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Canada 150 and the National Identity of Plausible Deniability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Culture, History, Politics

Film Review: Tower

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

President-Elect Donald J. Trump: A Grim Assessment

November 9, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: The Witch

September 24, 2016 Leave a comment

The Witch (2016; Directed by Robert Eggers)

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks William (Ralph Ineson), family patriarch and religious nonconformist in colonial New England, in the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ arresting “New England folktale” The Witch. He stands in judgment with his clan before the governor and church elders, who banish him from their God-fearing colonial plantation for dissenting from the Puritan orthodoxy in his expressed beliefs. There is no small irony in this splitting, seeing as how the Pilgrim colonists of 17th Century New England were themselves painfully severed from the Church of England for their dissenting faith to come to the American continent in the first place to begin anew. Such principled breaks from the community on religious terms were hardly uncommon in New England, either; this was how Rhode Island was founded, for one, and other communities trace their origins back to strict Puritan believers who could not play well in the religious sandbox with others and struck out on their own to build a new Jerusalem in the continent’s unfathomably vast wilderness.

Eggers lingers on foreboding wide shots of the woods that tower on the fringes of the humble homestead that William and his family erect. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William vows. “It will not consume us.” But, of course, we know it will. Although the forest in The Witch is a place of mystery and peril as per both the folktale and the horror film tradition, visually it is not so much magical or nefarious but merely tangible, not looming or threatening so much as existing. Menace leeches from it into William’s family’s lives and they find nothing but misery and evil in their interactions with it. But the pregnant query at the core of The Witch asks whether evil persists in the wider natural world or if all ill emanates predominantly – or even exclusively – from the corruption of man. Furthermore, it considers quite openly whether personal liberty and fulfillment lie down the path of righteousness or with indulgence of the flesh.

As its ending titles claim somewhat righteously, the scenario of The Witch is based on copious primary documentary sources from colonial New England’s 17th Century witch hysteria (not to mention horror genre convention), as is much of the dialogue spoken by its characters. This assertion of fidelity feels faintly ambiguous considering the way the film treats the demonological phantasms of witchcraft as being all too real, but then to Protestants of that era – oppressed by an intense, practically physical fear of sin and damnation – it was all too real. The evil powers of the witch and her demonic master, while potent, exploit and indeed meld with the internal rifts within the family. It becomes difficult to tell where their desires, grief, flaws, resentments and recriminations end and where the witchcraft begins.

The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is harsh and shrewish, towards her husband but especially towards her eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose care her youngest son Samuel suspiciously disappears. Thomasin resents her mother’s attacks on her, forms a fonder compact with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and needles her hellion twin siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) with dark suggestions of practicing witchcraft, jests which will come back to haunt her. Caleb, for his part, gazes with adolescent lasciviousness upon his older sister’s body while absorbing but quibbling with his father’s sermons about the stern certainty of sin, but precipitates a family crisis when he becomes lost in the woods and ensnared by a dark force. Meanwhile, the twins spend much of their time playing with the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and claim that he sometimes speaks to them in dark voices. All family members old enough to recognize William’s weakness and ineptitude as a provider, survivor, and nurturing patriarch (namely Catherine and Thomasin but Caleb as well in an unspoken way) resent him for it, too.

All of these cracks and fissures are exploited by dark forces, but the darkest force of all is basic human doubt and frailty. The Witch is sort of a dark mirror Book of Job (Katherine compares herself to Job’s wife at one point), only the calamities with which William and his family are beset consist not in the stress tests of an ultimately benevolent deity but of the Great Enemy. And this 17th-century Job fails the test quite comprehensively. The film weaves the family’s own all-consuming Puritan paranoia about Satan and witches lurking in every copse, about the immutability of sin and judgement, and about the temptations of the flesh and of the material world with the stock imagery of witchlore: twisted, cackling old hags, huts in the woods, eerie flight by moonlight, and fireside witches’ Sabbaths in communion with Lucifer. It’s both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria.

If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion. No story set in Pilgrim times can claim not to be about modern America as well; such is the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, and The Witch joins that august metaphorical/allegorical tradition. Is Eggers’ film about the contemporary American siege mentality, the heady and dangerous mix of security anxiety, xenophobia, and wounded self-assurance that archconservative demagogues like Donald Trump shamelessly exploit and threatens to unwind the bonds of the republic? Is it about the destructive, church-fed tendencies towards magical thinking and irrational superstition that have hamstrung one of the world’s most robust societies on consistent occasions? We may not be able to say with confidence that it is saying any of these things, but the film operates with enough ambiguity to give those possible meanings plenty of oxygen.

As hinted at (and as can only be properly discussed by indulging in spoilers, so fair warning), there’s a strong feeling that the core meaning of The Witch, at least for Thomasin, considers the costs of freedom versus those of self-restriction. Blamed for all of the family’s troubles by her imperious mother, left undefended by her milquetoast bible-thumping father, and betrayed and accused of witchery by the twins, Thomasin finds herself standing alone amidst the shattered remnants of her family, face-to-face with the Great Satan himself.

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the male human incarnation of “Black Phillip” whispers seductively, and she has endured through too much trauma to resist him, lost all the safe ground that she might cling to in defiance. Though why would she bother to resist? Her father’s precious piety has only served to smash his familial unit and leave him dead in a pile of his uselessly-chopped firewood, crying out in his final guilt-ridden throes, “Corruption, thou art my father!” Her life is only preserved from her mother’s wrath by the sharp edge of a blade. For Thomasin, a literal deal with the Devil is her only path to freedom from the godly misery of her society and culture. Her species of liberation through the embrace of witchcraft, through communion with evil forces but also with the corrupted, amoral natural world, is not a matter of choice but of last resort, of resigned but bleakly delighted inevitability. “I will guide thy hand,” Black Phillip promises Thomasin when she tells him that she cannot write her name in his book to seal their pact. Her agency has been relentlessly reduced until it has been taken from her, all while she is plied with the promise of pleasures that come with final, total surrender.

Thus, Thomasin’s “choice” is no choice at all, her veering in the direction of delicious indulgence a purposeful channeling by forces stronger than her burgeoning womanhood. Buried deep in its symbolic implications, The Witch suggests that her unfree choice of freedom is the one America took and the one Americans are likewise offered. What did early American colonists go into the wilderness to find, after all? A new Kingdom of God, and nationalist myth and historical impetus has long maintained that they carved this kingdom, the “city upon a hill” of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s long-echoing 1630 sermon, out of the unforgiving wilderness by dint of their tireless work ethic and pious, god-fearing determination.

The Witch, as befits a cinematic text from an American era of deep ambivalence, doubt, and perhaps even dread recognition of decline and decadence of that exceptional settlement on New World shores, provocatively suggests that this myth should be understood in reverse. Americans did not conquer the wilderness, the wilderness consumed them even as they consumed it. Its primal, instinctual drives became internalized and transmuted into human desires, into that venerable “pursuit of happiness” that has translated into a liberty of acquisition, of consumption, of indulgence. This “folktale” offers this alternative myth of America’s founding, lurking beneath the trappings of an excellent indie-arthouse period horror movie. It lives deliciously.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Look Who’s Back

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) (2015; Directed by David Wnendt)

Everyone knows Adolf Hitler – Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, self-styled dictatorial fascist Führer of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party, primary architect of World War II and the Holocaust, and general consensus Worst Man in History – died in his bunker beneath besieged Berlin in April 1945. What David Wnendt’s satirical film Look Who’s Back presupposes is… maybe he didn’t. Or he did, but then mysteriously came back seven decades later to become a media celebrity and ride the unsettled wave of European xenophobia to a sinister political comeback.

Based on the best-selling German novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (its German title more directly translates as He’s Back) alternates between the staged and acted sequences of its plot and unscripted Sacha Baron Cohen-style interactions between its Hitler (Oliver Masucci) and ordinary German citizens, which almost invariably reveal a disturbing level of agreement between modern Germans and the charismatic monster who haunts their country’s history. There’s a core of biting satire at the heart of this film, but it’s frequently buried beneath layers of awkwardly broad Germanic comedy and errors of historical inattention.

Reappearing in the middle of Berlin on the former site of the bunker which hosted him in his final days, Hitler holes up in a newsstand and digests the developments of the previous seventy years. He’s sought out by a hapless freelance documentary filmmaker named Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), who caught the Führer’s inauspicious return in the background of footage he was shooting for a limp human-interest piece that he hopes will save his job with commercial television station MyTV. Blown away by what he believes to be a comedian’s dedicated and seamless impersonation of the Nazi leader, Sawatzki takes Hitler on a road trip across Germany in his mother’s floral delivery van, filming as they go. His footage convinces rival MyTV executives (Katja Riemann and Christoph Maria Herbst) to take a chance on using Hitler for some offensive anti-immigrant humour on a “politically incorrect” comedy show, but the Führer goes off script and strikes a deeper chord with the German public.

Look Who’s Back is very much a product of Germany’s contemporary cultural and political context, and as a result can be a tad obtuse to an outsider. A montage of blundering domestic politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, is accompanied by the withering disdain of Masucci’s Hitler, who pines for his principled rivals of the leftist Weimar period and finds surprising common ground with the Green Party’s environmentalist protection of the Fatherland. Although Masucci is excellent – funny and menacing in turn, sympathetically baffled by modern trappings but with the chilling adaptability of a charming political cobra – the supporting cast around him is mostly reduced to goofy behind-the-scenes media and office scenarios. Like the broadly offensive comedy show (Whoa, Dude) on which Hitler debuts, the general comic tone outside of Masucci’s improvised interactions with the general public does not imply the most positive things about the state of German comedy. One must note a clear exception: a spot-on parody of the best-known scene from Downfall, the acclaimed drama about Hitler’s last days, that will spark immediate appreciative recognition from internet meme aficionados.

There are glaring errors in Look Who’s Back‘s version of Adolf Hitler as well. Told by the newsstand attendant about his many Turkish customers, Hitler wonders if the Ottoman Empire had turned the tide of the war in the Axis’ favour, despite having been on history’s scrap heap for two decades by the 1940s. Even more difficult to swallow is an incident in which Hitler shoots a dog dead for biting him, the later-revealed footage of which is a serious hiccup in his rise to fame with MyTV. Look Who’s Back passes the episode off as being consistent with Hitler’s appetite for harsh discipline and cruelty, but it’s known that Hitler was also a vegetarian who deeply deplored cruelty to animals and had a particularly strong affection for canines.

Despite these hitches in its step, Look Who’s Back returns with a dogged satirical focus to its central point: despite generations of official legal and educational efforts to dissuade Germans from the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, a resurrected Hitler would find much sympathy and even enthusiasm for his ideas of populist nationalism among modern Germans. It is, of course, a cliche to liken even relatively mild expressions of conservative authoritarianism or racism or xenophobia to the views and practices of Hitler and Nazism (Godwin’s law and all that). But Timur Vermes (a co-writer on the script of Wnendt’s film version of his book) sees in Europe’s Islamophobic unrest ripe conditions for the rise to power of far-right demagogues of the Hitlerian type, and Wnendt makes that comparison explicit in the film’s closing moments (“I can work with this,” Hitler thinks, riding in an open Mercedes convertible and being greeted by a troubling number of Nazi salutes). Germany is not above another Adolf Hitler, Look Who’s Back suggests. Faults of its construction and comedic sensibility prevent it from making this point as strongly as it might have done, but the point is there, hard to miss and important not to dismiss.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews