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Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

November 30, 2019 Leave a comment

Jojo Rabbit (2019; Directed by Taika Waititi)

I’m almost sorry to say that Jojo Rabbit is probably Taika Waititi’s weakest film. It’s not as visually ambitious or tonally inventive as Thor: Ragnarok, it doesn’t immerse itself in a strong, familiarly unfamiliar sense of place and in the eccentric characters who inhabit it like Eagle vs. Shark or Boy, it’s not as funny as What We Do in the Shadows, and it doesn’t manage to mix humour and loss with quite the unforeseen grace of Hunt for the Wilderpeople (for my money, his best movie when taken whole). It isn’t a step back for New Zealand’s quintessentially quirky and self-effacing auteur. Nor is it a miss, or a bad film by any means, containing as it does fine moments both comedic and dramatic as well as a heartening if slightly soft central message of unlooked-for timeliness. But it’s not quite so sure of itself as those others films were, not as firmly set on solid ground, whatever leaps of fancy or inspired lunacy or wrenching sadness they engaged in. Taika Waititi took a chance with Jojo Rabbit, and it didn’t entirely pay off.

There were reasons to suspect that it might not pay off, but plenty of reasons to suspect that it might, too. Jojo Rabbit is adapted from New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, which I haven’t read but to hear Waititi discuss it in interviews is a very heavy and serious and sad novel about a boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Vienna during World War II who discovers that his mother has been concealing a Jewish girl in their home. Waititi is not a heavy or serious filmmaker, although he is one of the best currently working at summoning up sadness, albeit amidst offbeat humour and weirdly sincere irony. So when his mother suggested that he adapt Caging Skies for the screen, Waititi had little choice but to approach the material by making it his own. This process of adaptation meant a lot of things, but most notably it included adding a brazen and potentially offensive conceit: the boy protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend, and that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Imaginary Friend Hitler is played as a preening buffoon by Waititi himself, a piece of casting apparently made at the insistence of producing studio Fox Searchlight, whose keen marketing push included a Downfall Hitler reaction meme semi-trailer in which the late Bruno Ganz’s bunkered Führer becomes apoplectic at the idea of being played by a self-proclaimed “Polynesian Jew”.

10-year-old Jojo has a pep-talk-giving Führer as an imaginary friend because he is a committed, thoroughly indoctrinated little Nazi. Waititi drives home this point in a twofold fashion in the movie’s opening scenes. The opening title sequence wittily intercuts archival clips of Nazi propaganda marches and processions with madly, desperately devoted German citizens throwing salutes and falling into fangirl and fanboy histrionics, scored by the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Nazimania and Beatlemania, he cheekily though superficially suggests, are two manifestations of the same culturally-hysteric mass-media phenomenon. Then, before establishing Jojo’s home life which will take up most of the rest of the film, Waititi sends the boy off to a Hitler Youth training weekend, where Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant/possible homosexual lover Finkel (Alfie Allen), and barking party-line zealot Fraülein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) drill dozens of German children in warfare techniques (the film takes place late in the war, when the conflict was turning against the Axis and the command would press every able-bodied German into service in desperation). The instructors also deepen the Youth’s ideologically Aryan brainwashing with book-burnings and a completely ludicrous but disturbingly dehumanizing flood of anti-semitic tropes and fantasies (we’ll come back to those).

Jojo talks a big Nazi game of loyalty to the fatherland and hatred of the inhuman Jews, but is humiliated by his inability to kill a rabbit in one desensitizing camp exercise (thus earning the titular nickname) and is then sent home wounded after Imaginary Friend Hitler pumps him up into trying to redeem himself by recklessly charging into a hand grenade training session. As Jojo recuperates and disseminates propagandistic literature for the demoted, desk-bound Klenzendorf, we get a view into his relationship with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who has never been better and has a strong shot at a Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her performance here). With an enlisted husband on the Italian Front and a daughter who recently died of influenza, Jojo is all that Rosie has left. She is troubled by and opposed to his childishly-adopted fascist beliefs, but she loves and wants to protect her boy as much as she loves and wants to protect the liberties that the Third Reich has taken away. Their scenes together layer in a complex array of emotions and ideas, as Rosie tries to preserve her autonomy and individuality and joi de vivre while also preserving some sense of childhood innocence and wonder for her sweet but deluded boy, his head driven forward towards the harsh realities of adulthood in an ugly time before his heart or his body are remotely prepared for it.

It soon becomes apparent that Rosie is out all day and dangerously active in resistance to the fascist regime, but her resistance has come home, not only through her clever but careful attempts to re-educate her son but through her principled and even more dangerous decision to conceal in her walls a Jewish classmate of her dead daughter’s named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo discovers Elsa, but despite his supposed Nazi principles and loyalty to the Reich, he doesn’t turn her in, as it would equally mean turning in his mother and even himself as well. Challenged in this course by Imaginary Friend Hitler and threatened by a comic yet ominous visit by the Gestapo (Stephen Merchant squeezes a movie’s worth of comingled mirth and menace into a single-scene cameo as the lead secret service agent), Jojo nonetheless befriends Elsa. But since this is a Taika Waititi script, their relationship is idiosyncratic indeed: Elsa feeds Jojo outlandishly false “facts” about Jews for his anti-semitic picture book, and Jojo writes and reads Elsa faux letters from her Resistance boyfriend Nathan, an act half-sweet, half-selfish and prickish, redolent of a schoolboy crush and of an immature jealousy of a distant, heroic rival. They will need each other all the more as the war comes to the home front in more than one devastating way.

Jojo Rabbit arrived into wide theatrical release with strong early Oscar buzz. A foray into the traditionally fertile Academy-appealing territory of World War II and Nazism by a generally critically-appreciated filmmaker also coming into his commercial own, Jojo Rabbit solidified its contender status by capturing the frequent Best Picture bellwether People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to the world. Perhaps anticipating yet another Holocaust-themed arthouse picture sweeping to Academy glory, film critics have delivered a mixed verdict, however, often raising the spectre of Roberto Benigni’s now-maligned Life is Beautiful, an Oscar-winner and TIFF People’s Choice Award recipient that clumsily mixed comedy and poignancy in a Nazi concentration camp, to deride Waititi’s approach by association with a movie now generally considerable insensitive and possessed of insufficiently gravitas to tackle the subject it took on (at least they didn’t analogize it to Jerry Lewis’ disastrous, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown in Auschwitz). Jojo Rabbit has also grossed only modestly at the box office, hardly transcending the arthouse circuit into the larger sleeper hit status it would have required to make an Oscar impact, as something like (the incomparably worse) Green Book did. One shouldn’t count it out entirely (the Academy is still populated by many elderly Jewish-American Hollywood vets and this stuff is like candy to them), but it hasn’t caught on as Fox Searchlight no doubt hoped it would.

Why not? It’s not bad, and even fairly good. Waititi has hardly forgotten how to be funny in his usual deadpan absurdist manner, and Jojo Rabbit‘s poignancy is generally exquisitely balanced with that absurdity. It’s an attractive-looking movie: cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (who lensed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) gives a vivid but dillapidated realistic lustre to Waititi’s often droll geometric compositions, helped along considerably by the old-world locations (Jojo Rabbit was shot in Prague, though not set anywhere specific in the Nazi Reichlands; its interiors were shot in a historic studio used by Joseph Goebbels for Nazi propaganda films, an irony not lost on Waititi) and by the information-rich production design, by Waititi’s countryman (and veteran of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film adaptations) Ra Vincent. Its most tragic and heartbreaking moment is shot, edited, directed, scored, and performed with elegant poeticism before Waititi pulls the rug out from under the audience masterfully and wrenchingly; it’s an unforgettable scene, the wounded soul of the film, and when viewers moved by Jojo Rabbit argue for the its power and importance, they will be thinking of this sequence. The movie’s dominant theme is one of love and respect triumphing over cynical weaponized hate, specifically over the fascistic ethnonationalism of the Nazis, and it’s not a message that lacks relevance in our contemporary world, given the disturbing comeback of far-right fascist ideas and even specifically revived Nazi iconography under the irresponsible accidental collaboration of neoliberal complacency and self-serving conservative indulging of racism. Jojo Rabbit drives this point home, with the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence being the note-perfect needle drop that closes the film.

But is that message enough? Can love alone triumph over hate, especially when hate carries such an attractive and politically advantageous incentive to the powerful and non-powerful alike? To quote an episode of Clone High (the work of Lord & Miller, American crafters of expert idiosyncratic comedy who have risen to higher levels in Hollywood as Waititi has), love is just an abstract concept, it can’t knock down stuff. The critical response to Jojo Rabbit has suggested that this message is naive and insufficient to the political and social challenges of the moment, a feel-good panacaea that distracts from the more difficult work of countering far-right ideology and the fascist tendencies creeping into the conservative political parties of Western democracies (and some of the centrist and centre-left ones, too). This reaction short-sells Jojo Rabbit; it’s about “love” manifested as respecting and protecting the vulnerable of society in its emotional case-study fashion, the foundation underscoring the democratic socialist ideology that is the surest social and political counterattack to fascism’s absolutist power (spare me the snide 4chan riposte that “Nazi” just stands for “National Socialism”; you may be so dishonest or dumb to believe that point matters, but I’m not).

It’s easy enough to critique the movie’s prominent “anti-hate satire” tagline as aggressive marketing-department underlining of ideas that Jojo Rabbit fails to back up, but the description is not inaccurate. Satires comedically critique unjust social and/or political structures and worldviews while holding an opposing, sometimes unspoken structure and/or worldview as a desirable alternative. Waititi doesn’t have Johansson’s Rosie read out Bernie Sanders’ election platform or anything, but it’s clear enough that the desirable alternative to fascism’s destructive, paranoid white nationalism is a social structure in which communities care for each other with a political order that supports that core tenet (Waititi is a supporter and friend of New Zealand’s current centre-left Labour Party Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern). But if this is solid ground from which Jojo Rabbit launches its satirical attacks on the Nazis and their beliefs and practices, what aspects of fascism are being attacked here, and do those attacks succeed?

First and foremost, the anti-semitism of the Third Reich comes under direct fire of Waititi’s smothering ridicule. Like prior giant of Hollywood anti-Nazi satire Mel Brooks, Waititi is himself (half-)Jewish, although it’s not an aspect of his identity that has asserted itself much in his work up to this point; his indigeneity and Maori identity has loomed larger, reflective of his previous films’ themes of fatherhood (his father is a Maori artist) as opposed to Jojo Rabbit‘s themes of motherhood (his mother is of Jewish heritage). Brooks’ comedy frequently emphasized its creator’s Jewishness, to say the least, and of course one of his best-known and loved films, The Producers, satirized Nazis, or rather what he called the shoddy theatricality of their propagandistic image-making (watch Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on the subject, if you would; it’s indispensible to the discussion that follows). But he always stayed away from addressing the Holocaust directly, even criticizing Benigni’s Life is Beautiful for deciding not to do so, and did not venture into lampooning the saturatingly ugly anti-semitic propaganda that sought to justify and motivate Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Indeed, it could be debated whether or not Brooks’ old-fashioned Borscht Belt comedic use of Jewish stereotypes didn’t do more to perpetuate them to a wider modern audience than to neutralize their dangerous power.

Taika Waititi doesn’t dare to depict the Holocaust directly in this largely gentle-spirited movie, although Elsa does recount to Jojo a story of watching her parents being put on a train to what was almost certainly a death camp, a fate lying beneath the peril of her discovery that is the film’s central tension and relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the deeper horrors behind the war and the propaganda of the regime. But in much the same way that his generational comedy contemporary Sacha Baron Cohen controversially did in Borat, Waititi goes right at anti-semitic tropes by reproducing comically exagerrated versions of them at the Hitler Youth camp and in Jojo’s conversations with Elsa and with others and in his juvenile picture-book. The amplification renders these tropes hilarious and laughable, and by extension renders the political ideology founded on them likewise hilarious and laughable. I think it works and is pitched with the right tone to make it clear that anti-semitism is a joke and could not be believed by a rational and empathetic person (even if, or maybe because, the film’s child protagonist’s head is full of it). But there’s room for disagreement on that point, too, one has to acknowledge, albeit far less than in the comparatively more raucous deployment of such outlandish stereotypes in Borat.

What’s more unprecedented and therefore more unsettling, problematic, and worthy of debate in Jojo Rabbit‘s anti-Nazi satire is that unlike a lot of prior farcical takes on fascism, it places Nazis in their own social, political, and historical context and does not forcefully turn them into cartoonish villains. I think one of the reasons that it’s fair to label Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire as well as why it is being criticized as perhaps being a bit soft is that it doesn’t really have a personified villain, a representative character standing in for the inhumanity and unleashed horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, like Ralph Fiennes’ casually monstrous Amon Göth in Schindler’s List or the more charming and smooth Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds or even Belloq and Toht in the blockbuster potboiler Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Merchant’s Gestapo agent Deertz represents a clear threat for a single scene, but he’s ultimately characterized as a mid-level bureaucratic functionary doing his job, even if that job is morally terrible (not that the banality of evil isn’t terrible and chilling in its own way). Captain Klenzendorf might have served as a bad man backed up by the authority of a bad system, but he is far from a party-line fanatic (Allen and Wilson play such fanatics, but as pure comic caricatures) and even proves moral and protective of the vulnerable where he can. He protects both Elsa and Jojo from harmful reprisals when turning them over would have been less dangerous for himself, even acting as a surrogate father to Jojo in a proscribed way. This reflects not only the frequently non-ideological nature of the German military during the Nazi era (they fought for their country in most cases, not for the fantasy narratives of the fascist fanatics who ran it) but also his own personal awareness of the plight of the marginalized as a closeted gay man who could be sent to the death camps should his secret be revealed (although when Americans and Soviets assault Jojo’s town at the film’s climax and there is little left to lose, Klenzendorf embraces homosexual flamboyance in the form of a flashy red-feathered battle uniform of his own design). Even Waititi’s Imaginary Friend Hitler, with his absurd, side-splitting Kiwi/Germanic-accented English speech proclaiming things like how he plans to eat unicorn for dinner, is more silly than evil, only tipping into angry confrontation with Jojo’s vacillating and displays of empathy near the end. He’s a fantasy manifestation of Jojo’s dedication to Nazi ideas, with the concomitant childish frivolity and insecurity that implies.

Without an easy villainous character to focus the audience’s natural resentment for history’s greatest monsters onscreen, Jojo Rabbit is instead making a subtler, more amorphous satirical point about a society turned to mass-murderous madness and evil while also simultaneously continuing largely as normal. Waititi, Mălaimare, and Vincent craft a Germany (or maybe an Austria like in the novel, it isn’t clear and doesn’t specifically matter) quietly heaving under the crushing weight of Hitler’s war effort, with propaganda posters on walls, Jojo and his Hitler Youth compadres dressed up in cardboard costumes as toothpaste tubes and robots collecting donations of scrap metal for the Führer, and a gallows erected in the town square from which the bodies of resisters hang as a warning (‘What did they do?” Jojo asks his mother, who answers, “What they could.”). The understanding and even empathy that is the ideal launching point for Waititi’s satire extends to ordinary citizens under the yoke of the Reich, who were not foaming-at-the-mouth zealots for the master race but largely powerless people who either found the risk of standing up to Nazism too great or else they didn’t, and often paid for that choice with their lives (many did at least broadly agree with what Hitler and his command structure were doing, too, which Waititi would not deny and gestures at as well). This framing excuses absolutely nothing of what the Third Reich did, to their own people as much as to Europe’s Jews and Slavs and Roma and homosexuals and their battlefield enemies and civilians of their opponents. But it does seek to somewhat realistically depict what German society was like under Hitler’s regime.

This might not have been an approach that would have been anticipated from a Taika Waititi film satirizing Nazis, and might go some distance in serving to explain critical divisions and the commercial ambivalence of wider audiences towards Jojo Rabbit. It’s one of Waititi’s braver choices here, to tackle fascism on its own historical turf. Previous satires that have targetted Nazism have been couched in conceits that separate the text of their satires from the historical reality to a great extent. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the best-known and best-regarded comedic reply to Hitler and fascism in the time of its ascendancy, featured a parody of Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of anti-semitic Nazi Germany called Tomainia, and parodies of Benito Mussolini, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. Monty Python’s hilarious “North Minehead By-election” sketch transposed the Nazi leadership (John Cleese as “Mr. Hilter”, simmering in rage at his diminished lot and giving over-the-top speeches from the balcony of a boarding house; Michael Palin as a grinning, Beat-speaking “Bimmler” who has trouble keeping up their cover: “Was not head of Gestapo at all! I make joke!”; Graham Chapman as the absurd aristocratic “Ron Vibbentrop”, “in Somerset being born”) to sleepy suburban West Country England, where their attempts to begin a political coup in Britain by winning a Parliamentary seat on the “National Bocialist” ticket are met with indifference and befuddlement from locals who “don’t like the sound of these here ‘boncentration bamps'”. And of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers was about a stage musical about Nazis, Springtime for Hitler, which took the unpalatable offensiveness of Nazism as assumed and indeed integral to the film’s premise and plot and mocked the tacky overwrought cornball performativity of its propaganda more than the content of its political ideology or the genocidal consequences of that ideology. Jojo Rabbit fits in with these satires in some ways, but diverges notably from them in showing Nazism to be ridiculous (but also dangerous) in the historical locus of its own greatest power and influence.

Lindsay Ellis notes in her video essay on The Producers and other anti-Nazi satires that despite the impression that it is a light and superficial genre, comedy can actually effectively tackle serious subjects and unjust and oppressive political and social systems. Indeed, she arguesa that comedies often manage to critique injustice and hate better and more sustainably than dramas do, citing the example of the overtly anti-Nazi American History X as a film that aestheticizes fascist iconography even while denouncing it and as such has been co-opted by latter-day alt-right fascists as a text that romanticizes Nazism and its attendant images and lifestyle. Ellis observes that The Producers is not claimed by modern Nazis in that way, and it’s similarly unlikely that Jojo Rabbit will be either, a statement to the satirical power of both texts as undermining fascist ideas by laughing at them. German fascism is shown to have been thoroughly ludicrous by Taika Waititi’s film, a paper-thin childish fantasy of hate and exclusionary inclusion that took over an industrialized European nation, claimed millions of lives in the process, and continues to poison and disfigure our current political order and discourse. But it also furtively acknowledges the social and psychological appeal of fascism to the young and impressionable, a lesson worth heeding when formulating approaches to defusing our contemporary hard-right time-bomb. Does Jojo Rabbit entirely succeed in balancing satire with political thoughtfulness, not to mention with emotional integrity and sociological sympathy for the impossible choices of ordinary people in the grip of an oppressive authoritarian regime? Not entirely and not always, but at the end of the effort of thinking and writing about it, I find myself wanting to do little but praise Taika Waititi for the brave yet implausible effort to get this funny, nuanced, often powerful, but not wholly effective film over the line. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t work as it ought to, but perhaps it couldn’t realistically be expected to, given the surprising ambition of its project. It did what it could, and even if that’s not always enough, it’s certainly something.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018; Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Lovingly shot in sumptuous monochrome, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated international breakthrough Cold War is an often haunting portrait of a troubled and ultimately tragic romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of the first couple of decades of the Iron Curtain. A model of beautiful and affecting filmmaking in general, Cold War is a particular showcase for Polish actress Joanna Kulig, whose performance as confident singer Zula opposite her conflicted, internalized musical director/lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the film’s open, wounded soul.

Zula and Wiktor meet in the ruinated aftermath of World War II, when the new post-war Communist regime of Poland seeks to establish its cultural legitimacy and shore up the battered national character with a state-funded stage extravaganza adapting traditional Polish folk music. Wiktor and his collaborators, including eager-to-rise bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), audition wide-eyed locals at a tumbled-down rural aristocratic mansion for spots in the show’s cast, and Zula wins not only a role but Wiktor’s heart.

Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the show when Kaczmarek, at the urging of state ideologues whom he is anxious to please, incorporates pro-Stalin propaganda into the performances. In East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor and Zula pledge to cross to the West together, but only Wiktor goes through with it. On his own as a fashionable but deracinated émigré performer and film composer in Paris, Wiktor riskily travels to the Communist-controlled Balkans to see Zula in the touring show. She eventually gets married to obtain a visa and then joins him in Paris, but their romance fails to sustain itself outside of their native land.

Years later, their passionate odyssey ends near where it began, amidst the ghostly bombed-out ruins of a country church. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, interweves personal appeals and conflicts with the obstacles of social restrictions and geopolitical realities in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. The titular “cold” conflict in this film is not between political ideologies and hegemonic powers but between personal perspectives and emotional spheres of influence. There is complexity, ambiguity, and raw open wounds in how their love affair draws them together and tears them apart.

Kot is rogueish and uncommunicative, a neo-European New Wave leading man, but Kulig brazenly snatches the spotlight. Zula is bedevilled in her desires by not merely political restrictions and the vagaries of the patriarchy, but by the unpredictability of her own heart, the force of her passionate living. Kulig typifies her character’s frustrating, compelling allure in a memorable scene in a Paris club: pouting half-drunkenly against the bar after clashing with Wiktor over his past lovers and freely-embellished attempts to promote her solo singing career, Zula careens suddenly to delightful dancing abandon to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

Music in Cold War is also a compelling and unpredictable force. It expresses the deep longings and wants of the heart and soul, be it for poverty-stricken country peasants or ambitious, volatile singers. It is a tool of state-directed image-making, propagandistic acoustic nationalism that normalizes authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. It is a conduit for joy and hope and for loneliness and despair, bursting unbidden from deep and mysterious places. It is the scarlet thread that runs through the entwined fates of Wiktor and Zula, and through this measured and devastastingly lovely film exploring their minor-chord romance across a continent torn in two.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: A Knight’s Tale

August 11, 2019 Leave a comment

A Knight’s Tale (2001; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Brian Helgeland’s cheeky and diverting genre mashup A Knight’s Tale wastes nearly no time in showcasing its purposely anachronistic take on the martial athletic culture of the Middle Ages run through modern Hollywood sports film convention. The movie’s title sequence takes place in a 14th-century jousting stadium and features the tournament spectators – peasants, nobles, squires, attendants, guards, and heralds – stomping and clapping out the instantly-recognizable three-beat pattern of Queen’s sports-arena staple anthem “We Will Rock You”. One of them even sings along to Freddie Mercury’s lyrics, the line of diagesis gleefully erased. The instant, in-your-face embrace of anachronism was divisive among critics and audiences upon the film’s release in 2001, but its point is obvious, if a mite facile: medieval tournaments were the big-game mass sporting spectacles of Middle-Ages Europe, with jousting knights as the well-paid superstars and hordes of adoring fans cheering them on to victory. Stomp stomp, clap.

Riding into this field of athletic heroes is William (Heath Ledger in his “The New Matt Damon” phase, well before sadly becoming a martyred artistic genius), the fearless, ambitious, social-climbing squire of a knight who expires of dysentry in the middle of a jousting competition in France. William and his fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy, by now a medieval film vet) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) can’t afford to lose their knightly meal tickets, so William poses as his dead master and manages to win (or at least not to lose) the joust. This is a big no-no in tournament circles, as the competitions are only open to knights of proven noble birth and not humble thatchers’ sons like William. But while Roland and Wat are all for turning their winnings into a decent meal and passage back to England, William senses an opportunity to “change his stars”, as his father told him he must try to do when sending him off into squiredom years before.

Purchasing cheap jousting equipment and spending a month training (you better believe there’s a montage sequence, set to War’s “Low Rider”, no less), William seeks to enter the tournament at Rouen. On the road to Rouen (Helgeland’s script makes that joke and har har, good sir), the trio meet a naked, penniless writer named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany, thriving in his ideal role as the smartest guy in the room) who gives them bad news and good: only those who can prove four generations of noble lineage can enter the tournament at Rouen, but for some clothes and a bit of coin, he can provide William with a patent of nobility that will get him in. The offer is accepted, and Chaucer also acts as William’s herald at Rouen, giving him an extended, crowd-pleasing, greatly embellished introduction as Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein of Gelderland, like a prizefight announcer or pro wrestling hype-man.

During the Rouen tournament, William/Ulrich crosses paths with four important figures in his quest to be a tournament champion through the rest of the movie. There’s Kate (Laura Fraser), a widowed blacksmith who mends his dinged armour and makes him new, lightweight steel plates that give him a mobility advantage. He impresses tiltyard opponent Sir Thomas Colville (James Purefoy) with his audacity and his mercy, and gains a friend in a high place when Colville is revealed as Edward, the Black Prince. He contends with and is defeated by Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), an arrogant, conniving aristocratic soldier who will become his primary antagonist. And his heart is captured by Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon, in the brief, blinding glow of The Shannyn Sossamon Moment), a noble lady who chafes at the expectations of piety and decorum for women of her position, but also likes to wear nice clothes.

The creative anachronism in A Knight’s Tale doesn’t stop at the opening Queen number. A semi-improvised dance at a banquet transitions from medieval music and moves to David Bowie’s “Golden Years” and more modern steps, and the dialogue (some of it likely improvised by the actors, especially the comedic material) is peppered with touchstones out of time, like Wat insulting a Frenchman in a pub by calling him “Quasimodo”. But it would be nitpicking to hold such slips, purposeful or otherwise, against the movie. The classic rock needle-drops in particular firmly drive home whatever feeling or theme needs driving home (William and his party return to London to the power chords of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town”, for instance), and as Helgeland pointed out at the time, are no more clashing with the period than an orchestral score, given the Middle Ages’ lack of orchestras.

In fact, A Knight’s Tale displays solid medieval historical research in its fine details, if not always in its larger plot strokes. Bettany’s earthy, baudy Chaucer is shown encountering various inspirations for The Canterbury Tales, including a Pardoner and a Summoner that he would lampoon mercilessly in fiction; Chaucer’s entire presence in the story, roughly set in the 1370s (despite an anachronistic reference to the Battle of Poitiers of 1356), seeks to account in fiction for a six-month missing part of the records of his life movements. I can’t speak to the smaller points of accuracy as regards the jousts, but the details certainly look and sound specific enough to be probably correct, subsumed as they are in the exciting thunder of Richard Greatrex’s cinematography and Kevin Stitt’s editing of the jousting sequences. Sossamon’s hairstyles seem wildly out of place for the period, but again, that’s most likely (part of) the point; her seemingly bizarrely fickle demands to William to first lose a tournament to win her love and then to win the tournament for her instead, meanwhile, are drawn directly from 12th-century French romance poetry.

A Knight’s Tale‘s rendering of the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, might be more rightly criticized, despite being broadly correct, if you don’t squint at it too much. Tournaments in general and jousting in particular were certainly mainly activities of the European aristocracy and their vassal knights, but though I can’t say for certain that there were not strong legal prohibitions against non-high-born persons entering them, it seems doubtful. At least in the earlier Middle Ages, before the cult of chivalry turned them towards pageantry, the tournaments were primarily extensions of the constant training and preparation for warfare that Europe’s aristocratic soldier class were expected to engage in when they weren’t out fighting wars (which was most of the time). Helgeland’s film only really gestures towards this connection between war games and real war in order to shore up Adhemar’s villainy, darkly referencing his private army (all medieval armies were “private”, to apply a modern distinction that doesn’t really apply in the same way in that era) and its raping and pillaging in the Black Prince’s Poitiers campaign.

Indeed, Helgeland forwards a conception of medieval social mobility that feels both too narrow and too broad. Much is made of William’s impersonation of a noble knight to participate in tournaments; in fact, it’s the central conflict of the plot, his courting of Jocelyn and rivalry with Adhemar branching-offs of this tension. William, by virtue of his birth alone, has no access to knighthood at all, let alone nobility, although of course his character is knightly and noble in a way that a true-born lord like Adhemar cannot claim to be. Practically speaking, the social hierarchy of feudal society was extremely rigid compared to that of the modern capitalist-democratic era, but it was not necessarily officially so. In fact, becoming a squire to a knight like William would have been one of the best channels up the social ladder in medieval Europe; a squire could reasonably expect to be made a knight himself once he reached the age of majority. The move from thatcher’s son to squire would have been the more difficult step, but William’s father arranges this without too much trouble, as shown in flashback.

What A Knight’s Tale does get right, if read more cynically, is the way in which social mobility in the Middle Ages (and maybe today, as well, if one wanted to stretch the comparison) is not a mechanism of social disequilibrium or inversion but firmly under the controlling patronage of the ruling class. William’s humiliating problems after his peasant background is exposed are wiped away by the favour of the Black Prince, who releases him from the pillory, invents for him not only noble but royal lineage, and knights him, before joining William’s cheering section in the climactic joust against Adhemar. Although William’s father tells him that, like all aspirational Hollywood protagonists, he can change his stars if he only believes that he can, truly rising above your position in his historical time and place, this fairly light and fun movie shows us, is only possible if a grand personage is around to give you at least a little boost.

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #8

Apollo 11 (2019; Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)

50 years ago (plus one week), the eleventh numbered mission of NASA’s Apollo spaceflight program succeeded in landing the first human beings on the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and, shortly after, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to walk on the lunar surface. The moon landing was watched by millions of American as well as enraptured people all around the world, and remains one of the iconic events of the 20th Century and indeed of human history, albeit an oddly amorphous one, in terms of practical effects. What the Apollo 11 mission unquestionably remains for America is a remarkable achievement of engineering and science, a clearly victorious knock-out blow in the Cold War space race competition with the Soviet Union, and the defining positive collective experience of the turbulent 1960s, still clung to tightly by Baby Boomers as their generation’s ultimate trump card (“Sure, you millenials know how to download a movie to a cell phone, but we put a man on the moon!”).

And nobody ever realized that the whole thing was filmed on a soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, either!

In all seriousness, Apollo 11 was a pinnacle moment for the grandiose myth of American self-projection, massive financial and technological resources and manpower and brainpower marshalled for a cultural supernova of aspiration-as-inspiration-as-history. One wonders darkly if anyone will be in a position to remember anything at all after American hegemony is gone (it most certainly will not go out without a tremendous amount of kicking and screaming, hopefully little enough of it of the nucelar variety), but surviving human memory could do worse than to select the moon landing as the thing to remember the United States of America for.

Apollo 11 is made in all seriousness, a scrupulously sober and matter-of-fact stage-by-stage and, on occasion, moment-by-moment documentary narrative of the Apollo 11 mission constructed almost entirely from archival footage and audio. Only brief, interspersed simple diagrammatic animations detailing the spacecraft’s progress to the moon and back to Earth and the various maneuvres it must execute on its journey break into director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s re-creation of this historic mission from the constituent parts of its contemporary visual and aural documentation.

The resulting film, a surprise box-office success as a documentary on the arthouse circuit, can be a little staid and procedural, it’s true. Any fleeting humour is drawn more from the hopelessly square nature of the jokes exchanged by the astronauts and mission control in Houston than from their punchlines, and truly surprising details (like the moon-orbiting astronauts discussing how its surface looks brown to their eyes rather than the grey that the camera always picks up) are few and far between in this most well-covered of historical events.

But Apollo 11‘s tone of straight-faced, responsible historical witnessing is also a breath of fresh air in this fabulist age of carpet-bombing disingenuousness and bullshitting, of lies so big as to swallow the world. This age is also one of nostalgia, not so out of place for an empire in decay, and reminiscing on a time when America could accomplish wonders and not merely consolidate privilege at the cost of spreading nihilistic misery at home and abroad fills chests with a warm glow indeed. More than anything, Apollo 11 renders a technological project that still seems implausible and even impossible (hence the legacy of disbelieving conspiracy theories) incredible tangible and tactile (although the landing approach to the lunar surface here, though fully real, can only suffer in comparison to the white-knuckle tension of the you-are-there experience of Damien Chazelle’s First Man). Even at its half-century anniversary, the moon landing can hardly be real. But in Apollo 11, it is real, with the thoroughness of recorded truth and the organized structure of narrative.

Knock Down the House (2019; Directed by Rachel Lears)

Back in the current-day U.S., Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House tracks a more earthbound but no less ambitious and daring project to reimagine the developing history of the country. Lears’ Netflix-distributed documentary follows four female, broadly progressive, more-or-less working-class insurgent candidates for congressional nominations in the Democratic Party ahead of the 2018 elections. All four candidates were supported and shepherded in their primary challenges to established Democratic elected officials by grassroots left-wing activist groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who see them (as the film does) as part of a progressive populist wave of electoral response to the complacent establishment wing of the Democratic Party, whose gullible centrism, reliance on consultants and focus groups, and back-scratching interconnections with lobbyists and monied interests made it vulnerable to defeat by a crooked, capricious, racist, democracy-threatening grifter who swindled the opposing political party and now sits in the White House like over-sated swine atop a pile of mud and manure.

Whether or not you think or feel that business-as-usual Democrats failed their country in the fall of 2016 (and surely the poor resistance of the entire Republican Party and its increasingly death-cult-like voting bloc to Trump’s clumsy machinations must take most of the blame), Knock Down the House is a fascinating look inside the American electoral system, a front-line institution of democracy that, to a Canadian used to the seemingly efficient nationwide impartiality of Elections Canada, comes across as astonishingly biased and slanted. All four of these women, along with their supporters and allies, know that the odds are stacked firmly against them in facing off with their own party, which has its hands on the levers in favour of their well-connected incumbent opponents.

Were it not for a remarkably unlikely history-making upset pulled off by the youngest and most charismatic of these women in the nation’s largest city and media power centre, Knock Down the House would be an above-average personal-profile documentary with some behind-the-curtain ambitions of exposure of the mechanisms of power sprinkled in. Three of the profiled candidates lose their primaries, but each provides an instructive case study into America’s problems. Cori Bush is an African-American woman running to represent the congressional district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, a recent flashpoint of the country’s eternally contentious race relations. Paula Jean Swearengin campaigns unsuccessfully (but with a strong-enough showing) against Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state once reliably Democratic that broke hard for Trump’s rhetoric of white grievance (its population is 93% white) and empty promises of restoring the glory of coal mining, the low-income state’s largest industry but also one that Swearengin is at pains to point out devastates its environment and the health of its labourers. Amy Vilela, having been a corporate CFO before running for office in Nevada, is perhaps the least proletarian of Lears’ subjects, but she shares a compelling, wrenching personal trauma that drives her mission to be elected: her daughter died in her early 20s after going untreated due to a lack of health insurance, and Vilela harnessed her memory in fighting for health reform.

But the largest share of screen time and the clearest narrative arc in Knock Down the House belong to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the then-28-year-old waitress/bartender (and international relations/economics grad; and Ted Kennedy intern; and veteran of activist non-profits) of Puerto Rican descent who harnessed grassroots organizing, socialist rhetoric and imagery, savvy social media use, and natural assertiveness and likability to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and then the fifth-ranking Democrat in Congress, in New York’s 14th congressional district in the Bronx and Queens, which, after defeating token Republican opposition in the staunchly Democratic district, she now represents in Congress. Lears surely cannot have believed her luck in having as one of her documentary subjects a burgeoning media star who has by now become the second most-famous politician in America, after only the lamentably attention-sucking Trump.

Knock Down the House is thus Ocasio-Cortez’s movie, and the tireless energy of her campaign (conducted in between lengthy bartending shifts at a taco-slinging bar in Manhattan’s Union Square, no less) transfers to the film itself. Whatever one thinks of her left-wing politics (one scene shows her discussing including the progressive rallying cry “Abolish ICE”, the authoritarian immigration-enforcement paramilitary unit that has become Trump’s private minority-brutalizing S.S., on her pamphlets), Knock Down the House leaves little doubt that AOC is a star, wielding the appeals of her youthful aura to draw in interest and then employing a sharp and nuanced intellect to turn that interest to desired issues, to say nothing of using that same intellect to dismantle anyone so taken in by her surface as to take her lightly (usually this is older white men, of course).

Knock Down the House becomes, through the as-it-happens development of AOC’s campaign and political stardom, a more rounded depiction of the challenges and issues facing the Democratic Party than it might otherwise have been. On the one hand, the well-considered, smartly organized grassroots efforts of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress to recruit diverse congressional candidates unbeholden to corporate pressure interests is encouraging, demonstrating a concerted activist mission to remake America’s only remotely reasonable, reality-based, non-authoritarian political party into a force of equality, equitability, and progressive ideals. That’s only half the battle, of course; what the nation is to do with the fact that its other power-alternating party has become a glorified fascist gang of bible-thumping white supremacists who do the bidding of a cabal of reactionary billionaires is by far the more difficult and even intractable question.

But while Knock Down the House displays the pains and stretch-marks of building a new and better Democratic Party, it ought also to serve as a warning for the party and its faithful to be wary of the tendency towards cult-of-personality saviour-seeking that has often set back progressive politics in America. One of the best things about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a politician is that her charismatic appeal is merely the bait that leads voters to the hook of her progressive politics. The high personal popularity of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, underscored by their thumping electoral victories, can now be seen as contributing factors to the damaging complacency of the Democratic Party that has seen them lose ground to the GOP, who are increasingly unbound by the rule of law in the pursuit of political power. Obama especially, not entirely through fault of his own, came to represent to the American left a figure of redemption in and of himself; who cares that he didn’t achieve the progressive domestic policy agenda he talked up in his campaigns, nor the people-empowering promise of Yes, We Can, he was good and therefore his presidency was good.

In the wake of Trump, whose dominant toxic personality rules over the snakepit of the GOP like a barbarian warlord who both embodies the pathologies of the party’s cultural adherents and presses its degeneration ever forward and downward in lockstep with his own, there is a clear constituency of Democrats with no interest in policy positions or getting the deforming power of money out of politics. No, they gaze longingly at the party’s deep bench of presidential candidates, looking for the next Great Leader to transcend policy wonkery and the dreaded S-word thrown around in reference to them by both fearmongering right-wing Fox News critics and conversation-changing millenials with roses in their Twitter avatars. The next Obama, Clinton, or JFK could be here among them, waiting to Camelot-ify America again and magically erase the dried-on layer of Trumpian slime! It could be Beto O’Rourke (though it almost certainly is not)! Pete Buttigieg (he can read Norwegian and he’s gay)! Even Barack’s best buddy from those internet memes, Joe Biden (no matter that he’s to the right of half of the Republican side of the Senate)!

Perhaps AOC is too belligerently progressive to enter this conversation. Certainly she’s too young, constitutionally barred from being President for a half-decade yet, which could be a blessing in disguise, allowing her to build her profile and legislative record in the House for some time yet. But the Great Person theory of American politics has hurt progressive efforts for too long, and if Ocasio-Cortez can help to move the party from it as well as towards her preferred progressive agenda, she’ll have done her party, her country, and maybe the world a pretty substantial favour.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Favourite

The Favourite (2018; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Hollywood awards-season breakthrough from idiosyncratic Greek arthouse auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is a mordant dark comedy of society, manners, love, and politics. The Favourite features a central triangle of defining, superb performances from three very different actresses (and a fourth fine turn from a rising male actor) and displays technical virtuosity that doesn’t merely impress but deepens and defamiliarizes genre material that might have slipped to the predictable. Lanthimos and his team painstakingly re-create the royal court of early 18th-century Britain, but The Favourite possesses and transforms the period costume drama like a parasitic wasp, devouring it from the inside out and turning it into a work with a skewed and troublingly absurd view of privilege, power, and human nature.

In 1708, Great Britain’s final Stuart monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) is constantly unwell and adrift in her own court. Her country battles longtime enemy France in the War of Spanish Succession, and her friend, confidant, court favourite, sometimes lesbian lover, and defacto regent Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) argues for its continuation, with property taxes across the realm to be raised to fund the effort. Sarah’s motivation to keep the war going is threefold, though largely implied: it increases the prestige of her husband the 1st Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who commands British forces, allows the Churchills to skim money from the war purse to fund their extravagant lifestyle and building projects (including Blenheim Palace, the opulent near-royal-level palatial home in Oxfordshire begun in Sarah’s lifetime, later the birthplace of their descendant and historical biographer Winston Churchill), and sends her husband away from court so that she may tryst with and influence the Queen unimpeded by his presence.

She is opposed by parliamentarian (and later Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, in that fourth and often overlooked excellent performance), who wants to end the war and avoid tax rises. At this time, Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at court and takes work as a scullery maid, but her intelligence and cunning sees her rise to a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, which sees her enter into direct conflict with Sarah over closeness to and influence over the moody and ill queen. Their increasingly hostile rivalry over the queen’s affections is used by Harley to leverage his power in the government over the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who sides with the Duchess while opposition leader Harley is fed information by Abigail, who also hooks a future husband in military officer Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn).

Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos, who usually writes his own films with inimitable deadpan absurdism, emblazons his peculiar brand on The Favourite visually, tonally, and thematically. The production values re-creating the upper-crust world of the early 1700s are exquisite, although Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan rarely linger on sumptuous details of the set or costume design. Lighting is pale and natural, coming in the day from sunlight through windows and at night from flickering candlelight, like Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon. The camera moves with disarming fluidity in the historic spaces that provide the film’s setting (Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace, primarily) that is the result of neither Steadicam nor track dolly work. These tracking shots, panoramic pivots, and Lanthimos’ use of wide and fisheye lenses turn these elegant spaces into inhospitable and claustrophobic gilded cells, with metaphorical bars of ambition, jealousy, loneliness, and regret.

Lanthimos also pushed his actors to detach from the meaning of their lines, putting them through absurd, experimental-theatre rehearsals of bizarre physical contortion exercises to render their performing reactions ever more instinctual. The result is more strange, primal defamiliarization, encouraging random deadpan absurdities to burst through the rich psychological and interpersonal atmosphere being crafted. Weisz, who worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, stays focused laser-like on the Duchess’ manipulative steeliness, while Stone and Colman, comic actresses at their core, employ the atonal liberty to explore unpredictable respective corners of Abigail’s faux-naive ingratiating instincts and Queen Anne’s fickle and emotionally needy grasping nature. Hoult leans into both Harley’s clever, ruthless string-pulling and his sartorial clowniness; he can give the appearance of being connivingly ahead of the game and humiliatingly baffled at the same time. The numerous pages and footmen are slow-witted, awkward, and terrified of the changeable queen. Most bizarrely, Alwyn and Weisz share a dance at a ball which departs wholly from historical accuracy and becomes a weird and hilarious semi-modern, semi-improvised vogue that drives a jealous and self-conscious Queen Anne to call an end to the whole affair.

Lanthimos also continues his career fixation on animals. One scene features ducks racing in slow motion in a drawing room to the delight of ludicrous aristocrats (Godolphin owns the duck racing champion and ridiculously walks it on a leash). The shifting power dynamic between Sarah and Abigail is imparted through a series conversations during live-bird shooting sessions, with the increasingly assured and Machiavellian Abigail moving from a place of sympathy for the creatures to efficiently blasting them from the sky, once so vindictively close to Sarah as to splashback bird blood on her face. Most charged with symbolism are Queen Anne’s 17 pet rabbits, one for each child she had borne and lost. Sarah considers them morbid and tells the queen so, but Abigail feigns affection for them to get into Anne’s good graces before becoming so confident in those graces as to casually threaten injury or death to one of them.

The rabbits also feature in Lanthimos’ arty closing superimposition shot, contrasting Colman’s Queen Anne grimly determined to assert her power over a prostrate Abigail while hopping bunnies fill the background. Lanthimos cultivates ambiguity in this moment, but it’s fairly unambiguous, honestly. The rabbits are Anne’s isolation and tragic regret, her diminishing health and mental acuity made manifest, hopping unrestrained through her prison-like palace rooms. Abigail lets them loose as she lets the Queen loose, leading her to assert greater control over official affairs such as the war and taxes than under the stewardship of Sarah Churchill. But the animals, like the queen, go out of Abigail’s control, and the final shot is a re-assertion of royal authority over the wheedling influence of court favourites. Power is still power, The Favourite reinforces, even if it lies in the unreliable hands of the capricious, the self-interested, and the barely-competent. As if, today, we needed this point to be made clear to us.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Us

March 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Us (2019; Directed by Jordan Peele)

Before almost anything else happens in Us, Jordan Peele’s anticipated follow-up to his widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning, high-grossing, conversation-starting debut smash “social horror” film Get Out, we in the captive audience are having Bible verses thrown at us. When little girl Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wanders away from her half-soused, whack-a-mole-playing father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park in 1986, she passes a ragged transient holding a handmade cardboard sign with “Jeremiah 11:11” scrawled on it. Adelaide will wander into a house of mirrors and have an encounter that changes her life and the fate of the world, but as in so many other moments in Us, Peele is gesturing at deeper meanings via the conduit of the intertext.

Jeremiah, Chapter 11, Verse 11 in the King James Version of the Bible reads:

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Esquire‘s Matt Miller rounds up the lion’s share of the implications of this verse in terms of the premise and conclusions of Us, so I shan’t repeat the work (though be warned that he and I both delve into spoilers; of the movie, that is, not the Bible). But Jeremiah 11:11 is central to Peele’s dominant racial, social, and political metaphor in Us, and it simultaneously acts as a reflective hint (the duality of 11:11 is repeated in television sports scores and alarm clock digital readouts) at the doppelgänger premise of a story that operates much more as a straight (although intelligent and self-aware) horror-thriller than Get Out did.

In the present day, adult mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is spending summer vacation near Santa Cruz with her family: her husband Gabe Wilson (a very funny Winston Duke, Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star), her smartphone-absorbed teen track star Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her son Jason (Evan Alex), who is a bit awkward and is never without the double horror-movie-history nod of a Jaws shirt and a wolfman mask. Adelaide becomes alarmed and nervous when Gabe tells her that they are to meet their friends – strained but well-off married couple Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), who, given the themes of duality at play, are of course twins – at the Santa Cruz beach, setting of her childhood trauma. Adelaide panics when she loses track of her son there, while Jason has a premonitory glimpse of horrors to come. But things get truly frightening that night, when the Wilsons’ summer home is visited by a family very like them. Almost exactly like them, in fact.

Without quite giving away the whole of Us‘s game (though much of it, so watch for falling spoilers), the Wilsons come face-to-face with their red-jumpsuited, single-gloved, golden-scissors-wielding doubles, who hail from a disturbing subterranean mirror-world located in underground tunnel networks stretching across the country (at least a little like those in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad), whose rooms and halls also noticeably and provocatively resemble a public school. Known as the Tethered, they are mute, lobotomized slaves (not at all an off-base comparison) to the whims of their doubles on the surface, doomed to robotically replicate their movements like so many dumb puppets, or like human shadows (an association hinted at visually by a fine overhead shot from Peele’s cinematographer Mike Gioulakis of the family walking along the beach, their long shadows stretched on the sand). Adelaide’s shadow Red has had enough of the Tethered’s subjugation, and, believing herself marked by God for a special purpose after meeting Adelaide years before, has launched a joint bloody revolution and symbolic demonstration to put an end to it.

Peele’s premise for Us is a hybrid of a 1960 The Twilight Zone episode about a woman and her evil doppelgänger and the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ proto-science-fiction allegory for Victorian England’s socioeconomic disparity. White rabbits abound in the underground as well, referencing the animal guide into Lewis Carroll’s fantasyland of unreality Alice in Wonderland. The Tethered and their role in relation to their surface doubles is Peele’s charged metaphor for the history of African-Americans as an exploited underclass, whose hidden toil makes the comfort and privilege of middle- and upper-class white Americans possible. The film’s title, after all, might be read as US (United States), and when Adelaide asked Red who she and her family are, the eerie but revealing answer in Nyong’o strangled vocalization is, “We are Americans” (Nyong’o, both as Adelaide and especially as the graceful but twisted Red, is incredible; post-modern horror queen Toni Collette had better watch her back).

It could be argued that the Tethered represent poor minorities in general, but the symbolism of African-American enslavement is paramount: Adelaide spends much of the movie handcuffed, ie. in chains, and Red’s “fucked-up performance art” revolutionary stunt is an eerie re-creation by her shadow-people of the Hands Across America charity event of 1986, in which human beings literally embody the chain. One might likewise quibble that the precise nature of the Tethered underclass is of hazily-defined provenance and utility, but one shouldn’t discount the possibility that this entirely is Peele’s point: the maintenance of a permanent racial underclass by the ruling elites in America is often understood as having a macroeconomic impetus, but maybe it really is just a symbolically and surreally cruel charade with no overarching teleological function worth quantifying. Often, the cruelty is the point.

As in Get Out, these grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. The black Wilsons are clearly comfortable socioeconomically (they can afford a summer home, after all), but Gabe in particular is stung that the white Tylers, despite being stupid and vain people, are a cut above them wealth-wise. Director Peele, his production designer Ruth de Jong, and his costume designer Kym Barrett show us this in ways both blatant and subtle. The Tylers’ summer home is noticeably more luxurious and modernly-decorated than the Wilsons’ homey, dated one, and similar gaps are evident (and are noted by Gabe) in the quality of their respective cars and boats. At the beach, Josh wears a black t-shirt with the Fragile label and broken wine-glass symbol on it, perhaps hinting at the fragility of white identity (maybe a bit of a stretch) as well as the careless alcoholism that he and his wife, who despise each other, rely upon to make interaction tolerable; as the Tethered terrorize the Wilsons through the night, Gabe is wearing a Howard University sweatshirt, marking him as an educated member of the African-American bourgeoisie.

Social politics abound in Us. When the Wilsons call the police when confronted by the Tethered, the 5-0’s promised response time is unfortunately slow, and in the end they don’t show up at all; one might nitpickingly accuse Peele of simply forgetting that the cops were supposed to be on the way, but again it’s just as likely that a point is being made about the police’s fraught relationship to African-Americans and crime, as it was in that gut-turning appearance of flashing lights at the climax of Get Out. In a later dark comic inversion, when Kitty tries to call the police during the attack of her family’s Tethered doppelgängers (Moss has one astounding horror reaction as Kitty’s shadow-person in this sequence, an agonized cry melting into maniacal laughter, that should also make Toni Collette nervous), her Alexa/Google Home digital assistant pod (called Ophelia after the tragic suicide case in Hamlet, because Jordan Peele has read books and thinks you ought to know it) misunderstands, and the last thing she hears is NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police”. There’s even a moment that constitutes an added chapter in Peele’s career-spanning dissertation on code switching: when Gabe’s polite, respectability-coded request to the creepy lurking Tethered to leave his family alone fails to elicit a response, he tries again, this time wielding a baseball bat and talking a tougher, more aggressive street-talk-coded game.

As you might have gathered from these scattered observations, Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. Get Out likewise indulged a variety of ideas about race and social norms, but it snapped neatly and potently into place when the central body-snatching premise was made manifest in all of its terrible dimension. Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended.

But on the subject of unruly texts that defy firm interpretation, let’s return to that biblical quotation. Jeremiah 11:11 evokes a judgemental Old Testament deity unleashing punishment and misery on those he deems unworthy of his supposedly boundless mercy and love, chillingly unmoved by the pitiful appeals of his fragile creations for clemency. Jordan Peele’s Us conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. It’s the painful flip side of the coin of the liberation theology of the African-American church that has held such a central role in the history of the African-American community’s organization and agitation for its civil rights, but which in its long-arc-of-justice incremental approach might well be seen by a more militant and less god-fearing activist generation as being insufficient to the challenges facing Black America. Us uses Jeremiah 11:11 as a pointed riposte to liberation theology: if an all-powerful God intends to set African-Americans free one day if only their collective faith is strong enough, why has he put them in chains in the first place, and been blithely deaf to centuries of his purported children’s cries for aid? If he intends to do good – indeed is the shining, remote, omnipotent epitome of good – why does he bring inescapable evil upon us?

The Tethered’s bloody uprising is the apocalyptic answer to this blithe unconcern for the plight of the vulnerable, on the part of God or White America or the government or elites in general or the common polity in general. Of course, even this imagined horror-movie revolution is hardly simple, straightforward, or uncompromised, and Peele prods insistently at his audience’s empathy for the shadow-people and their uncanny plight just as he deploys them as his stalking monsters. So much of the meaning of Us is tied up in the symbols and intertextual associations that Peele deploys liberally (there is an essay to be written on the visual nods to Michael Jackson, in child Adelaide’s Thriller t-shirt and the Tethered’s single-glove aesthetic), but quite probably its ultimate point is dropped into view with the film’s final twist, which for all of the spoilers I’ve delved into so far, I wouldn’t dream of revealing (I will only say to watch the clues around Adelaide, especially the foreshadowing of how Peele and Gioulakis shoot her in the scene in which she tells Gabe about her traumatic experience on the Santa Cruz beach as a child). Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.