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Film Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

November 17, 2020 Leave a comment

True History of the Kelly Gang (2020; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

A stylish slow-burn adaptation of Peter Carey’s 20-year-old Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang at once raises the enduringly fascinating story of the notoriously turbulent life and violent end of the outlaw bushranger and his cronies in colonial Australia to the level of myth and grounds it in a grimy and bleak dirt-level reality. Including at once fictionalized elements of Ned Kelly’s life (as the novel did) and a scrupulous eye to the finer details of his family life and narrative arc from a hard childhood towards the infamous shootout at Glenrowan and eventual hanging for murder, this is a film with an eye to character psychology and to wider ideas of identity and masculinity and, belatedly in its coda, to a vague sense of the crucible of Australian nationalism.

It’s difficult to explain to an outsider the position that Ned Kelly, or rather his romanticized legend, occupies in Australian cultural identity, and this is an outsider trying to do so. If one were to grasp at American analogues, imagine Jesse James was also somehow perversely Abraham Lincoln. Maybe? Probably not. For Canadians, Louis Riel might be a more apt comparison, if you strip away the elements of indigenous disposession and the two solitudes English-French language dichotomy and the messianic Catholic-derived mysticism (honestly, Louis Riel is a thousand times more interesting than Ned Kelly and deserves twice the posthumous historical and cultural attention, and if he didn’t represent two cultures that Anglo-Canadian power elites would much rather erase from the national psyche, he would get it). Although a glance at Kelly’s biography reveals a petty outback criminal with a tumultuous family life motivated by personal grudges and outlaw self-preservation when pursued by the law, he’s been understood as a Robin Hood figure who represents a sort of principled last stand of defiant bushwhacking self-reliance in the face of a country gradually coalescing around cosmopolitan coastal urbanism. The association with the legendary woodland folk hero of the Middle Ages was only strengthened by his knightly bravado during his gang’s final siege by police forces, which climaxed with Kelly’s emergence from their hideout, guns blazing, clad in self-fashioned semi-bulletproof iron armour. It’s an unforgettable moment in the annals of trivial history and unquestionably cinematic in scope.

As such, Kelly has become both an avatar of a rugged old-fashioned masculinity for patriarchal conservatives (both this film and its literary source material have a riposte to that, as we’ll see) and a more generalized romantic quasi-founding father of Australian national identity: generationally connected to “the Stain” of the System of the old British penal colony but born on the continent himself, resourcefully surviving in a meagre, hardscrabble land by his wit and ability and willingness to break the rules if need be. Ned Kelly is an exemplar of this white Australian historical self-conception that is built on pioneering strength and resolve and functions as much as anything else as an elaborate and compelling foreground narrative covering for the deep background of genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples that is the true history of the European settlement of the Antipodes.

Although True History of the Kelly Gang opens with a Fargo-esque onscreen title laying a claim for truth while also admitting fiction, it hews fairly closely to the broad strokes of Ned Kelly’s biography. Born in 1854 as the son of a weak-willed transported Irish convict (Gentle Bed Corbett) and a mercurial mother (Essie Davis) with a litany of suitors during her husband’s frequent incarcerations and after his eventual death, Ned (Orlando Schwert as a boy, 1917‘s George MacKay as a man) was the eldest male on the family homestead near Beveridge in the State of Victoria and had to act as a primary provider for his clan from the age of 12. He received a criminal apprenticeship from legendary bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) which ran him afoul of the police: in the film, his antagonists in authority positions are first Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), also a lover of his mother’s, and later and more fatefully Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), here characterized as a bacchanalian social chum and informal pimp with sexual interest in Ned’s sister who introduces the young Ned to his (entirely fictional) true love and mother of his child, Mary (Thomasin McKenzie of Jojo Rabbit).

These complex social ties combine with a series of livestock thefts by his brother Dan (Earl Cave) and the Kellys’ habitual intransigence to lead to a confrontation with Fitzpatrick that leaves the copper with a bullet wound and Ned and his gang – Dan and his friend Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) as well as Ned’s bosom buddy Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) – as wanted fugitives. Hiding out in the bush, they kill three policemen sent after them, pull off some brazen bank robberies, and take a group of hostages in Glenrowan before their final stand against a squad of armed police which only Ned survived to be captured, tried, and executed. Along the way in a town called Jerilderie, Ned attempted to publish as a pamphlet his self-justifying side of the story in a letter dictated to Byrne, thus adding to his legend by making Ned Kelly an unofficial autobiographer as well.

Peter Carey in his novel and Justin Kurzel in his movie (the adapted screenplay is by Shaun Grant) fictionalize on the margins of the historical narrative, adding the personal ties between Fitzpatrick and the Kellys, Ned’s romance with Mary, and the suggestion that Harry Power and Ned’s mother Ellen were lovers before his bushranger mentorship with Ned. They also add a pretty significant bit of gender-role-destabilizing mythology to the Kelly Gang, suggesting that Red Kelly was part of an inherited Irish clan order called the Sons of Sieve that regularly engaged in transvestism. Ned is ashamed of his father’s habit of cross-dressing and the weakness he understands it as reflecting (Ellen’s infidelity also stems from similar shame and resentment) and also resents Dan’s adoption of it, but embraces it himself during his fugitive period after learning of its patrilinear provenance. When he raises an army to resist the coming police squad, they all wear women’s dresses as an odd clannish ritual of loyalty (it doesn’t last, as his soldiers scamper off before the shooting begins). Carey’s thematic literary device seems calibrated to undermine the masculinized construction of Ned Kelly in the cultural memory, or at least to productively complicate our perceptions of gender presentation (Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro are composing indignant tweets about the coming collapse of Australian society as we speak).

This ambiguity, which for Ned is more about transgressing the norms of the ordered society he rejects than seriously questioning his gender orientation (despite a close homosocial link to Byrne, he’s straight, thank you very much, which is Mary’s role in the text to establish), is often at odds with Kurzel’s cinematic aesthetic and thematic framing, however. Kurzel previously directed two films headlined by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, a 2015 adaptation of Macbeth (which I thought excellent and whose colour palette and cinematographic approach greatly resembles this movie) and 2016’s video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed (which despite some good ideas but is a complete mess). There’s an abiding sense of strained masculine struggle to the aesthetics of these films that comes out most strongly in True History of the Kelly Gang. Both actors playing Ned spend much of the film shirtless; the taut, sinewy muscle of MacKay’s torso is shot like a tortured landscape by Kurzel’s camera (Ari Wegner is his cinematographer), a corporeal embodiment of the harsh outback. That camera is also quite nearly subjective in its hewing to Ned’s perspective. When he first witnesses murder as a boy during a robbery by Power, Kurzel stages it in slow-motion with washed-out sound. During the ambush of pursuing police at Stringybark Creek, the camera is pinned to MacKay for much of the sequence, his every reaction and breath in unnerving close-up; they do it again when he’s donned his armour for the final stand against police in the climax. Before the bushranger knight charges into legend, Kurzel and Wegner go cinematographic high-concept with the police force’s nocturnal assault on the Kelly Gang’s tin castle: clad in blinding white coats reflecting out through the dark, the police lay into the Kelly hideout with repeating rifles and pierce its walls with dozens of moonlit shafts. They literally besiege the Kellys with light.

Stylish aesthetics aside, Grant’s script turns all of Ned’s troubles into psychological conflicts of burgeoning masculine identity and all of his lashings out into interpersonal expressions of wounded pride. Ned reacts against the people in his life who represent authority that seeks to mould, direct, and oppress him: his father, his mother, his mother’s lovers, Harry Power, Fitzpatrick, and finally the entire police apparatus that the latter represents. I can’t speak to how Carey handles it in the book, but Kurzel’s film excises any hint of sociology from Kelly’s motivations, the elision taking the references in the Jerilderie Letter to discrimination against him and his family at the hands of anti-Irish police and the settler “squattocracy” as self-serving above all and hardly fit fuel for the engine of his Robin Hood mythic reputation. When these themes may have appeared, during a pre-climax conversation with a local schoolteacher kept hostage in Glenrowan (Jacob Collins-Levy) about Kelly’s attempts to write his story, Kurzel has MacKay play Ned as an unpredictable and frightening madman, not any sort of revolutionary with political grievances and rebellious plans.

The schoolmaster Thomas Curnow, who slips away from the Kellys and warns the police about the gang’s plan to ambush the railcar bringing them to the siege site, ends the film in a coda speaking to a well-dressed crowd of the Australian elite about Ned Kelly’s legend and cultural legacy in Australia. He asks his listeners pointedly why Australia is so deficient that it must turn a horse thief and a murderer into their Jefferson or Disraeli. He offers no theorizing of his own on this point, but the smothering applause after he narrates the outlaw’s final moments at the scaffold (“Such is life,” were his famous deadpan last words) are a fairly direct answer. In the position he was put into by his birth and Victorian Australia’s structural prejudices, Ned Kelly may never have stood a chance of not becoming a criminal. That he became a legend and folk hero despite of that is an expression of a certain independence and agency beyond history’s dirt-level outcomes. Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t always sure what to do with Ned Kelly from one step of this (fictionalized, mythified) narrative to the next, to its detriment. But to its credit, it closes with some proscribed understanding of what he meant and what he still means in Australia. If that true history is partly a fiction, a myth, and a lie, then what true history ultimately isn’t?

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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

October 5, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: 42

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Late on the night of August 28th, 2020, the movie-loving world learned to its immense shock, chagrin, and sadness that Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 from colon cancer after a practically entirely private four-year battle with the disease. One of the most prominent and acclaimed African-American actors of his generation, the charismatic and poised Boseman made a tremendous impact on screen in a very short amount of time, racking up a nigh-on unbeatable set of roles memorably playing renowned black cultural icons both real and fictional in the scant space of half a decade: James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, King T’Challa in Black Panther, and, in his breakthrough performance, the immortal Jackie Robinson in 42.

Boseman carried himself with a grace, composure, and conviction onscreen and (seemingly) in real life, making him a superb choice to play Robinson, who in a very different and outwardly less tolerant time from our age of politically conscious and outspoken sports stars elevated the now-dismissive bumper-sticker slogan “shut up and play” to saintly proto-Civil Rights heights. Robinson, a talented multi-sport athlete out of California who had served in the military in World War II and then plied his sporting trade in the black-only Negro Leagues, became the first African-American player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the colour barrier in America’s favourite pastime despite considerable prejudiced pushback. Integration of the league followed this first significant, symbolic victory for black rights in segregated post-war America, a warning shot for the Civil Rights era to come. Jackie Robinson was a human being with flaws like all of us, of course, but along with a select few elite Americans (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.) became a rarified icon, a mythic embodiment of idealized national character all the more powerful for his brave defiance of one fundamental aspect of that national character (namely racial hierarchy) that persists in an apparent death-struggle to this day, to the shame of the country and its people.

Not that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would have claimed such a lofty mantle when he was a Dodger, or that white (or even black) American baseball fans of the late 1940s would have tolerated him doing so. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play ball, to show what he could do and show that he belonged with the game’s best, whatever the colour of his skin. The racial political dimension of doing so can’t have been lost on him, but focus was fixed on the athletic achievement rather than any hint of social revolution. Likewise, the trailblazing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played in 42 with pleasingly engaged broadness by Harrison Ford) was at pains to emphasize that he signed Robinson in order to win games and attract attention and money to his team, which as evidenced by their proletarian image and nickname “Dem Bums” had tended to be a poorer third-wheel to New York City’s other ballclubs, the dominant Yankees and the Giants (who, like the Dodgers, would move to California a decade after Robinson’s major league debut).

Although Rickey offers a private explanation of his choice to Robinson in the film (he claims lingering guilt over not doing enough to help a black college teammate who was driven from the sport by abuse and exclusion), capitalist motives dominate his public stances. Robinson and Rickey alike, at least as depicted in 42, hew to pragmatic utilitarianism rather than to moral elevation in their pursuit of a clearly apprehended but strategically disavowed incidental justice. Capitalist America is ever ruled by displays of value rather than by the higher principles it claims to hold to (hence slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistent racial hierarchy, which benefitted owners and elites with the capital they generated, financial and symbolic), and Robinson displayed the value of black ballplayers beyond doubt. Social change followed that revaluation, hardly as an afterthought but arguably as a corollary.

Boseman anchors 42‘s ensemble cast (including Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, André Holland as his sportswriter friend and sometimes chauffeur Wendell Smith, and a sadly underutilized Christopher Meloni as the womanizing, no-nonsense Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who is suspended at the start of Robinson’s rookie season due to a scandalous affair offending Catholic ticketholders) with a quiet strength typical of a man who could not respond to the racist provocations hurled his way by prejudiced whites lest he undermine the entire effort. Ford’s Rickey points out the Christ-like, patient, turn-the-other-cheek calm of this required equilibrium, and Boseman registers and communicates the unfair cost and simmering injustice of his plight. If the historical Jackie Robinson could not let out the resentment and hurt surely inside him at his treatment lest he labelled as angry, tempestuous, weak, and therefore inferior to the white men around him, then Boseman’s 2013 portrayal of him cannot let these unequal social aggressions of white supremacy pass without acknowledgement.

In an invented scene following the relentless racial abuse aimed at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Boseman’s Robinson smashes a bat and howls and sobs in rage in the dugout tunnel after going out on his second at-bat beneath the torrent of Chapman’s slurs, only to be calmed by an empathetic Rickey. His teammate Ralph Branca (who acted as consultant for the film and no doubt as a result receives a sympathetic depiction as Robinson’s open-minded ally by Hamish Linklater) says the breakdown didn’t happen, but as compellingly acted by Boseman and central to Robinson’s myth as his stoic endurance and reserve is, the catharsis of allowing his frustration to show is to a large extent a necessary dramatic choice, demonstrating the psychological wear of persistent racism (distanced by time and located safely in the past, of course, as Hollywood liberalism prefers it).

42‘s writer/director is Brian Helgeland, who made A Knight’s Tale and wrote L.A. Confidential, and he crafts a sturdy if formalistically unchallenging sports-hero biopic along fairly predictable but bluntly effective formulaic lines. He builds to a climactic Big Game in which Robinson overcomes minor antagonists (including Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, played by Linc Hand and blanketed in anti-German slurs by Branca during a bench-clearing brawl after he beans Robinson in the head) and helps his team win the pennant, to the cheers of the masses and the swelling score of composer Mark Isham. Helgeland’s framing of the nature of the racism that aligns itself against Robinson’s unprecedented position is likewise bluntly effective. Robinson’s on-field defeats of the Phillies and Pirates are understood likewise as defeats of the racist prejudice of Chapman and Ostermueller and former teammate Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). Vignettes of segregation at a gas station, a hotel, and in a Florida town during spring training are unsubtle reminders of the Jim Crow order that Robinson was challenging.

42‘s treatment of 1940s American racial politics does not tend to challenge, but Helgeland and Boseman manage to carve out one sequence of mild insight. The Dodgers are in Cincinnati, just across the border from Kentucky, home state of the Dodgers’ future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Reese, a generally beloved All-Star, has received a threatening letter ahead of the road trip (Rickey assuages his concerns about it by showing him the three folders’ worth of even worse letters addressed to Robinson), and sure enough, the crowd’s racist vitriol towards Robinson is particularly vicious as the team takes the field. Helgeland focuses in on a young boy in the stands with his father, talking effusively like a Reese superfan and then, clearly modelling the behaviour of his prime male authority figure as well as the communal mood around him, unleashes the n-word when Robinson takes his position. It’s an ugly moment, but Reese’s response to it is more heartening while also being sharply nuanced: he strides over to Robinson and puts his arm around his black teammate’s shoulders while telling Jackie that he wants to show his family in the stands what kind of man he is. His fanboy in the crowd brightens at this moment, the positive modelling of his idol overcoming the negative modelling of his father and tipping him towards a tentative tolerance.

But Boseman’s mostly-quiet performance in this scene explores different implications. There’s a keen awareness in Boseman’s expression that Reese’s actions (what we’d now generously call allyship) are as much about Reese’s own feelings and public appearance as they are about supporting Robinson. Pee Wee needs this as much as Jackie does, if not more; he as much as says so. Black’s Reese trots off with a casual note of further support, offering to get the whole team to wear Robinson’s #42 uniform “so they can’t tell us apart”. Boseman’s Robinson lets a wry smile escape his lips. If only it was so simple to shift the weight of his burden. Is Robinson glad to have Reese in his corner? Sure, and the scene clearly signals that we’re supposed to feel glad about it too. But Boseman turns the serene composure and strong-silent-type nature of his Robinson into a stealthy critique of the performative allyship of liberal whites, of their need to make aiding in the quest for black justice about their own edifying redemption first and foremost. It’s far from ungenerous of him, but it shows that he’s no man’s prop either.

Chadwick Boseman’s serene strength as a performer was a classic Hollywood feature given more modern contour and shape by such notes of wry knowingness, and it characterized his later movie-star turns, especially as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little wonder that in the last new film he appeared in prior to his death, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was cast as a strong, wise-beyond-his-years idealization of just and brave black masculinity, literally framed in a key scene by crepuscular rays like a holy ghost, a superhero. An iconic subject like Jackie Robinson would overwhelm many very fine actors, but it fit Chadwick Boseman like an old baseball glove. What a devastating loss to cinematic art.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990; Directed by John McTiernan)

It’s an ironic historical oddity that Hollywood only began to adapt the neoconservative military/espionage novels of best-selling author Tom Clancy after the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The first of the imperialist adventures of Clancy’s go-to hero – the intrepid CIA analyst, former Marine, and all-around instrument of covert American hegemony Jack Ryan – came out in print in 1984, at the mid-point of the Reagan Era of whose international political mentality and approach Clancy’s work was the purest popular-literary embodiment. Paramount Pictures only got around to making a film adaptation of the submarine-focused novel a few years later, releasing The Hunt for Red October in March 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic revolutions of the Eastern Bloc, and the effective end of the U.S.S.R. with the Communist Party’s removal from power.

It’s somehow fitting that The Hunt for Red October arrived onscreen as an already-formed expression of the nostalgic fantasy view of the just-ended Cold War, a view that Clancy’s literary output is predicated on and that has pervaded American popular culture and even American global and domestic policy thinking down to today. In many ways, the Cold War mentality never really ended in the American psyche, because the Cold War was not where it started. This is the deep persistence of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”, pivoting after 1991 from the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets to alternately hyperbolized and wholly imagined existential antagonists to American power foreign and domestic: tinpot dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Islamist terrorists after 9/11, and conspiratorial elite cabals deeply suspected on fringes of both the Right and the Left, before most recently circling back to the contemporary heirs of the U.S.’s literal Red Scare foils, Vladimir Putin’s election-disrupting Russia (whose association with President Donald Trump’s manifold corruption is a favoured Cold War callback attack vector of centrist neoliberals) and the ever-rising economic powerhouse of authoritarian Communist China (whose human rights violations and failures in pandemic containment Trump’s loyalist enablers on the Right have been eager to emphasize in order to deflect criticism of his own).

The Hunt for Red October‘s theatrical release timing is fitting because if Clancy’s earliest books were marinated in the historical context of the belligerent paranoia of Reaganite neoconservatism (his second, Red Storm Rising, was co-written with Larry Bond and fictionalizes a third world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), his very first novel (and first cinematic adaptation, which is extremely faithful to the book’s events) actually imagines a scenario of late Cold War rapprochement between the implacably opposed superpowers, or at least a couple of their national security representatives. This makes it part of a micro sub-genre of onscreen political thrillers made in a very narrow window of time that narrativized the Cold War’s imminent end with themes of peace agreements, burying hatchets, seeking reconciliation, and looking ahead to an uncertain but hopeful future. These are the kind of themes that liberal Hollywood could get behind as the Reagan Era transitioned into the First Bush Interregnum before the new false dawn of Clintonian neoliberalism. The sixth Star Trek movie, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country, is this film’s most notable sibling in this micro-genre, surpassing its thematic and symbolic eloquence as expressed via genre filmmaking more fully when viewed through the lens of the history of that science-fiction franchise, though not necessarily in more general terms.

The Hunt for Red October introduces a career-prime Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as a voice of moderation, rational action, and cooperation amidst a shoot-first intelligence and military apparatus. Ironic again, perhaps, that this version of Ryan, conceived during the waning days of the Cold War, is an advocate of soft-power man-to-man diplomacy with the Soviet adversary, when later versions of the character – played in subsequent films by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine – shifted more in the direction of buttressing American power in a dangerous and unpredictable world, culminating in the current super-imperialist Amazon Prime television series, a glorified CIA recruitment video starring the oft-risible John Krasinski. Baldwin’s Ryan leaves behind his family (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Gates McFadden has a single scene as his wife, and there’s some humanizing business with his kid’s teddy bear) at the behest of CIA Deputy Director Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) to delve into some worrisome surveillance photos and maritime reports of a new Soviet super-submarine, the titular Red October, which has put to sea with what is suspected to be a state-of-the-art new jet-like “caterpillar” propulsion system that would empower it to run silent through the water and thus evade sonar detection, allowing it to conceivably sail right into U.S. waters with its nuclear payload before anyone in the Navy knew it was there.

This, of course, profoundly worries the military brass, intelligence bosses, and National Security Advisor (Richard Jordan), who seek Ryan’s expertise as a CIA analyst and naval historian. But by the time he briefs them, the situation has only grown in complexity and urgency. Red October‘s captain, highly-regarded Lithuanian submariner Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has blown off a training rendezvous with another Soviet sub (its Captain Tupolev pursues him doggedly and thus becomes the closest thing the film has to a villain; this was one of the first attention-grabbing English-language roles for Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), surreptitiously murdered his political officer (named Putin in a historical irony that now seems almost unbelievable in its rich serendipity), and used his caterpillar drive to slip off of sonar and head across to the Atlantic Ocean towards North America, just as a pre-posted letter from Ramius lands on the desk of a Party leader informing his superiors of his intention to defect to the U.S. with his crew and high-tech boat.

As it heads west Statesward, the Red October believes to have slipped by an American sub, the USS Dallas, captained by Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), but the Dallas‘ brilliantly observant classical-music-loving sonar operator Jones (Courtney B. Vance) picks up a hint of their sonar signature and manages to track and/or anticipate their trajectory. Presenting all this information and acting on a firm hunch that Ramius, whose file he knows back to front and whose wife recently passed away, intends to defect (the Soviets, ever deceitful in American eyes, inform the U.S. that Ramius is a renegade madman and ask them to help sink his sub), Ryan convinces the authorities at one turn after another to allow him to risk an attempt to intercept Red October and contact Ramius to ascertain his intentions, rather than invite a potential nuclear incident by firing on him. Their rendezvous on Red October will require them to find a mutual understanding while holding the trigger-happy Americans at bay, defeating the implacable Tupolev (a former protégé of Ramius), thwarting a mysterious onboard saboteur, and deceiving the Red October‘s crew as well as the entire Soviet fleet if they’re to have any chance at a successful defection on the road to a more lasting peace.

The Hunt for Red October was directed by John McTiernan, following on the heels of his helming of Predator and Die Hard, a high-quality three-film run nearly unparalleled in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (he would make up for it with the legendary flop Last Action Hero a few years later, a movie perhaps unfairly maligned for its attempt to subvert action movie tropes). With that kind of resume, I don’t have to say that his direction of the underwater tension is deft and surehanded, if perhaps not quite up to the gold standard of the claustrophobic submarine thriller, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. But McTiernan is a thinking-man’s action genre artist, and employs subtle but definite techniques to impress the themes of Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart’s screenplay into the perception of his audience. One of these techniques is shown through the use of language in dialogue, with the transitions between spoken English, unsubtitled spoken Russian, subtitled spoken Russian, and finally into English again chosen very deliberately and intelligently to impart core ideas about Cold War worst-case-scenarios (Russian and English share the same word for “Armageddon”, aptly) and the common-humanity olive branches of mutual understanding (Patrick Willems details these techniques and what they communicate to the audience in a good video essay on the movie). The cinematography also works to this goal, bookending the film with complimentary scenes of Ramius’ sub leaving and entering secure inlets and generally serving McTiernan’s needs for clear, effective visual communication with occasional stylish flourishes (the DP was Jan de Bont, later a notable action and thriller director in his own right).

As is often the case when movies deal with social and political issues, The Hunt for Red October grounds the macro in the micro, rendering the slow crumbling of large-scale generational ideological conflict and global-power rivalry in illustrative gestures of relatable human connection. Ryan’s family life is imparted in broad strokes early on and paid off with a closing callback moment. Ryan speaks Russian to build a bridge with Ramius; the Lithuanian submariner’s father was a fisherman, and he and Ryan discuss angling in the coves of New England in the nocturnal denouement. Ramius chats with his right-hand man Borodin (Sam Neill, also in one of his early breakthrough American film roles) about their future lives in the States, and Borodin speaks with aspirational humility about a simple life in Montana, which grants pathos to his eventual fate.

We’re used to American characters, ever the protagonists in movies of this sort, being given human dimension, but vitally the crew of the Red October is afforded the same privilege of identifiable traits and earned empathy; even supporting figures like Tim Curry’s fastidious ship’s doctor (left out of the officers’ defection conspiracy and target of a ruse to remove the ordinary crew for the very reason of his rule-bound nature) and Ronald Guttman’s chief engineer (who nails a particularly Russian sense of sarcastically grim dedication to duty redolent of the character actors in Chernobyl) are given space to paint quick-stroke personalities among the larger plot intrigue. Films that render larger-scale politics in small-scale emotional intimacy can oversimplify and stereotype in the process, but the most remarkable thing about The Hunt for Red October is that it preserves the political sweep and the personal dimension. Especially given its genre, subject matter, and primary source material, all often subject to whittled-down archetypes and black-and-white moral dichotomies, this makes it a notable effort, regardless of the resonance-granting incidentality of its release timing in historical context.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

Probably the main factor that make the movies of Spike Lee so exciting (even when they aren’t very good or are full of questionable ideas) is how they meld American history, social issues, and racial politics with film history and masterful technique. Lee’s movies are not always resonant and engaging narratives featuring memorable characters and involving themes, but they tap into cultural and political zeitgeists like an alchemist dowser armed with a mystically true divining rod. They are effective visual polemic; you could call them propaganda and be definitionally on the mark. Watch a stunning, shocking scene like the assassination sequence in Malcolm X and marvel not only at the dramatic push-ins and kinetic but never chaotic motion and quick-cutting edits, but the tussling street tension between black witnesses and white police outside the hall, and before that a sequence on a staircase that could be a stealthy Battleship Potemkin homage. Or consider the wells of implication and meaning created through juxtapositional montage during the Birth of a Nation scene in Lee’s recent return to form, BlacKkKlansman: as Harry Belafonte, a living giant of the 1960s civil rights movement, tells gathered black activists a tale of a brutal, horrifying lynching of a black man inspired by the notorious but technically revolutionary D.W. Griffith historical epic film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a crowd of Klansmen screen the film after an initiation ceremony, hooting and hollering and throwing popcorn in a whipped-up racist froth. Do the Right Thing has myriad scenes that contain multitudes like this as well.

Because cinephiles know this, they also know that if Spike Lee is making a movie about the Vietnam War, it’s going to be just as much about how American movies have created an idea of the Vietnam War in the (inter)national imaginary. You would likewise expect, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie examines and likens the white supremacist oppression of African-Americans and the imperialist oppression of the Vietnamese by the Americans, and by the French before them, in a manner that is provocative, problematic, not entirely connected or effective, and neither intellectually nor emotionally sensible. Da 5 Bloods, a film about a quartet of black Vietnam War veterans who return to the jungles of Indochina where they once fought for two intertwined but vastly morally different quests half a century later, is in frequent open conversation with past Vietnam films, especially the colossus of this notable war-movie subgenre, Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated, visionary descent into cinematic and psychological madness, Apocalypse Now (which, in its Heart of Darkness in Southeast Asia high-concept conceit, elides vital elements of and perspectives on the war just as surely as it focuses on its symbolic meaning in the collective American unconscious, but that’s a whole other discussion).

That iconic film’s distinctive, blood-ink title logo appears directly on screen in an early scene of Da 5 Bloods, but Lee undercuts its weighty portent immediately: the Apocalypse Now title image forms a splashy backdrop at a tourist-geared nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, the capital of the Americans’ South Vietnamese allies until it fell to the Communist North Vietnamese at the end of the war in 1975), and Lee pulls back from it past a DJ booth emblazoned with a Budweiser logo banner of a similar shade of red and carrying equal representational space in the frame. Even in the foreign urban setting of America’s soul-shaking defeat to an implacable ideological adversary in a conflict (that, lest we forget, was really a civil war over another country’s soul) that irrevocably divided the homefront, global capitalism is ascendant, and more than holds its own against the ultimate idiosyncratically critical work of art about that defeat, which has been commodified to a similar extent as a globally-imported brand of weak beer. Another later Apocalypse Now homage sets a montage of picturesque and light-hearted video-shot clips of the still-friendly party travelling downriver into the jungle to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, iconic soundtrack to a sequence featuring a fleet of avenging attack helicopters in Coppola’s film.

As the featured movie poster to the right suggests, the colour red is something of a visual motif in Da 5 Bloods. It’s in those suggestively paired movie and beer logos, and of course in the titular bodily fluid, a not-inconsiderable amount of which is spilled before the credits roll and which is the fraternal self-title for the unit of black veterans who reunite in Vietnam. It’s also the prime colour of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hats, which have become a visually symbolic shorthand for hard-right white supremacist political positioning in the American culture war, in historical lineage with white hoods, burning crosses, and Confederate battle flags but, for the moment at least, acceptable at the country club. One such MAGA hat features as a central symbol in Da 5 Bloods, worn with seeming incongruity by a black man (who do form the largest block of voting support for Trump among the African-American population). This is Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most haunted and unstable and paranoid and bigoted and confrontational of the four reunited Bloods, all of whom claim to suffer from gradations of PTSD from their war experiences. The others are trip organizer and former field medic Otis (Clarke Peters), who retains a contact with a former Vietnamese courtesan (Lê Y Lan) whom he learns had a daughter by him in the ’60s; trip funder Eddie (Norm Lewis), a well-off used car salesman fallen on hard times; and Melvin, who doesn’t really get much distinctive character development (he knows how to use a metal detector, I suppose), but is played by Peters’ The Wire co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr. so the seasoned viewer is ever on notice for his distinctive delivery of the word “Shiiiiiiiit!” Don’t you worry, he obliges.

These four Bloods, joined semi-reluctantly by Paul’s concerned, college-educated teacher son David (Jonathan Majors), are venturing back into the Vietnamese jungle where they fought and were irrevocably changed on an ostensible mission to find and repatriate the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). As shown in flashbacks and spirit-visions, Norman is a sort of idealized paragon of enlightened black masculinity, a brave and capable leader and comrade but also a socially-conscious amateur preacher of civil rights justice and liberation theology. He’s a sort of revolutionary warrior monk (and is shot as such by Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, heavenly crepuscular rays slicing through the trees behind him at one point as if a benediction from on high), a Fred Hampton of the Viet jungle, and he suffers a similarly violent final fate. He is venerated as a martyr by the surviving Bloods, especially Paul, who claims to be visited by his ghost. But it’s not only peace for this beloved ghost that the Bloods seek. They also hope to find millions of dollars in gold bars from the American government intended as payment for their tribal Vietnamese allies, which the squad was sent to retrieve in the mission that claimed Norman’s life in the late ’60s and was buried with him for safe-keeping. Norman’s plan was to liberate the gold as reparations to fund civil rights causes and uplift their people; the surviving Bloods want to uplift themselves and fund their own comfort in their waning years, which they feel their service and sacrifice for a nation that continues to treat them as second-class citizens has earned them. It’s a Vietnam-era Three Kings plot concept, with plenty more racial politics thrown in.

Lee and his editor Adam Gough intercut between the Bloods’ modern-day journey and their original 1960s mission with Norman, with occasional supporting archival footage added for emphasis as well (Lee, a sometimes-documentarian, has long preferred this technique as well). This time-period dichotomy further demonstrates Lee’s technical skill and cinematic know-how, as the transition back and forth over the half-century gap is indicated by a shift in historically-accurate aspect ratio and film grain (the older actors playing the older Bloods also play their younger selves in the flashbacks alongside the much younger Boseman; one accepts the choice readily enough, but an aged-down photo near the movie’s end puts one in mind of ILM’s digital de-aging effects work on The Irishman, although such a technique might have as much as doubled Lee’s budget, which although large by his standards is still fairly modest). Lee and Sigel craft classically-pitched war sequences of cinematic sweep during the Vietnam War sequences, firefights with the Viet Cong scored with heroic orchestral swells by Terence Blanchard. They also put together several white-knuckle tension-and-release scenes later in the film involving land mines (so forcefully foreshadowed are the mines, one expects characters to step on them at nearly every point so that it is no shock or surprise when it finally happens) as well as explosive shootouts with Vietnamese tribal gangsters who are after the gold at the instruction of shady-dealing Desroches (Jean Reno), a Frenchman who the Bloods (especially Paul) do not trust one whit but who they must rely on to help them smuggle the gold out of the country.

Impressive craftmanship aside, however, the ideas and themes that underscore these elements are messy, contradictory, and often highly questionable in their reproduction of discriminatory Hollywood war movie tropes and in interrogating the African-American experience to the war and to American imperialist projection. As Viet Thanh Nguyen observes in a critical review of the film in the New York Times, Da 5 Bloods reproduces many of the problematic tropes of prior American films about what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War” (a phrase used in the early scenes of this film, it should be acknowledged), namely the casting of the Vietnamese as faceless enemies to be snuffed out in rousing battle scenes, a framing that Lee, eager to nod to the genre’s history, is absolutely guilty of here. The war is wrong, Hollywood’s framing has long assumed, but killing othered enemies in that war is not only not necessarily wrong, it can even be exhilarating. Whatever Coppola’s critical intent with his Wagnerian evocation in the chopper assault scene may have been, the aesthetic power of the scene has been embraced by some as a glorification of war, as a scene referencing Apocalypse Now in Jarhead demonstrates. Lee does not shift this perspective one inch here, it must be said.

Nguyen also highlights a discomfiting scene of Paul tossing a racial slur at an insistent Vietnamese vendor at a floating market, although Jeet Heer responded to this criticism on Twitter by noting the context is important (Paul is couched as highly troubled, his friends call him out immediately for what he says, and Lee has long made a point of using offensive racial language openly in dialogue in order to make purposeful points about how racism operates). Another thoughtful perspective on this element of the film is provided by Hoai-Tran Bui at Slashfilm, who says almost entirely what I would say about how Da 5 Bloods considers black trauma and the larger imperialistic implications of “the American War” and again finds that the film frames the Vietnamese people above all as victims (millions of them died, but one faction did defeat a world superpower and unite the country, after all), although the Bloods’ local guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is characterized a bit more and becomes a comrade-in-arms before the bloody end.

Vinh is one of the focal points of the way that Lee, who did a re-write of the original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo with previous collaborator Kevin Willmott (director of the laughably blunt agitprop mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), uses conventional themes of fatherhood to deal obliquely with the complex and guilt-ridden legacy of American involvement in Vietnam as well as its history of black oppression. Vinh’s father was in the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army that fought alongside American troops against the V.C. and the Communist army of the North, and was sent to a re-education camp after the South’s defeat (a better fate than many of American’s allies in the country met, as he notes); like his father, he fights alongside Americans, even embraced by Paul at one point as an honorary Blood, a “yellow n***a”. Paul himself has a strained relationship with his educated, bourgeois son, resenting David for his wife’s death in childbirth and symbolically and emotionally associating this resentment with his guilt over the death of Norman, and the laboured double-reconciliation with both his living son and his dead idealized mentor is a key part of Paul’s complex arc (Lindo gives a spectacular, intense performance with this meaty material, devolving in the end to mad biblically-inflected ranting alone in the jungle; no one has any idea what the Academy Awards will look like next spring with the pandemic-effected dearth of theatrical movie releases, but if they happen, the long-undervalued Lindo should be remembered for this performance). And Otis finds a fatherly sense of fulfillment in the denouement, meeting and embracing his half-African-American, half-Vietnamese daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) before the two of them are given the honourific treatment of Lee’s signature double-dolly shot.

While this thematic focus on fatherhood is an approach that renders knottier ideas about difficult legacies in an emotional form that is relevant and identifiable to audiences, it has a way of eliding more penetrating questions about the war and the role of African-Americans in it that Lee merely gestures at (for example, the My Lai Massacre, the most notorious American war crime of the conflict, is used as a pre-shootout taunt by the lead Vietnamese gunman, played by Nguyen Ngoc Lam). Lee’s touchstones of political philosophy, moral instruction, and cultural commentary are firmly planted in the Vietnam War era: he opens his film with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote that “no Vietnamese ever called me a n****r” and closes it with an excerpt of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech (given exactly a year before his assassination), includes a scene of the Bloods learning with rage of King’s death while in Vietnam, and peppers the movie with Marvin Gaye songs both diegetic and non-diegetic, especially from his seminal album of socially-conscious R&B, What’s Going On. There’s also the liberation theology rhetoric underpinning Norman’s beliefs and Paul’s ravings.

Lee is grounding the ideas of Da 5 Bloods in the activism of the era that the Bloods recall with a mix of nostalgia and traumatic horror, and that’s valid enough, I suppose. But it’s another instance that seems to lay bare that Lee, an activist artist of a previous generation, is out of step with the social justice movements of the present, which view the Vietnam War with a much more witheringly anti-imperialist eye and are less seduced than he is by romantic fantasies of soldierly fraternity or martial heroism that might buttress black experience and fights for equality. As Bui notes, for all that Lee invokes pregnant associations between American imperialism, systems of anti-black racism, and the threads connecting the two in Da 5 Bloods through dialogue, spliced-in archival clips, and visual technique, the film doesn’t finally manage to say anything definitive about their symbiotic linkages, coming just to the cusp of doing so before reaching for Hollywood convention and a satisfactory narrative and emotional conclusion. The closest he comes is in having Desroche don the vanquished Paul’s red MAGA hat at the conclusion of the climactic shootout, this central symbol connecting American white supremacy and European colonialism, acting as a literal scarlet thread between the two. But even this isn’t without a neoliberal counterpoint of an anti-landmine advocacy organization called LAMB run by a French woman named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), who become enmeshed in the conflict over the gold between the Bloods and Desroche’s goon squad. Hedy’s family became wealthy from plantations in Indochina under the French colonial regime, but she is redirecting that wealth with all the white guilt she can muster towards charity non-profit do-gooding. Imperialist wealth can be bad or it can be good, says Spike Lee. Both sides!

In the denouement of the Da 5 Bloods, Lee includes a scene in which the once-wealthy Eddie’s portion of the gold spoils is donated to Black Lives Matter, an in-text statement of solidarity with their cause from Brother Spike. Much of the rest of Da 5 Bloods, however, like BlacKkKlansman before it, betrays Lee’s generational, socioeconomic and ideological distance and divergence from the less-compromised and more militantly impatient BLM and their allies. His previous film closed with his trademark double dolly shot being utilized to suggest the future of black liberation lay in an alliance between activists and law enforcement. If that symbolic thesis statement seemed more than a little out of step in 2018, it is even more so in 2020, amidst massive popular protests demanding more significant advances in racial justice and defunding or even abolishment of the police, especially coming from a filmmaker who was literally paid by the NYPD to help improve their public image. The problem of unified purpose is a consistent problem of political activism on the Left and in the African-American community, and Spike Lee’s latest film embodies that lack of unified purpose in its invocation without reconciliation of American global imperialism and white supremacist racial hierarchy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

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

June 5, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 16, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Television Review: The English Game

April 13, 2020 Leave a comment

The English Game (Netflix; 2020 – Present)

On his YouTube channel Renegade Cut, video essayist Leon Thomas refers to English television writer and House of Lords peer Julian Fellowes’ hit historical drama Downton Abbey as “aristo-trash”, a dramatic subgenre that includes Netflix’s popular prestige series on the British Royal Family under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. Media products such as these series are critiqued by Thomas as providing rose-tinted, humanizing portraits of super-rich privileged elites such as the Windsors of The Crown and the Crawleys of Downton Abbey “for the purposes of capitalist apologetics and propaganda”. They also invariably include idealized friendly, respectful, and even loving relations between the rich and the poor, even while emphasizing the common humanity of members of the irreparably separated classes on either side of the still-widening divide of socioeconomic inequality by exploring their personal struggles in a tonal manner that suggest their broad similarity and shared humanity.

Furthermore, they present the radical politics of change and redistribution of wealth and privilege as an immature trifle of youth to be outgrown and left behind, when they aren’t depicting such politics and their frequent accompanying behaviours of protest and confrontation as outright violent and dangerous. The rare elements of progressive change that slip through this tight net are consistently attributed to the magnanimous generosity of enlightened philosopher-king individuals, exemplars of the elites at their best charitably giving to the less-fortunate of society. The sum affect of this presentation of class relations serves to re-entrench tradition power structures as positive and benevolent, their exploitations, oppressions, and inequalities elided or explained away or more often entirely absent. For an Old Tory like Lord Fellowes, a cultural text like Downton Abbey buttresses the wealthy upper-class elite to which he belongs and whose interests he seeks to shield and safeguard from progressive threats.

The English Game is a new series for Netflix co-created by Fellowes (with Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton), who also co-writes all six episodes. Set in Britain in 1879-1880, the series focuses on a key, semi-fictionalized turning point in the history of association football (a.k.a. soccer), when the sport that would one day become the world’s most popular pivoted from an amateur leisure pastime of overgrown boarding-school gentlemen to an athletic communal religion of the working class featuring paid professional players bought and sold by wealthy, ambitious, competitive club owners. The English Game (its title referring to the nationalistic nickname for football but also punning on the social and economic negotiations of the class structure) shares Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of rich and poor experience, and its dramatic and emotional stakes are not uninvolving or unpersuasive. But make no mistake, this is aristo-trash par excellence, full of soft-focus illuminations of upper-crust benevolence and upright, honourable working folks living vicariously through the glories of the local footie club.

In 1879, football had been an organized sport with rules of governance for just over 30 years, and somewhat wider-scale agreement on those rules was much more recent (the sport now widely known as rugby only split off into its own codes of play in 1871, for example). The Football League (the world’s first) would not be founded until 1888, and so the only real national footballing competition at the time was the FA (Football Association) Cup, which had been dominated since its beginnings in 1872 by the amateur private school teams whose players had agreed upon its rules and largely populated the positions of control in the FA. These figures kept the game strictly amateur, professionalism being seen as common and vulgar and grounds for expulsion from cup competition, as well as of course threatening their clubbish dominance of the fledgling sport. But a growing number of football clubs from the Midlands, the North, and Scotland were springing up and challenging the old boys of the game down south, these teams often run by mill owners or other businessmen who began to secretly pay the best players from other such clubs to join their own squads. From some of these clubs also emerged new tactics based on quick passing and speed, rather than the rugby-adjacent packed rushes and rough physicality of the well-fed and well-rested school alumni teams. The game was changing. Would its wealthy and privileged gatekeepers change with it, or be left behind?

At least this is how The English Game presents the conflict in the sport in this period; more knowledgable historians of the game may quibble with specifics, and it feels like the on-field tactical shift in particular is likely oversimplified (on more than one occasion, large-scale tactical innovations are made in quick conversations at halftime), but in broad strokes, it’s probably relatively accurate to what was happening in football at the time (also, the balls they use look really, really hard). At any rate, this is fertile ground for the kind of highly-skewed class relations drama that Fellowes favours, and he mostly doesn’t waste it. His central contrasting figures and dual protagonists come from each side of the class divide in Victorian society and in Victorian football. There’s Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), aristocratic heir to a wealthy, lordly financier father (Anthony Andrews) who disapproves of his scion’s childish footballing obsession, husband to Alma (Charlotte Hope) and hopeful father-to-be, FA principal, captain of perennial FA Cup contenders Old Etonians, and perhaps the first nationally-known star player in the sport. Aligned against Kinnaird (but ultimately coming to a position of mutual respect and admiration with him) is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a diminuitive but highly talented Scot who moves to Northern mill-town team Darwen FC from Partick Thistle in Glasgow along with his on-field running mate and best friend Jimmy Love (James Harkness); both are paid under the table to play while working a cover job at the textile mill (the real Suter was a stonemason) of Darwen FC owner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson). Suter struggles to balance his on-field ambitions with his quick-hardening fondness for and loyalty to the town, as well as his developing feelings for local woman Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh) and his concerns about the well-being of his family back in Glasgow, who fear the violent rages of his alcoholic father (Michael Nardone).

Although Fellowes works here with co-creators and co-writers (Thomas points out in his video essay that Fellowes has a solo writing credit on all but three Downton Abbey episodes, whose credits he shares, as well as the capstone movie, making the work a rare-enough example of a single authorial voice in filmed media), The English Game has all the hallmarks of the aristo-trash style. Everybody, rich and poor, has humanizing issues and personal struggles (at least partly for the purpose of equalization and erasure of socioeconomic difference), and these form the numerous subplots unwinding behind the core progression of the FA Cup tournament towards the inevitable meeting between Kinnaird’s and Suter’s clubs in the final. Arthur deals with his father’s disapproval of his sporting focus and tries to prove his mettle to the old man as a capitalist, all while tiptoeing his way to a stronger marriage with Alma (who suffers a traumatic miscarriage and transmutes her loss into meddling in the affairs of a lower-class mother who has to give up her child for adoption).

Kinnaird also serves as the focal point for Fellowes’ aristo-trash pro-elite propaganda, witnessing and sympathizing with the strike actions and protest marches of Darwen’s mill workers, which include Suter’s teammates. He thus becomes a benevolent champion for working-class rights in politics, society, economics, and football, a personification of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idealized “Tory men with Whig measures”. This predilection sets him at odds with his more arrogant, power-playing Old Etonian teammates in the FA, namely the show’s chief villain Francis Marindin (Daniel Ings; no relation to the former Liverpool and current Southampton forward of the same name), who is eager to expel their competition from the North from the cup for hooliganism, professionalism, or whatever else suits his purposes.

The English Game includes a subplot about wage cuts for factory workers and labour unrest, and Fellowes approaches it exactly as his aristo-trash leanings would lead one to suspect he would. As Kinnaird watches and Suter resists an attempt by the ringleaders to leverage his on-field notoriety to the strike’s benefit with mild calls for unity and understanding, incendiary speeches about workers’ rights lead to a torch-wielding mob that marches threateningly on the house of the head of the cotton guild, Colonel Jackson (Richard McCabe). Vandalism and a perceived threat to the lives of Jackson and his family ensue, and after Darwen FC keeper and aspiring capitalist Ted Stokes (Joncie Elmore) slips into the house to warn the colonel and his family, police mistakenly arrest him and cruelly shoot his dog dead. Only Arthur Kinnaird’s compassionate interceding in the trial and accompanying pledge to finance Stokes’ proposed football-shirt manufacturing concern saves an innocent (indeed, heroic) man from unfair incarceration. Labour agitation, Fellowes is saying, is nothing but trouble, and only by protecting the owners of the means of production as Stokes does can any improvement in one’s standing be achieved, through the kind generosity of those owners.

The ultimate thesis of The English Game is even more grimly platitudinal in its cynical upholding of traditional, uneven class relations as transmuted through capitalism. Kinnaird and Suter combine forces in a pivotal meeting with Marindin and the FA leadership to get Blackburn (the club Suter has moved to from eliminated Darwen in order to have a shot at winning the FA Cup) reinstated to the competition following a hooliganish riot caused by an injury to Love in an exhibition match between the club and rival Darwen. This stated reason is only a sideline concern for Marindin, who is really seeking to root out illegal professionalism and expose Suter as a paid mercernary. As Kinnaird predicts the spread of football worldwide with ludicrous geographical accuracy (“Then we’ll grow corrupt and shiftless, and the Brazilians will eat us alive!”), Suter repeats a point that he has made locally in Darwen and Blackburn numerous times up to that point. The British working class needs football, and feeds ravenously off the weekly exploits of their heroes on the pitch to get them through the dull, dehumanizing drudgery of their grinding manual labour jobs and poverty-stricken existence. To deny them that in order to preserve the upper echelons of the competitive game as a private leisure retreat for the ultra-rich patriarchal class is not only churlish and snobbish and unfair, but even undemocratic and above all fruitless when arrayed against the inevitable advance of the sport’s progress.

This is presented as a proclamation of inspiring egalatarian hope, but it’s really dark as hell. The English Game understands football’s role in the United Kingdom as the ultimate opiate of the masses, the regular diversionary valve of emotional and aspirational investment that keeps the country’s poor docile and contented with their squalid lot and occupies the energies that might otherwise have been expended in the dogged pursuit of radical social, political and economic change. The proletariat doesn’t need reform, and certainly doesn’t need messy, costly revolution, to improve their conditions when they’ve got the Merseyside Derby. The English Game sets passionate commoners against arrogant rich men, with enlightened mediators in between, with the future of football and indeed of the nation at stake. But its insidious subtext is that in pivoting to professionalism and a related growth in popularity, the sport also became one of the most powerful mechanisms of social control for the British elite class. That this elite needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realization of not only the inevitability of this change but also of the benefits to their position, their power, and their profits that would come with it is as revealing a glimpse into their mindset as Lord Fellowes could have provided.

Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the behind-the-scenes newspaper work and decision-making dilemmas behind The Washington Post‘s publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a robust narrative about the patriotic duty of the free press to hold the powerful to account, despite social, political, and legal inconvenience and aggressive, cover-up-minded pushback from those powerful players. Its applicability to America’s contemporary situation is not lost on Spielberg and certainly is not lost on screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, but this contextual association is left to the audience to make for themselves.

Spielberg begins The Post by entering the tropical jungle meat-grinder of the Vietnam War in 1966, following State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he embeds with a U.S. military unit hit hard by a nighttime Viet Cong ambush. This crucial scene-setting establishes the stakes for what Ellsberg will later decide to do: young Americans are dying in a war in Southeast Asia, but why? Ellsberg’s boss, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, a go-to choice for Presidents but an eerie match for JFK and LBJ’s key cabinet member), seeks his subordinate’s first-hand assessment as support for his own private view that America’s involvement in Vietnam is not likely to lead to success and that the situation is indeed deteriorating. But Ellsberg becomes disillusioned when McNamara publically emphasizes that the situation is improving, contrary not only to behind-closed-door discourse but also to an exhaustive report compiled at the behest of the data-minded McNamara that detailed the flawed decision-making that deepened American commitments in Indochina despite ample evidence that what they were doing was not working, even as successive administrations dishonestly told the American public that matters were getting better and victory was possible (McNamara felt rather guilty about this later in his life, as Errol Morris demonstrated). Ellsberg therefore sneaks out and copies the report from the offices of contractor Rand Corporation, his intentions initially unclear but easily graspable.

Flash ahead to 1971. It’s the eve of The Washington Post going public on the stock exchange in order to raise more funds to expand its journalistic work, an effort which consumes the attention of the paper’s publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who is also a personal friend of McNamara’s. Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, a post-millenial Spielberg fave) is dealing with his reporter being shut out of covering the wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter, but suspects something much bigger is afoot at the New York Times, whose star Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan hasn’t had anything published in months. It soon becomes clear that Sheehan and a Times team has had Ellsberg’s copy of the Pentagon Papers for some time and the paper of record soon begins publishing front-page stories about the government misleading the American public about the war. As the Nixon Administration gets a federal judge to order the Times to halt publishing stories based on these top-secret documents for national security reasons, Bradlee’s newsroom receives copies of the Papers as well, from a random hippie-looking walk-in and through a connection between reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Ellsberg himself.

The core dramatic dilemma of The Post places the weight of great choice on the shoulders of a member of the elite, Graham herself. Pressed on one side by Bradlee’s lofty insistence on journalistic integrity and press freedom and on the other by more practical concerns of sinking the public offering (Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford are two male executive advisors warning her on this front) and indeed possibly even going to prison, Graham must decide whether to publish the Papers or not. Hannah and Singer and Spielberg see in Graham a figure defined by her gender and the glass-ceiling expectations of her time. When her father, who owned the Post, died, he left it not to her but to her husband, and it only came to her upon his suicide; she is keenly aware that she is not seen as equal to the many men who run her realm, and Streep allows that knowledge to play across her surface layer of WASP-ish self-possession. Spielberg also blocks out a contrasting pair of scenes to emphasize her inadvertent role as a figure of sort-of-feminism in the midst of patriarchal power structures: at the stock exchange on the day she takes the Post public, Streep passes up a staircase through a crowd of female secretaries and then through a set of doors to a smoky room full of powerful men, and then when leaving the Supreme Court after the lawyers for the Post and the Times argued for their right to publish the Pentagon Papers, she passes through a crowd of female onlookers, this time down a staircase but with an added measure of self-possession and confidence.

There’s a lot to like about The Post, with its crackling, overlapping dialogue, steady and smooth direction from one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen (who has his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams on board to help), and superb cast of character actors. Spielberg applies his cast like a painter layers brushstrokes, with actors capable of lead-character depth appearing in a scene or two or three to nail down a certain character’s role in the proceedings. Jesse Plemons descends with withering practical realism as the paper’s lead legal counsel, Michael Stuhlbarg is the New York Times‘ brash publisher Abe Rosenthal, Alison Brie floats through as Graham’s daughter, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife manages the crowd of harried reporters that descend on her home with platters of sandwiches and her daughter’s lemonade, and those reporters are played by the capable likes of Carrie Coon, Odenkirk, and David Cross (Spielberg seems to purposely pose the latter two together in frame in the paper’s newsroom as a brief Mr. Show reunion). Rhys plays Ellsberg as a careful and principled whistleblower in a manner that should prove familiar to observers of contemporary examples like Daniel J. Jones of The Report or Chelsea Manning or especially Edward Snowden. The latter two whistleblowers’ respective fates of imprisonment and exile were avoided by Ellsberg only because of the Watergate scandal which truly made the Washington Post‘s name as a top-notch investigative newspaper, and the burglary which set it off is The Post‘s final scene, demonstrating the Nixon regime’s deepening illegality and paranoid distrust for political and legal norms as well as the vital importance of Graham and Bradlee shepherding their paper through the Pentagon Papers crisis so that it might soon bring down a criminal President.

Of course, at this moment the United States has an even more shamelessly criminal Republican President with an openly antagonistic relationship to the American press (the “fake news” as he likes to call it, when he isn’t calling reporters out-and-out traitors) that makes Nixon’s rhetoric about the media seem mild in comparison. It cannot be said that the U.S. media, the Washington Post (no longer owned by the Graham family since they sold it to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013) very much included, has not covered the shady corruption and voluminous misbehaviour of Donald J. Trump, although its coverage was also complicit in his unfortunate rise: Fox News’ breathlessly hagiographic Dear Leader angle on him, obviously, but also NBC launching Trump to rehabilitory stardom with The Apprentice and softening his image during the campaign with Jimmy Fallon’s hair-ruffling on The Tonight Show and a retrospectively mortifying hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, CNN’s pillar-to-post live broadcast of his frothing-at-the-mouth campaign rallies and persistent employment of his dishonest surrogates as both-sides pundits, and print, television, and online media’s disastrous obsession with the gussied-up nothing story of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that is one of many factors that presaged Trump’s 2016 election victory.

As excellent as The Post is as a film celebrating the inspiring courage of American journalism (and since this is Spielberg, there is of course a scene of climactic positive triumph, complete with swelling John Williams score), a creeping knowledge of the future of the press relationship with disingenuous and criminal government actions lessens its current impact. While Hollywood made a movie like The Post glorifying the historical bravery of a paper whose chest-beating motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, American democracy may very well be dying in the full light of day, and not without the collusion, alternately advertent and inadvertent, of the vaunted free press. Sure, it’s “just” a movie, but it has also proven to be not nearly enough.

It’s interesting, given the current American milieu with which it is extratextually contrasted, that The Post explores the tension between journalistic freedom and the free market imperatives of bottom-line capitalism (especially where those imperatives overlap with the backslapping chuminess of the self-preservationist elite) the way it does. In the Trump era, we see a democratic crisis that has advanced to a troubling place largely due to journalism’s weakness in holding the powerful to account in the face of the drive for profit in a shifting, unstable industry, just as the powerful decide not to check a dangerously reactionary but superficially business-friendly leader in order to keep the tap open and the wealth flowing into their tanks. Like Nixon, Trump fights with the press and tries to limit and discredit their exposure of his malfeasance, but he also knows how to manipulate it and exploit its weak points to get what he wants from it (having a readymade state media in Fox News doesn’t hurt; American history might have turned out very differently if Rupert Murdoch’s tacky cable-TV reincarnation of Der Stürmer was around in the 1970s to spread pro-Nixon propaganda 24-7). The Post is (highly adapted) history, but as a rallying cry for current power-challenging press integrity, it’s unfortunately a nostalgic fantasy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews