-year-old African-American male George Floyd had been accused of trying to pay for goods with a counterfeit $20 bill. A confrontation ensued as Floyd resisted arrest and eventually wound up prone and face-down on the pavement outside the store, held down by MPD officer Derek Chauvin, whose knee was on the back of Floyd’s neck. As shown in a disturbing video taken of the events that went viral online, Floyd was in obvious and serious physical distress, pleading with Chauvin to relax the force of his suffocating hold as he couldn’t breathe, and later began to visibly bleed. Despite exhortations from a bystander to allow Floyd to breathe and no attempts from the other three officers on the scene to intervene, Chauvin persisted with his knee on the man’s neck for nearly seven minutes, including for four minutes after Floyd has stopped moving. George Floyd was dead, another in the long line of African-Americans whose lives were lost at the hands of law enforcement.

Observers in America and around the world had seen things like this happen before, and many on the social justice Left wearily expected a series of dispiriting developments to follow. The United States has a long history of racial violence, after all, perpetrated both by the legal authorities and extrajudicially, and just as long a history of such violence going unpunished. The officers would be placed on administrative leave or at worst suspended without pay, but likely not charged and even if so, certainly not with murder (if you’ve never heard of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine’s application to law enforcement has something to do with this). Floyd would be smeared in the press by police sources and supportive allies (mostly but not entirely on the Right), and whatever demonstrations of opposition or calls for justice and police reform presented themselves would be endured and/or indulged superficially by law enforcement and political leaders until the news cycle moved on to something else and the whole matter could be swept inobtrusively under the rug. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of Americans out of work, anxious about their finances and their health, and still under gradually-lifting lockdowns limiting public assemblies, the authorities might well have expected the pattern to repeat, perhaps with even less open complaint from activist groups such as Black Lives Matter. Certainly the last thing we would see would be any sort of large-scale public protests.

But 2020 is a year that has comprehensively re-defined our collective understanding of the word “unprecedented”. Increasingly large, vocal, and persistent public protests against George Floyd’s killing began in Minneapolis and quickly spread to every major and minor city and even numerous small towns across the country and indeed around the world, eventually involving hundreds of thousands of people from across a diverse racial and ideological spectrum (although mostly from the left in partisanized America). Predominantly peaceful from the protestors’ side, although with undeniable, diffuse sidelines of violence, looting and rioting (as when a MPD precinct was torched in the Twin Cities) which are ever-present elements of social unrest, these protests employ Floyd’s shocking and galvanizing death as their core grievance and rallying point but also sought justice for the recent killings of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery by police-connected figures in Georgia. Beyond these fixed calls for justice, the protests have increasingly embraced wider demands of left-leaning social justice and anti-racist causes, from police department defunding and abolition to consequences for racist and white supremacist speech and actions to larger First Amendment concerns about authoritarian police state tendencies.

The protests, now in their second week with no predictable end in sight, have registered numerous tangible successes already. Officer Chauvin was arrested on May 29th in the wake of the incendiary initial Minneapolis protests, initially charged with third-degree murder but later upgraded to second-degree murder on June 3rd after the state attorney general took over the case, with the other three officers being charged with aiding and abetting on the same date. New charges followed in the Arbery case as well, and an investigation was opened in Louisville to probe the Breonna Taylor case. Beyond these developments, accelerated action on long-simmering factors of division of American racial politics also began to be taken, with long-controversial monuments to Civil War-era Confederate Army generals coming down in some Southern cities and even a statue of notoriously segregationist Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo being removed from in front of a city government building. In a less tangible fashion, political leaders, corporations, celebrities, pro athletes, and even notorious YouTube frat-boy pranksters have flooded social media with expressions of support for the larger Black Lives Matter movement (once smeared by conservatives as a terrorist hate group and long held at arm’s length by the mainstream media) and for the protests in particular, often accompanying these expressions with open and searchingly thoughtful examinations of their own privilege and biases. Many of these statements, especially from corporations and celebrities, have hedged their bets with vague language and even exploited the groundswell of political sentiment to trade on what YouTube video essayist Harris Brewis discussed as “woke brand capitalism” marketing strategies. And the “Blackout Tuesday” social media campaign embraced by popular online celebrities and influencers was criticized in many quarters as insufficient and performative quasi-direct action, when considerable monetary donations (bail funds in particular are being overwhelmed) and even street-level participation would be far more productive (nobody’s saying that about Star Wars star John Boyega, though, who went viral pouring his pained soul out to a Black Lives Matter protest in London).

Considering the general left-wing bent of the protests and its central themes of opposition to police brutality, racism, and white supremacist systems, it shouldn’t be surprising that conservatives, who control the White House, are over-represented in police forces across the States, and who default to “law and order” no-tolerance reactions to politically-motivated civil unrest in general (except when the protestors are their ideologically compadres), have sought to push back. A flood of misinformation, threats of arrest and state violence, likenings of protestors to criminals and terrorists, and any number of discursive attempts to criticize, delegitimize and break the protests has erupted across the right-wing media’s propaganda networks. Republican President Donald Trump, well-known for his racist and authoritarian leanings, has amplified this rhetoric on Twitter and in public statements, quoting a 1960s Miami police chief’s explicit threat to shoot protestors and joining the conservative echo-chamber in blaming the unrest on Antifa, an ideology of direct anti-fascism action more than some kind of organization that he instructed his cronies in the Department of Justice to pursue in the legal realm.

The frenzied, constantly shifting lines of attack from the Right demonstrate how poorly their usual discursive tactics have worked to quell the protests or turn the public against them. This was most clearly and memorably shown in Trump’s big swing at a public relations knockout blow on June 1st: his now-infamous bible-brandishing photo-op at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington, D.C. The basement of St. John’s had been lightly damaged by fire during post-curfew protests the night before, which sparked a hyperbolic round of whipped-up right-wing outrage at the destruction of a historic church that, like the fire itself, didn’t spread beyond underground of the conservative fever swamp. The same night, Trump was reported to have been hidden in the White House bunker by the Secret Service for his protection (he later claimed to have been “inspecting” it). Following numerous fulminating expressions by Trump that day of the need to “dominate” the streets and crush the protests in meetings with state governors and Cabinet officials, Trump gave a speech outside the White House threatening to deploy the military to quell the protests.

Then came a chaotically-executed television stunt that will no doubt prove to be one of history’s defining images of these events, however they turn out. As peaceful protestors were cleared from Lafayette Park 45 minutes before the 7pm city curfew by federal, city, and county law enforcement and security forces firing tear gas grenades and beating on protestors and media with riot gear, Trump walked with a retinue of Cabinet members and advisors (include his daughter Ivanka Trump, purported to be one of the architects of the moment and holding a several-thousand-dollar luxury handbag) to St. John’s Church, which he had not received permission from the clergy to visit (indeed, they claim to have been cleared from its porch by force with the rest of the crowd) and was boarded up for its protection in any case. With sirens blaring and gas bombs to be heard exploding in the background, Trump held up a bible for the cameras.

Apparently conceived as an appearance conveying strength, defiance, and piety to his shaken and ever-shrinking Republican base (some polls have his Democratic opponent in the forthcoming presidential election, former Vice-President Joe Biden, leading him by ten points), this photo-op was greeted with simultaneously derision for both its ridiculousness (an awkward, sour-faced Trump held the bible upside-down, and, when asked if it was his bible, responded hilariously, “It’s *A* bible”) and for its horrifying authoritarian theatricality. In the moment and shortly after, in combination with threats of military deployment to U.S. cities and reports of mass arrests and legal targeting of protestors on ideological grounds, it appeared that it might at last be the long-feared moment predicted by left-wing commentators when the authoritarian Trump went full fascist and bent all of the oppressive powers of the formidable federal government and politically-sympathetic law enforcement to his capricious will. But the shoddiness of the stunt and the pointless and unconstitutional brutality deployed to make it possible seemed to shake off a certain complacency from many Americans great and small. The next day’s protests grew greatly in size and determination, and the media and even his own Cabinet pushed back against a political PR attempt that was clearly backfiring.

Persistent, escalating police violence against protestors has done even more to popularize and expand the size and scope of the protests, as well as to expose and turn sentiment against the police claims to being a force of law, order, and protection of citizens and their rights. Not only the photo-op tear-gassing in Washington but numerous other bursts of brutality, mass arrests and confinements, kettling tactics to force trapped protestors to break curfews, and attacks on media, legal observers, and non-protesting citizens have been reported and recorded on video. A Twitter thread of video-documented police brutality instances complied by attorney T. Greg Doucette has stretched beyond 300 posts so far. Faced with direct mass criticism of their actions, wider anti-police sentiment, and calls for defunding or even abolishing their departments by people generally understood by cops to be their ideological opponents (if not outright enemies), police from New York to Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Seattle have seemed to respond with force driven as much by anger and bitterness at being held to account for their actions as by a principled desire for order and stability. This escalatory lashing out has only exacerbated the problems they face by proving right the protestors’ assertions about their ingrained violent assumptions, and how they are most commonly and brutally manifested against America’s historically oppressed minorities. George Floyd’s death shocked many Americans enough to get them into the streets, but there’s no question that the police’s forceful response to the protests, especially when it falls upon the heads of white Americans, has shocked even more to show up in solidarity and perhaps to begin shifting their consistently positive views of the police, particularly among better-off Caucasian-Americans.

My tone and framing should make it clear that I support the George Floyd protests and agree with their anti-racist and anti-police state goals. The broad-based diversity of this protest movement, seemingly including a great variety of Americans from all walks of life, sets it apart in the public discourse from the anti-war protests of the 1960s, which while also quite diverse, became pigeonholed (and purposely targetted by the paranoid reactionary J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI) in generational gap terms as a movement of longhaired hippie college kids with communist sympathies. Although even thoughtful and concerned critiques of the protests can either be co-opted by bad faith actors to kneecap them or undermine them unintentionally, I do feel the need to engage in one or two. It’s evident that both the conditions resulting from and the anxiety and even anger stemming from the poor official response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. (which at this moment leads the world in cases and in deaths from the virus) is feeding into the protests in ways both easily apprehended and less obviously visible. The fact that the largest mass protests in America since the Vietnam War era are occuring during a global pandemic that has been responded to with public-health strictures about lack of contact and limited assembly orders is remarkable and impressive while also being highly worrisome in terms of curbing viral disease transmission, it has to be said.

If you listen to many conservatives and concern-trolling centrists, it’s likewise hypocritical: leftists insisted on quarantines and lockdowns while mocking and criticizing right-wingers who broke them for any number of reasons considered to be illegitimate, but now it’s fine that the Left is organizing in huge numbers because they say that their cause is important enough (and there are many conspicuous precautions from protestors, especially mask use and even some measure of social distancing, that were less evident during right-wing protests weeks ago). Certainly many of these criticisms are in bad faith and could be turned right back on their utterers: the Right didn’t care so much about quarantines a few weeks ago, and even got crowds of Trump supporters out to protest them as illegal tyranny, but now they’re defending them as necessary when it’s the leftists out in the streets fighting against racism. There’s a strong note of being stung with bitter disappointment on the part of conservatives that their own attempts to break the lockdowns with (sparsely-attended and highly astroturfed) protests were roundly criticized and never really caught on (nor did they receive a skull-cracking police response, as has been illustratively pointed out by progressives), while the Left has a practically spontaneous (unless you’re in agreement with the conspiracists who think it’s all a George Soros-funded antifa black op) mass movement on its hands. But I would also not question the commitment and bravery of the protestors willing to face down not only phalanxes of hostile and provably violent police but also a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus in order to improve American society, as they see it. It’s a hard call that I’m not sure I’d be able to make, and I admire those who have done so.

But the deeper question about the George Floyd protests that I keep returning to is their endgame. The immediate initial goals have been met with regards to Floyd’s death, as well as encouraging steps with Taylor’s and Arbery’s cases. The larger demands of protest leaders run towards profound alterations to police training and tactics and indeed their very relations towards the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect while frequently doing neither, defunding or abolishing police departments, or even dismantling large-scale, well-ingrained systems of racial hierarchy and discrimination in American government, business, and society. Numerous political resignations are also being demanded, from police chiefs and commissioners to (often Democratic) mayors and governors enabling police brutality to U.S. Senators calling for troops to crush the uprising to the President himself. The question ought not to be what concessions by the powers-that-be will get the protestors off the streets, especially given the record of elected officials expressing support and promising change on racial issues and then not delivering when the attention has died down.

But it does hang in the air: what will end these protests? Like the pandemic lockdowns that were beginning to be lifted (largely at the instigation and due to the agitation of conservatives), they cannot continue indefinitely, although like the expected future of the lockdowns we might be prudent to expect waxing and waning escalations and de-escalations. Might the awaited Trump-ordered crackdown on civil rights yet be coming, or is this weak and cowardly and vain man too sunk in those qualities (especially after looking the fool on national television) to take that alarming step? The Republican Party and the police are losing, it seems; how will they react with their back against the wall? How many, and which, nation-shaking changes are required to satisfy this diverse protest movement for progress on anti-racism? Either way, these momentous protests have taken on the appearance of a historic American reckoning before our eyes. Where they end, or if the grievances and fissures at their core come to any sort of conclusion at all, is anyone’s guess.

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.

Film Review: Contagion

March 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Contagion (2011; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic currently paralyzing much of the world and altering any social, economic, and political norms that we might collectively have taken for granted, millions of people have dealt with the anxiety and uncertainty of this transformative mass health emergency in the best way they’ve learned how: they have stayed in their homes and watched lots of stuff on Netflix. One of the pieces od media that quarantined viewers have understandably gravitated toward is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral outbreak thriller Contagion, and honestly, they could do far worse.

Contagion is in many ways a highly representative Soderbergh work, a filmic story told through multiple disconnected but broadly related narrative threads and peppered with multimedia expository methods. The camera work is immediate and the cinematography unadorned, the acting naturalistic and marked by overlapping dialogue, the editing sharp, nimble, and vital. Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” to describe this style, and several Soderbergh movies (most notably Traffic, which won him his Best Director Academy Award) fit the guidelines. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (a frequent collaborator and director of last year’s excellently sober The Report) are also fond of using the hyperlink cinema approach to explore various facets of a complex social or political issue that the traditional protagonist-biography format of Hollywood message movies has proven too rigid and direct to handle effectively.

Contagion proves that a viral pandemic of global proportions (an imagined and far deadlier one than we currently face, if that’s any sort of balm for the sting of current circumstances) is precisely the kind of event that hyperlink cinema was developed in order to depict onscreen. A message movie with a singularly focused narrative strand would necessarily proscribe and thus misrepresent the rhizomatic enormity of a worldwide plague in a way that a multipronged hyperlinker like Contagion is not likewise constrained to do. A lesser single-narrative-thread film would probably would have focused on the experiences of Midwestern everyman Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose world-travelling (and unfaithful) wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong and quickly falls dangerously ill. It may have alternately focused on the journey through the pandemic of a quartet of prominent health professionals: CDC chief Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), one of his top on-the-ground Epidemic Intelligence Service officers, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), CDC research scientist and eventual vaccine developer Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), or WHO epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), who investigates the virus’ origins in mainland China.

Contagion intercuts all of their perspectives on the pandemic together to craft a greater multivalent whole, and even finds time to include the subplot of conspiracy-minded blogger (How quaintly 2011! Who the hell blogs anymore?) Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who gains millions of devoted (and a litte desperate) followers flogging a homeopathic cure employing an existing pharmaceutical product and thus contributes to a dangerous contagion of panic and distrust that escalates into order-collapsing self-interested lawlessness. Krumwiede’s plot might seem like the least accurate and most paranoidly apocalyptic portion of Contagion‘s multifaceted portrait of a fictional model pandemic (his self-fashioned protective bubble-head suit has something of 12 Monkeys to its design), and it’s fair to say that the contemporary coronavirus situation proves this out. There’s no need for obscure anti-government bloggers to sow fear and discord with dangerous, unfounded promises of dubious miracle cures when you’ve got the President of the United States doing that on national television, after all.

Given the film’s fairly solid basis in disease response strategies and scientific knowledge, many details of Contagion will be alarmingly familiar to anyone living through the current pandemic. Ideas now common in the collective discourse like social distancing come up in dialogue, and Winslet’s Dr. Mears admonishes a colleague not to touch his face to prevent contracting the virus, as we have all been admonished many times by public health figures. The virus’ Chinese origins and its spread through the haphazard incautious contact of a globally-travelling, socially networked society that cannot easily or painlessly be limited, let alone locked down entirely, is likewise all too real today, although the film is not as good on the economic consequences as one might like. Probably the most unrealistic thing in the film, to be honest, is that two teenagers choose a U2 song for a proxy post-pandemic prom dance in Mitch’s living room (a wild flight of Gen-X fancy, if there ever was one).

Grounded as Contagion is in disease control modelling and rigorously studied scientific hypotheses and predictions, it should be so familiar. In so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic currently seizing up the world is seeing the global population react in all the ways that this film depicted, although thus far both the death toll and the complete breakdown of law and order shown in the film are not quite yet our reality (a line late in the film, as the world recovers, notes that the virus killed 26 million people; if COVID-19 claims that many victims, one doubts our social order would be able to endure it either). Is it comforting to have your contemporary reality largely mapped out in a fictional movie based on scientific modelling that is far more dire than an actual global pandemic? It’s hard to say, but Contagion‘s intention is like that of all of Soderbergh’s hyperlinked cinema verité socio-political message movies: not to comfort viewers but to shake them out of well-learned complacency concerning a problem by confronting them with fictional but documentary-immediate dramatic plottings of real issues and accurate information. Contagion is just a movie, but it has a well-researched and well-founded point and makes it skillfully, forcefully, and persuasively. It’s perhaps not entirely too late for this film to be of some benefit to our shared predicament of the moment, for whatever that benefit may be worth.

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes me wonder what has happened to its writer-director Martin McDonagh. This reaction might not have been the anticipated one, seeing as how the film won three Oscars and even more Golden Globes and BAFTAs, making it McDonagh’s big awards-circuit breakthrough after his first two unruly but frightfully clever genre films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges (the latter being one of my favourite films of the 21st Century, an underrated classic). Three Billboards was greeted by not only awards voters but by critics and audiences as McDonagh’s finest and most appealing cinematic work yet, headlined by Oscar-winning performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and providing an acerbic and morally complex take on American social problems of policing, race, misogyny, and rural disintegration. What’s happened to Martin McDonagh, I ask? Why, he’s only gotten better, nearly everyone else answered!

Perhaps what Three Billboards makes most clear is not what has happened to Martin McDonagh, but what hasn’t happened to him. What hasn’t happened is him that he has moved forward as an artist or storyteller or polemicist. The London-born, Irish-descended McDonagh was an acclaimed playwright before moving into film with In Bruges, his biting black comedies about contemporary Irish life mixing nimble borderline-tiptoeing “edgy” humour with serious social examinations and even tragic themes. He’s still crafting those kinds of stories on the big screen, and he’s even making practically the same exact kind of “edgy” jokes that he always has, in a manner that is exposing their limitations as well as the plausible-deniability tactics that obscure their offensiveness. In my review of Seven Psychopaths (which I thought was okay, but at least saw McDonagh interested in the relatively fresh ground meta self-reflexive questions of representations in media, particularly of violence), I wrote that “the quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again.”

Maybe because I loved In Bruges so much and held onto such goodwill for McDonagh as a writer, I wanted to believe that what he was doing by playing with offensive stereotypes like this was sophisticated and critical. I convinced myself and tried to convince anyone reading that he wasn’t just lampshading. Three Billboards makes it painfully clear to me that he is lampshading, and probably always was lampshading, in the terminological sense of distancing himself from the offensiveness of the stereotypes at the heart of his dark comedy by calling attention to that offensiveness and/or placing it in context while still using a shared knowledge (and generalized prejudiced acceptance) of those stereotypes to get a laugh. McDonagh certainly likes to pepper his writing with ableist and homophobic slurs, and even the N-word, but since his characters are either just prejudiced people or openly point out that it’s not PC to say those kinds of things, it’s fine and obviously only a dullard who didn’t get it would actually be offended. He also goes hard on “midget” jokes for the second of his three films (In Bruges‘ person of short stature was played by Jordan Prentice, but felt like a role that McDonagh wishes he could have gotten Peter Dinklage for; in Three Billboards, he gets his Dinklage), which makes him the most cutting-edge satirical humourist of 1954, I suppose.

The lampshade-hanging sharp-tongued comedy of Three Billboards is not really the primary problem with it, but it dovetails neatly with the unsubtle contrivance of the film’s dramatic developments. This is the kind of dramatic movie in which a hardened-in-grief mother (McDormand as Mildred Hayes) who has lost her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a brutal rape and murder flashes back to the last time she saw her child on the night that she died, and the last words Mildred says to the bitter Angela after denying her use of the car to go out for the night is to concur with the teen’s petty sarcastic parting epithet that she hopes that Angela is raped and murdered. Nearly every plot moment lands like this, with the subtlety of a hammerstroke and with an oppressive, smothering irony. Most of them derive from Mildred’s idiosyncratically confrontational response to her grief and to the local police’s lack of traction in investigating the crime: she rents the titular triptych of successive billboards on the side road that leads to her home and plasters an accusatory message aimed at the failures of local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the case. Since Ebbing is a tight-knit community and it’s also shared-secret public knowledge that Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred’s J’Accuse…! style of advertising is not popular, to say the least, and leads to a local backlash (although it’s worth interrogating McDonagh’s text as to how much of that backlash is realistic or believable).

Almost nobody likes these billboards. Obviously Willoughby doesn’t much appreciate it, struggling as he is with the legacy of his failure to find’s Angela rapist and killer and the heartbreaking reality of his mortality and leaving behind his wife (Abbie Cornish, whose chosen accent is bizarre and unplaceable), his two young daughters, his officers, and his beloved horses. Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who abused her and then left her prior to Angela’s death for a 19-year old (Samara Weaving, who manages a couple of decent comedic beats in a thoroughly thankless role), certainly doesn’t agree with it, nor does her high-school-age son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). The local police are predictably resentful too, especially bigoted, drunken shitheel Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who is notorious for having tortured an African-American man in his custody. Dixon proceeds to cover himself in even greater vainglory, arresting Mildred’s black female gift shop co-worker (Amanda Warren) on trumped-up possession charges in retribution, and harrassing and eventually nearly killing Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the homosexual local advertising agent who rents the billboards to Mildred.

The escalation of Three Billboard‘s drama is, as implied, fairly overheated and contrived, driven by manipulative plot necessities more than character psychology or local social forces. The cast sells it as best they can, and McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell give as near to the best as can be given in service of the material (the flinty McDormand is the most clearly spectacular; she could win an Oscar for every role she ever played and you wouldn’t find many objectors). McDonagh aims for a portrait of ambiguity and messy human frality and imperfection quite purposely, though not as thoughtfully as he might think or intend. Three Billboards is not a film that judges any particular character in totalizing moral terms, not even Dixon, who is a horrid, racist, homophobic, dimwitted, pathetic prick until he suddenly, improbably rallies from a low ebb to become a dogged crusader for Angela’s killer in a whiplashing last-act redemption arc. Better critics than I have analyzed why McDonagh’s arc for Dixon is irresponsible and even offensive in terms of racial politics, so I leave that point to them. But it’s also emblematic of the deepest-seeded problem that Three Billboards has, the one that ultimately drags it down: Martin McDonagh doesn’t understand American society, culture, and politics as well as he thinks he does, and his supposedly searing cinematic critique of its core issues comes off as paternalistic tourism (there was an element of this to In Bruges, but tourism was part of the core joke there).

Such tone-deaf arrogance, you might scoff, a Canadian critic chiding a world-renowned British-Irish filmmaker and playwright for not “getting” America. But to anyone who has ever been to the States or even so much as consumed some of its media (and who hasn’t done that?), great swaths of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri come across as entirely wrong, unfair, or even offensive (and not in McDonagh’s usual winking “we both know this is offensive but let’s have a penetrating laugh at it” manner). The intense, supposedly-probing focus on the inhabitants of rural red state flyover-country (“The Heartland” of America, in that racially and partisanly coded nomenclature) so often either ignored or marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood is, well, rife with stereotypes of people from that part of the world. The examination of the fraught and divided social views of the police is facile, the consideration of racial issues is hardly a consideration at all but the writing equivalent of dumping the loose contents of a packed purse on a table and inviting the audience to paw through the items for what they might be looking for, an approach without discernment or focus or sensitivity to traumas felt by some Americans but not felt or understood by others. There’s a staged quality to McDonagh’s vision of Ebbing, a theatrical quality that you might have expected from a playwright-turned-film director but which In Bruges and especially Seven Psychopaths did not display in the same way. Treading into more unfamiliar territory geographically and socio-politically, McDonagh retreats to framing that he knows better to anchor the work, it seems; this goes for the music as well, which bookends Irish folk poem “The Last Rose of Summer” as the film’s choice aural elegy for American life.

The very British-Isles understanding of discrimination and prejudice being grounded entirely in socioeconomic class pervades Three Billboards; working class suffering is the common denominator, the core assumption of social and emotional struggles. Martin McDonagh knows that race is vital to understanding American social, economic, and political power relations, but he can only invoke it as a push-button comedic/dramatic shock tactic, a literal trump card to be played (take every charged potential meaning of that wording to be entirely purposeful). There are superficially fascinating and potentially deep themes simmering tantalizingly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, half-posed and entirely unanswered questions about the role of advertising in directing the mass psychology of capitalist societies (the opening glimpses of the derelict billboards are exquisitely, artfully photographed by cinematographer Ben Davis, summoning ghosts of The Great Gatsby‘s symbolically-charged fragmentary billboard of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg) and the position of the police as punitive agents of power maintenance more than as the endlessly culturally-celebrated ideal of crime-fighting arbiters of moral equilibrium. The concept of rural America in particular and of America in general as a culture and society in decline and decay is invoked as well; the town is called Ebbing after all, and the root verb comes up in dialogue as if to re-emphasize the point (very few of McDonagh’s points here are judged to be unworthy of exhaustive re-emphasis).

But none of this rises beyond quasi-literary colour, like Willoughby and his wife referencing Oscar Wilde and the former maybe even identifying Wilde’s life-ending plight with his own cancerous decline. Of course, Martin McDonagh would identify with an Irish playwright, but would a small-town Missouri police chief? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is full of such details, large and small, that are raised and emphasized but never really seem to be the point. It grants the film the illusion of complexity and richness and depth without the bother of actually labouring to erect them. Three Billboards purports to be a film about grief and loss and prejudice and injustice and love and redemption and forgiveness and revenge and race and power and all of those other Big Ideas. But what it ends up being about is how Martin McDonagh can’t wrangle these Big Ideas into a thematically and emotionally coherent film, so he papers over the incoherence with surface-level cleverness and button-pushing provocations. Perhaps what happened to Martin McDonagh is that his ambitions outstripped his creative grounding, and his desire to be taken seriously by the segment of American mass culture represented by awards-bait movies led him astray from the knowledge-base that he drew from in his best work. Write what you know, right? Martin McDonagh doesn’t know America, unfortunately, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes that fact painfully clear.

Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews

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.

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.

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.