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Film Review: Assassin’s Creed

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed (2016; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

One year prior to the release of 20th Century Fox’s distinct but patchy big-screen adaptation of the popular action-adventure video game series Assassin’s Creed, its director Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard collaborated on a dynamite cinematic take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was one of 2015’s finest films. The clear next step for this core of creatives after an invigorating version of one of the pinnacles of the English literary canon was, quite obviously, a sci-fi/historical-fiction blockbuster potboiler with undertones of eternal Manichean dichotomies, pulpy hidden-past conspiracism, and creepy pure-blood genetic determinism. Assassin’s Creed is absurd both on its surface and in its depths, but Kurzel and his team treat it with the same serious-minded sincerity they accorded the great Shakespearean tragedy a year prior.

I can’t claim to possess any helpful familiarity with the Ubisoft game series on which Assassin’s Creed is based, though its acrobatics-and-combat gameplay and time-bending concepts do resemble the Montreal-based game studio’s previous platform hit, Prince of Persia (also adapted into a much worse film several years back). The film introduces and re-affirms its core concept several times, though, so it’s hard to miss: two secretive orders – the shadowy, cult-like Assassins and the patrician, theocratic, elite-entrenched Knights Templar – battle throughout history over the preservation of human free will, which the Templars seek to eliminate through the use of the Assassin-protected Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact of dangerous power and biblical symbolism.

In the modern day, the power and influence of the Templars has eclipsed the Assassins, a cadre of outcasts and criminals whose cultish killer’s “creed” (working in the darkness to serve the light, etc.) is a matter of genetic heredity. The Templar-affiliated Abstergo Foundation, headed by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his brilliant scientist daughter Sofia (Cotillard), have collected as many descendants of Assassins as they can and imprisoned them in a facility in Madrid. There, the Rikkins and their minions hook these men and women into a sophisticated machine called the Animus and run them through a draining mental and physical process of reliving the genetic memories of their Assassin ancestors. Their goal is to use these subjects to locate the missing Apple in the mists of the past and apply its power to end violence, conflict, and strife in the world by choking off human freedom and self-determination forever.

Their most recent and important subject is a convicted and ostensibly executed murderer named Callum “Cal” Lynch (Fassbender), whose Assassin forebearer Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender) was the last known possessor of the Apple before it was lost to history. Flashing back to Aguilar’s experiences in Spain in the tumultuous year of 1492 via the Animus, Cal’s wounded identity (his Assassin father killed his mother and was captured by the Templar, leaving him alone) begins to meld with his Assassin legacy and physical prowess, and exposure to the other Assassin descendants and creeping doubt about the Rikkins’ stated peaceful intentions presses him onto a path of destiny.

As silly as its core ideas may be, Assassin’s Creed has a tremendous amount going for it as a film. Kurzel directs confidently, and there are some memorable visual moments involving a symbolic soaring bird of prey in particular: introduced alongside a song by the Black Angels on the soundtrack as it glides through time between late-medieval Spain and modern Mexico, the flying bird later appears multiplied on a magical, haunting animated ceiling at the Abstergo facility during a tense meeting between Cal and his father, played with great gravity by Brendan Gleeson. Arkapaw’s cinematography is again tremendously beautiful, though it is often saturated by Andalusian sunbeams and digitally colour-graded into moody, dim foncity.

Performance-wise, Fassbender brings intense commitment and ferocity to a blockbuster anti-hero role that most serious actors would imbue with arms-length irony, and memorably sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in an aggressively unstable timbre as he is dragged into another Animus session. Cotillard’s character is buffeted about by the script (credited to Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, it smacks of repeated rewrites) and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain any of her words or actions in the closing sequence based on what came before it, but, like Fassbender, she really means it, anyway. An international cadre of supporting actors from Gleeson to Michael K. Williams to Essie Davis as Cal’s mother to Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s right-hand Assassin to a fiery, scenery-chewing Javier Gutiérrez as infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada lend potency further down the cast credits, too.

But for a movie based on a consistent, even relentless action game, Assassin’s Creed disappointingly holds back on its action sequences. Cal’s first Animus session drops him into an uninspired Hollywood Western/Indiana Jones-style horse-and-cart chase through the parched landscape of Southern Spain, and the movie’s rote faux-climax features a rebellious Cal and his Assassin brothers and sisters fighting off Abstergo’s security thugs as the Rikkins helicopter away to fetch the Apple. Only a rambling, enervating mid-film escape from Torquemada’s theatrical, Goya-esque auto-da-fé that transitions into a white-knuckle foot-chase and running battle through Seville’s medieval streets, rooftops, and bazaars manages to simultaneously demonstrate the mastery of artful action filmmaking that Kurzel demonstrated in Macbeth and live up to the balletic, wall-climbing, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling derring-do that makes Ubisoft’s games such a thrill to play. Scored with subtle but driving Spanish-Arabic rhythms by Kurzel’s composer brother Jed, it’s Assassin’s Creed‘s highlight sequence, bar none.

Assassin’s Creed doesn’t spend enough of its running time being fun, therefore. How does it spend its time? On repetitive and sometimes poorly-emphasized world-building exposition, much of which collapses upon even cursory examination. More than that, though, its themes of hereditary legacy and free will vs. determinism play out questionably not only through its fictional characters but through its wider historically-fictive backdrop. Cal’s anticipated turn to defence of his Assassin heritage as redemption for his family trauma doesn’t land quite right, despite being the central thematic fulcrum of the movie; the sense of ambiguity in Sofia’s attitude towards her father’s goals and towards Templar dogma, and its frequent opposition to her dedication to bettering the world through science, is never resolved, and she simply pivots into a sequel-teasing promise of villainy in the film’s abrupt denouement.

But this ambivalence is nothing compared to how Assassin’s Creed utilizes its historical setting in the Spain of 1492. A momentous hinge in Spanish history and indeed for the world at large, 1492 was the year that the Reconquista was completed, with Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces conquering the last Muslim stronghold of Granada and fully re-Christianizing the Iberian peninsula for the first time in centuries; it was the year that Spain’s Jews, who played a disproportionately important role in the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of Muslim al-Andalus, were expelled from the country in one of European history’s numerous anti-Semitic irruptions; and it was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west from a Spanish port to “discover” America, with all that this would mean for Spanish wealth and imperial prestige and for world history.

Assassin’s Creed draws from the first and last of these vital events (self-serious as it may be, tackling anti-Semitic discrimination through time is a bridge too far for a video-game movie like this, at least for the moment). A key scene involving Aguilar and the Apple takes place in Granada’s Alhambra palace, and Aguilar then travels to Cadiz to give the artifact to the departing Columbus for safe keeping. The Rikkins soon enough deduce that this means that the Apple is hidden in Columbus’ tomb and saunter over to Seville Cathedral to fetch it with ease from the local bishop.

This plot point asks for a logical leap of faith similar to the literal Leap required of Cal in his Assassin training. We are already asked to leave aside the historical fact that the Knights Templar, a religious-military order of great power and wealth in medieval Europe, were dismantled by inquisitional forces in the Catholic Church in collaboration with its closest secular ruler, the King of France. We are informed instead that the Templars and the Church are intertwined, even united, sharing the same leadership, ideology, and short- and long-term goals. But, despite this established collaboration since at least the 15th Century, the Church seemingly knew that the Apple of Eden, the ultimate item of desire for their Templar allies for centuries, was sitting in a key spot in one of its largest catherdrals and didn’t bother to let them know? Add to this the clear missed opportunity for some clever last-act plot misdirection as concerns the Seville vs. Santo Domingo Columbus’ tomb controversy, and it’s a plot element that lands with a splat.

The Inquisition setting is thematically apt, certainly, emphasizing the Templars’ single-minded mission to crush all dissenting viewpoints and freedom of thought (Irons monologues about religion, politics, and consumerism as past grand schemes in this regard) and thus suggesting the Catholic Church’s infamously brutal crackdown on heretics of all sorts as a mere corollary of this more entrenched will. Combining it with the final defeat of rival Islam, understood here as another contending heresy, in Western Europe at the end of the Reconquista, these forces of control come to be refocused with renewed vigour on an entire new hemisphere and its unsuspecting peoples in the era of colonialism that Columbus kicked off with his Atlantic crossing. Assassin’s Creed comes shockingly close to distilling the disparate historical turning points of the momentous Spanish year of 1492 into a coherent and even powerful hybridized statement about human civilization, power and psychology, then and especially now.

There’s a hefty suggestion in Assassin’s Creed, in this over-ponderous, heavy-handed, only rarely purely entertaining movie adaptation of an action-packed video game, that the Templars’ long-running mission to choke off human freedom has already all but succeeded, Apple or no Apple. “The modern world has outgrown notions like freedom,” a senior Templar (Charlotte Rampling) tells the elder Dr. Rikkin. “They’re content to follow.” But what is the freedom represented by the Assassins but a genetically predetermined legacy of violence? In this theme concerning the human tendency to allow our past heritage to become our future legacy, or to poison and undermine that legacy, perhaps there is not such a wide gulf between Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth after all. That this suggestion can even be tentatively made is a testament to the kind of film that Justin Kurzel manages to make Assassin’s Creed into. Maybe he ought to have been making a popcorn movie, yes, but recognized for what it is, this is a film with something to say in between badass assassin killing, even if what it has to say is frequently self-contradictory.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Canada 150 and the National Identity of Plausible Deniability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Culture, History, Politics

Film Review: Tower

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

On a hot, sunny morning in August 1966 in Austin, Texas, a young man climbed to the outdoor observation deck of the iconic tower of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas and began shooting at random people below with a sniper rifle. Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent former Marine sharpshooter with violent tendencies and a brain tumour that may have exacerbated such issues, killed 14 people (not including his mother and his wife, whom he had murdered the night before) and wounded 31 more before he was shot dead by police.

Were it to happen tomorrow, Whitman’s killing spree would shock but not surprise America and the world, occupy a news cycle or two and inflame long-simmering political and social debates (gun control, militarism, treatment of mental health, any number of potential identity-politics flashpoints). The trauma might overwhelm those closest to its epicentre, gutting the lives of victims and their loved ones and shaking the communities where they occur. But then, all too quickly, it would slide into the annals of the collective memory, its dead decorously mourned, its heroes propagandistically lionized, its applicable lessons summarily suffocated under memorializing stone. American public discourse has thoroughly ritualized mass shootings, conditioned reaction and response to them, and rendered them as a common feature of the social landscape. Mass shootings have become as American as Chevrolets, Coca-Cola, the crack of a baseball bat on a summer afternoon, and highways stretching to the horizon. They might not evoke a sense of pride (even the self-styled “patriots” of the pro-gun right have not such atrophied souls as that), but they have certainly achieved a perverse but stable level of tolerance and acceptance, with the social errors they point back to removed from cleansing reform at a protective distance.

But in August 1966, a troubled loner slaughtering his fellow citizens still held a seismic charge of disorienting unfamiliarity. Keith Maitland’s truly remarkable re-created document of the terrible events of a half-century before, Tower, brilliantly and artistically captures the hyper-real unreality of bearing witness in the eye of a shooting-spree storm by depicting that perspective in a form of hyper-real unreality: rotoscopic animation. Animating over filmed actors playing principal victims and players in the saga on the re-created stage of the mid-’60s University of Texas campus, Maitland’s striking method of telling the story of the shootings was partially driven by necessity. His indie documentary was made on a small budget raised through online crowdfunding and matching grants from UT alumni, and he would not be able to film extended re-enactment scenes on the campus itself, which could be reconstituted instead through animation. But necessity can still be the mother of invention, and Tower is nothing if not inventive.

Maitland mixes the re-enactments with re-enacted testimonial interviews, all animated in a warm, colourful, but unsettlingly jumpy visual style, vaguely reminiscent of fellow Austin filmmaking impresario Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, albeit less surreal in its intentional effect. Indeed, the animation greatly heightens the powerful affect of Maitland’s film, emphasizing the sturdy, understated Texan lyricism of the interview accounts, which convey the flow of events, emotions, and impressions in a unified tapestry of mood and tone and feeling. Aesthetically, tonally, and symbolically, Tower renders the tragic dimensions of the event – its uncertain, sweaty panic, the horror of its silences, the strange guilt it engenders in even the most selfless of participants – as a work of art. Maitland even allows himself flights of artistic fancy, as when a movingly-timed flashback account of the dayglow romance of wounded pregnant student Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman (both Tom and Claire’s unborn child were killed by the tower-top sniper, losses of a weight that is almost unfathomable) is portrayed amidst delicate Art Nouveau lattice frames.

As Tower approaches its conclusion, Maitland transitions from his animated “period” actors playing witnesses and participants to current and archived interview footage of the real people themselves. It’s a surprisingly moving choice, this belated alignment of Tower with more established documentary conventions. It reflects the director’s decision to make his film predominantly about those in the crosshairs of the sniper rather than about the sniper himself. Indeed, Whitman is only named in the denouement in an archival news report, and his troubles and motivations are not explored in any detail (much of the info given above is from other sources). Those wishing to learn more about the shooter may be disappointed, but Tower is a film about survival and endurance and spirit in the face of indiscriminate violence, and it denies its perpetrator the primary product of that violence: power over others.

Maitland overtly connects the 1966 UT shootings with subsequent massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and more, in what might be construed as an overreaching late thesis-statement lunge at topicality and relevance for a film immersed in the minutiae of a vanished era. But in its striking visual style, poised balance between animation and documentary footage, and ultimate embrace of human struggle in the midst of senseless terror (for what are mass shooters but terrorists, their empathy lost in a demented swirl of foggy causes and exploded grievances?), Tower is a measured, memorable antidote to the common results of mass shootings. To state it plainly, where contemporaneous media makes the killers into mythic figures, this film gives his victims and those who stood to defy and defeat him the mythic treatment. It comes by its topical relevance honestly, with hard, smart, well-felt effort and skill. It’s riveting and reflective, realist and poetic. Tower is a great film, not only a great documentary.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Kon-Tiki (2012; Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg)

Thor Heyerdahl’s famous, semi-mad Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947 is of a piece with the intrepid history of the seabound trailblazing of Norwegians going back to Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, to say nothing of Leif Erikson and the Vikings. The brave voyage saw the self-promoting adventurer/ethnographer and five crew members build and sail a traditional Peruvian balsa-wood raft from the South American coast halfway across the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia to prove that those remote islands could have been settled from the east rather than the west and Asia, as goes the (still-prevailing) anthropological consensus.

The subject of an Oscar-winning feature documentary in 1950 and several best-selling books, the Kon-Tiki expedition receives a semi-fictionalized big-screen glorification from Norwegian directorial duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Starring the lanky, piercingly blue-eyed Pål Sverre Vanheim Hagen as an impacably determined but notably quixotic version of Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki aggrandizes a remarkable feat of daring, ingenuity and endurance into a quest of mythic heroism. As impressive, exciting, and beautiful as the film can be, it doesn’t engage honestly with the inconclusiveness of what the expedition truly proved about the history of Polynesian migration, not to mention the European imperialism that underscored the romanticized scientific quest narrative favoured by Heyerdahl and thus by the filmmakers.

Kon-Tiki earned a Best Foreign-Language Film nomination from the Academy following its release, although the English-language version I viewed stumbles with painful inelegance and linguistic awkwardness through its establishing act. Heyerdahl, first seen courting danger as a child to impress his friends and requiring their rescue after falling into a frozen lake in his native Norway, begins formulating his still-controversial theory that the remote islands of Polynesia were settled by ancient sailors from South America rather than from Asia while living with and studying the native peoples of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas along with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen; Heyerdahl’s adventurism away from home sabotaged their marriage and led to divorce, which the film hints at). Noting similarities in the traditional statues of pre-Columbian South American and Polynesian cultures, Heyerdahl becomes convinced that a migratory voyage from the east over thousands of kilometres of open ocean was not only possible but likely, brushing aside the island-hopping travel patterns of the westward hypothesis, along with the volumes of solid evidence for an Asian origin for Polynesian settlement.

With a book detailing his theories rejected by academic publishers in New York City, Heyerdahl desperately pivots from one of their dismissals to his seemingly-suicidal but publicity-friendly plan to build a balsa-wood raft without any modern materials and drift it himself across the inhospitable Pacific to prove his point. Reputable scientific-exploration societies shut him down as well, but a chance meeting in a Manhattan bar with an expat Norwegian engineer and refrigerator salesman named Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who believes in the wild scheme gives Heyerdahl the impetus to travel to Peru and assemble a crew and a raft to attempt the voyage.

One jaunty team-introducing scene and an assemblage montage later, Heyerdahl and crew push off from a Peruvian harbour on their raft, dubbed the Kon-Tiki, and are alone on the wide Pacific at the mercy of the ocean currents that they hope will convey them to their Polynesian target destination. Kon-Tiki the film launches at this point as well, becoming more taut, more involving, better-written, and even intermittently visionary. Heyerdahl & Co. encounter a drenching storm, an enormous, docile whale shark (the revelation shot of which is worthy of Jaws), and wondrous bioluminescent jellyfish; they contend with the waterlogged degradation of their raft, boredom and isolation, (largely fabricated) interpersonal conflict, and stalking, ominous sharks.

A riveting shark attack sequence indeed constitutes the central fulcrum of the crew’s perilous voyage. It begins with an imprudent pet parrot, shifts to a gravitas-laden long holding shot of one crew member’s apprehension of their dangerous encirclement by the ocean predators that is like something out of the work of fellow Scandinavian director Ingmar Bergman, explodes in a burst of gore worthy of Peckinpah or Tarantino, and maintains a frayed-nerve disquiet through its (not unpredictable) concluding predicament. The entirety of the raft-borne scenes (which take up most of the running time) greatly elevate Kon-Tiki after its patchy, near-alienating opening, and this engrossing, masterful scene in particular seems torn from a much grander, finer Herzog-meets-Spielberg ocean epic of man’s emotional and existential precariousness and isolation in the face of nature’s indifferent lethality. A tremendous astral god’s-eye-view pull-back effects shot, the camera retreating skyward from the raft through the clouds and into atmospheric orbit before plunging back to our ocean-going heroes, emphasizes the solitude of their plight and the smallness of their accomplishment in universal terms.

Kon-Tiki‘s gradually-won quality as a visual stunning and purely entertaining nautical adventure, its sheer, irresistible sweep, elides any number of artistic-license alterations, inventions, and intellectually dishonest omissions in the structuring of the narrative of Heyerdahl’s expedition (the screenplay is by Petter Skavlan). As if the truth of such a daring voyage, captained by a blond Norwegian academic with little sailing experience who couldn’t even swim, wasn’t incredible enough, Skavlan must embellish innumerable small details and plot conflicts. An ominous, threatening, and almost completely imaginary “Galapagos vortex” heightens the Kon-Tiki‘s peril as it drifts helplessly, in desperate hope of catching the equatorial currents that will take it to Polynesia; the “vortex” is a fantastical invention, and the illustration shown to Heyerdahl by a crew member comes from an Edgar Allen Poe story (and is even captioned as such in the book shown). Heyerdahl was in fact more concerned that the highly-maneuverable raft’s failure to catch the requisite currents would lead it to the Central American coast and thus fail to support his theory.

Watzinger suffers particularly from the scriptual inventions: in real life a formidable physical specimen, former athlete, and WWII Norwegian resistance veteran like three other crew members, Christiansen plays him as a pudgy, worrisome burden on the others, a laughably poor match for the adventurous life whose engineer’s concern for the structural integrity of the raft nearly undermines Heyerdahl’s fanaticism for maintaining a historically-accurate recreation of the ancient Peruvians’ raft technology. Conflicts on board the raft were evidently rare, the relative harmony of the operations usually attributed to Heyerdahl’s planning and steady leadership.

A more subtle but perhaps greater transgression lies hidden in Kon-Tiki‘s inspirational surge of score-swelling triumph at the success of Heyerdahl’s quest. Despite Heyerdahl’s assertions that the Kon-Tiki expedition proved that at least some of Polynesia was settled by South American travellers, what it proved was only that the voyage could have been made by indigenous peoples circa 500 A.D. A wealth of cultural, anthropological, linguistic, geographic, botanical, biological, and genetic evidence supports the Asian settlement hypothesis, which remains the scientific consensus. Kon-Tiki does not acknowledge this as it would feel like admitting that the Kon-Tiki‘s remarkable feat was a quasi-empirical folly, impressive as derring-do but inconclusive as science. There is also no mention of Heyerdahl’s massively dubious, ethnocentric (indeed, nearly Aryanist) belief that the South American voyages to Polynesia were undertaken by tall, white-skinned, red-haired people of European ancestry, which flies as flagrantly in the face of everything known about Pre-Columbian Andean civilization as, say, the Book of Mormon does.

Perhaps one might hope that Kon-Tiki was more upfront about some of this, or that it recognized the imperial arrogance at the heart of Thor Heyerdahl’s paternalistic regard for ancient Peruvians and indigenous Polynesians and his quest to demonstrate their kinship through a practical demonstration of seamanship. Like the Kon-Tiki expedition itself, this film embraces the romance of adventure over the cold, rational aggregation of scientific truth. Heyerdahl was canny enough to understand that the sweeping appeal of such romance would gloss over the weaknesses of his studies, and Rønning and Sandberg are canny and skilled enough to grasp and to demonstrate that principle as well.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

President-Elect Donald J. Trump: A Grim Assessment

November 9, 2016 Leave a comment

The nearly unfathomable has happened: Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Despite polling, media prognostications, and the seeming inevitability that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the White House, the Republican nominee triumphed instead, smashing through Clinton’s firewall of supposed safe states (and the establishment consensus that backed her) on a wave of hitherto unpredictable white nationalist fury. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it likely won’t be good for progressives, persons of colour, Muslims, Hispanics, LGTBQ citizens, women, and basically anyone who isn’t a white male (and it won’t be nearly great for them either, despite Trump’s grandiose promises).

To say that the result is disheartening for anyone but Trump’s deluded workaday partisans and the considerable reserves of open racists in his camp would be an understatement. To say that his administration is almost certainly going to be a disaster of the highest magnitude for the country (and perhaps the world) cannot be overstated. The sole slim glimmers of light shining through the dark cloak thrown over the American project today may be as follows:

  1. If Trump runs the country the way he has run his litany of failed businesses, the rank incompetence of the man and his team may prevent the worst of his proposals – expensive border walls, travel bans on entire faiths, broken alliances and trade deals, ordering American troops to commit war crimes, utilizing the power of the government to pursue personal vendettas against his enemies – from being effectively enacted. Even in that eventuality, though, the waste of resources, time, and effort to pursue them would be astronomical and the damage done to the legitimacy of government authority as well as to the lives of hundreds, thousands, millions incalculable.
  2. Flattered by the attention and prestige of his office, Trump elects to play a mostly public ceremonial role as President and leaves the hard work of governing to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Republican congressional leadership. This is not only unlikely but uncomforting, as Pence and Ryan subscribe to fiscal and social policy with as much or more mass hurtful potential than Trump’s wild (and perhaps safely impractical) schemes.
  3. Trump is 70 years old, so at least when he makes himself dictator for life, it won’t be for very long.

Grim assessments and sickened shock aside, perhaps Donald Trump’s victory is not so surprising. America’s two-party system tends to default to each party taking turns with a President from their ranks in the White House, and with incumbent Presidents’ natural electoral advantage, the switch is most likely when the incumbent leaves office at the end of their second term. Democrats have an especially difficult time achieving in-party electoral transitions, historically speaking. Trump’s crude and rude unconventionality made it seem unimaginable that he could win the election, and that unimaginability, that firm conviction and hope that he could not win, infected and displaced rational assessments from the left as to whether it was a possible result.

Furthermore, Trumpism’s victory makes a good deal of sense given a deeper knowledge of American history. Periods of demographic change, social upheaval, and expansion have often proven to be fertile breeding grounds for nostalgic, turn-back-time nativism such as that deployed by Trump this year. Witness Andrew Jackson’s damaging policies aimed at American Indians, or the Know Nothings of the mid-19th Century and their anti-Irish Catholic fervor, or the Southern backlash against Reconstruction, or the America First movement of the WWII era, or the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond these specific examples of spiritual heirs of Trumpism, however, reading back into American history shows a long string of political institutions and movements calibrated for the benefit of whites at the expense of non-whites (African-Americans in particular, of course, though not exclusively). In the light of this tradition of exploitation of cultural difference, much of it through the auspices of private enterprise capitalism, Donald Trump is not an aberration but a predictable mutation of the American predatory DNA.

There will be no limit to the designated scapegoats for this potentially world-shifting development: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party that he defeated, of course, but also the Republican elites that mistrusted but made no attempt to stop Trump, third-party candidates, Russian interference, government institutions, the ineffectual media, and the working-class whites who turned out to elect him. But perhaps the forces, the American undercurrents, most responsible for this ominous result are the disavowed monsters of the nation’s history and culture.

The media specifically, and the national discourse generally, could not effectively counter Trump’s revanchist fantasies of restored prior glory because they have never properly and effectively faced up to the implications of American history, and to capitalism’s often pernicious role in shaping that history. In the practical short term, offering all possible lawful protest to Trump’s policies and practices, conducting a quick and effective forensic audit of the Democratic Party perhaps leading to a strong bounceback in the 2018 midterm elections is the immediate pushback against Trump’s masterplans (perhaps a deeper re-assessment of the entire two-party system may be in order, too, but neither major party is incentivized to engage in one).

But in the longer term, the United States will remain vulnerable to Trump and similar authoritarian demagogues unless it truly grapples with, and tangibly attempts to redress, the wrongs and crimes of its history. That is unlikely to happen under President Trump, who celebrates the tradition of brutality of power directed against the weak inherent to American history and will seek to recapture its “greatness”. But a wider effort in the cultural discourse to confront the past, while resisting the official reification of its darkest (and even less dark) chapters, might yet do enough good to make a difference in America’s now ever-more uncertain future.