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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.

Film Review: Icarus

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Icarus (2017; Directed by Bryan Fogel)

Icarus begins as one kind of documentary film and ends up as quite another. Its director, Bryan Fogel, is also a high-level amateur cyclist, and early in the film humblebraggily notes that he finished 14th in the Haute Route, considered to be the premier amateur cycling race in the world. Despite the strong finish, Fogel found that the discrepancy between himself and the top racers was so wide that he suspected that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was as rampant in top-tier amateur cycling as it infamously has been in professional cycling. With this in mind, he decides to put himself on PEDs for a year leading up to the next edition of the Haute Route, tracking and documenting his progress and improvement on camera (call it Super Dope Me, if you like).

To ensure his own health and safety as well as to optimize his results and chances of passing anti-doping tests, Fogel decides to work with experienced and accredited scientists. His first choice for consultation, the founder and head of UCLA’s doping laboratory, backs out, concerned about his reputation when it becomes clear that Fogel wants to show how to dope and get away with it. He recommends instead a Russian scientist and the head of Russia’s ant-doping program, Grigory Rodchenkov. With loose morals, voluble good humour, and a suspicious amount of experience in evading doping controls, Rodchenkov puts Fogel on a sophisticated and mildly alarming PED regimen.

Due to non-physically-related setbacks, Fogel finished lower in the Haute Route standings than he did the previous year, despite his program of doping. But along the way he gains a good friend in Rodchenkov and stumbles upon an inside view of one of the biggest and most explosive stories in the long but mostly-shadowy history of sports doping. It becomes clear fairly quickly to Fogel that Rodchenkov knows so much about cheating sports doping controls because it was precisely his job in Russia to help athletes to do so, not to catch them at it.

Rodchenkov soon confides in Fogel and his camera, and later in the New York Times and the U.S. Department of Justice, that every Russian Olympic athlete at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics was using PEDs and that he and his lab worked to ensure that they were not caught. Not only that, but at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (which were even more awash in steroid use for domestic propaganda purposes after Russia’s weaker showing in 2010 in Vancouver, where drug tests were more difficult to get around), Rodchenkov and his staff worked with state secret police to swap Russian athletes’ PED-laced urine samples for clean ones in the IOC-sanctioned anti-doping lab itself. All of this was done with the clear knowledge and even expressed direction of the Russian Minister of Sport, who answers directly to President Vladimir Putin himself.

Struck by guilt after his team’s work turned Sochi into a podium-finish and propaganda success that Putin parlayed into a power-move into Ukraine, Rodchenkov’s revelations went public as Fogel filmed him in 2015 and 2016, leading to the entire Russian track and field team (and quite nearly all Russian Olympic athletes period) being banned from competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Fleeing Russia and fearing for his life, Rodchenkov is finally put into protective custody and witness relocation by the Department of Justice.

This is a heck of a story and Fogel knows it, but the more thematic framing of Rodchenkov’s perspective on his actions can feel a bit off, even heavy-handed. Rodchenkov is a devotee of George Orwell’s 1984, and the seminal book is quoted liberally in Icarus; the Greek mythology title isn’t nearly as justified as the Orwell connection, which can be patchy of its own accord. He feels that he was like Winston Smith, sunk in the constant pretentious lie of doublethink as he ran a purportedly anti-doping operation while actually running a prolific doping operation.

Icarus makes a belated point, though not a particularly forceful one, that the Orwellian doublethink at the core of Russia’s sports doping system reflects more generally on Putin’s discourse of propaganda and power in his modern Russia. Perhaps Fogel could have made this point sharper without his early focus on his own PED regimen, or his detailing of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts, or his decision to humanize and thus build empathy for Rodchenkov (some left-field animation sequences don’t help, including the surrealist image of a crumpled, seated Rodchenkov with a stag’s antlers growing out of skull). Icarus is a fascinating and strong documentary, but the unanticipated sharp turn that makes its narrative so striking might also weaken its impact.

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

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Griffin and Caravaggio: Decapitation and Atonement

It’s hardly difficult, amidst the bewildering swirl of news, rumours, disinformation and perpetual scandal and outrage that has been the still-young presidency of Donald J. Trump, to lose track of specific details of note, for occurrences of interest to be buried in avalanches of drama and rhetoric. One such instance fired outrage machines for an extended news cycle and is already sinking from view, but deserves to be held up for a measure of visual analysis before we lose complete sight of it.

In late May, comedian, actress, television personality, and sometimes political commentator Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself on Instagram and Twitter holding up what was meant to appear to be the blood-soaked severed head of Donald Trump. Whatever satirical commentary Griffin and collaborating photographer Tyler Shields intended to make with the visual statement, the image sparked a firestorm of protest from online conservatives, Trump supporters, and liberals, too. Basically nobody liked it and most agreed that it crossed the line (wherever that line is considered to be located in the era of an admitted serial sexual-harasser President of the United States). Trump himself, as well as one of his idiot sons, even stoked the outrage on Twitter by claiming that the President’s 11-year-old son Barron saw the photo, thought it was real and believed that Daddy (who loves him nearly as much as he loves golf) was dead.

Griffin’s carefully-curated personal celebrity brand as an under-talented D-list semi-famous personality suffered definite consequences from the furour over the stunt, losing endorsements, appearances, and a high-profile New Year’s Eve CNN hosting gig due to the negative response to the photo. Rightly or wrongly, her image and career faces a serious setback for a decision that, whatever else might be said about it, was creative in nature. Stripping that creative decision of as much media hype and outrage culture baggage as we can, can we judge Griffin’s photo as an aesthetic image, as an artistic statement? If so, what can we learn from it?

My feeling in critiquing the image (above on the left) is that it leans into the tempting frisson of shock and partisan dark-wish-fulfillment when it might have endeavoured to foster more nuanced associations and implications. A productive point of comparison, and one which Griffin and Shields’ work falls well short of, might be to a superficially similar image by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (seen to the right in the superior of two versions the artist produced, from the Galleria Borghese in Rome). It’s not inconceivable that in composing the photo of Griffin holding up the head of “Trump” almost as a grotesque offering to the viewer, Tyler Shields had in his mind’s eye Caravaggio’s image of the Israelite boy king holding up the viscera-dripping head of the vanquished Philistine giant. Placed side by side, they might constitute a diptych of strange symmetry, Griffin gripping her foe’s skull with her right hand while David grips his foe’s skull with his left.

Homage-drenched referentiality aside, the weaknesses of Griffin and Shields’ image-making are laid bare by such a contrast. Three stark differences are immediately obvious: the colour of the bare background, the expression on the face of the figure holding the decapitated head, and the head of the hated, defeated enemy himself.

Caravaggio’s famed tenebrism, an extreme take on chiaroscuro shading which drastically contrasts light and dark and lends dramatic three-dimensional illusions to modeled forms, is on full display. A dark background contrasts with the central focus of light, David’s half-bare torso, muscles taut but skin boyishly soft. The shadows appear to be half-devouring his sword arm, like the penumbra of plague. Griffin, meanwhile, stands out harshly, glaring and almost unreal, against a white backdrop that is every bit a self-identifying trapping of a photographic studio. The red of her hair and the lapis lazuli blue of her outfit combine with the field of white to form the blatant American tricolour, couching her implied revolutionary violence in terms of patriotic defence of the republic. She might as well have a flag pin on her lapel.

And look at Griffin’s face, with its fixed mannequinesque impassiveness. What does she think or feel about what it’s implied she’s done to the leader of the free world, removing his head from his body, ending his life of lies and swindles and the bumbling tyranny of his rule? It’s hard to say that she’s telling us that she thinks or feels anything; her tightened neck, seemingly in mid-hard-swallow, is the most communicative feature of the weight of her act. She seems to be aiming for an expression of defiance (and some of that dwells in her blue eyes), but instead looks mildly aghast. Stunned. It is not a mask of righteous resistance, as it most likely ought to be.

Consider, alternately, David’s expression in the Caravaggio painting. He’s pensive, mournful, lamenting what he’s done. He’s remorseful about what’s happened to Goliath at his hand, and perhaps faintly ashamed at what his opponent’s fate has revealed about his own character. Goliath’s face, too, is rich in expression, evincing the slack-jawed, helpless final agony of his moment of death. But what is Griffin’s “Trump” but a paint-smeared dummy’s head with stage hair, communicating nothing of import and actually barely even resembling the President? Griffin might as well have defended herself from her detractors by claiming it wasn’t Trump after all. Were he not currently the most famous person in the world, would we even recognize that it was supposed to be him? Griffin might as well be holding a pineapple.

Is it absurd to compare an Old Master, an all-time great painter who constructs his images with painstaking skill and conscious, informed deliberation, to a modern provocateur photographer and second-rate comedienne, grasping at easy gasps? Caravaggio is lent a key edge by his aesthetic medium, which allows him complete freedom of creation and representation, while Shields can but capture what he places before his camera lens. This serves to explain, to some extent, the clumsy amateurishness of the “Trump head”, but not the gaping gulf of comparative empathy between the images.

This lack of empathy in the image of Griffin, I think, gets at the almost-uniform negative reaction to it. There’s a detached ugliness to it, an ironic lack of irony. Kathy Griffin, for all her political outspokenness, has no compelling visual relationship to Trump in this image. It’s flat as a postcard, with the grim self-righteousness of propaganda.

Caravaggio’s painting is less superficially shocking but more psychologically unsettling. This is not only because he includes the instrument of decapitation, the cold, groin-pointing phallic steel of David’s sword (how did Griffin remove “Trump”‘s head? Pruning shears?). More fundamentally, there is roiling emotion (often read as homoerotic tension) between David and Goliath. Art historical insight tells us that this emotion was, to a not-insignificant extent, internal to the artist: it has often been pointed out (by Simon Schama in his Power of Art BBC documentary on the painting, but by other scholars as well) that the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio near the end of his tumultuous life, on the run from the law for his part in a back-alley murder and thus fallen from his status as the golden boy of Italian Counter-Reformation painting; but the boy king David, with his sympathetic but disappointed ambivalence to his later self, is likely also a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.

This implied, emotionally complex self-criticism might be the key missing characteristic of the image of Kathy Griffin and “Trump”, and by extension American discourse both in favour and against the controversial President. The young David/Caravaggio offers the severed head of the older Goliath/Caravaggio as atonement for his sins, a brutal penance for his moral conduct falling short of the pious (but psychologically realistic) ideals represented in his religious art. Both Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump have benefitted from American privilege and plenty to rise beyond their merit. Some recognition of their spiritual kinship might have improved this image, as well as some measure of desired atonement for sin and moral shortcomings: Personal? Collective? National? Something would do. Anything that would make it mean much more, as art and as satire.