Archive

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Film Review: Chappaquiddick

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Chappaquiddick (2018; Directed by John Curran)

What was it that the Kennedys meant to America? Did they leave a real, tangible mark on American politics, society, and culture, or was the brief, flaming-out ascendance of their heavily-compromised brand of masculine-coded New England brahmin liberalism in the 1960s of simple (or not so entirely simple) symbolic value? The romanticized patina of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, ended with assassin’s bullets in Dallas in 1963, was referred to with puffy chivalric non-irony as Camelot, and it’s arguable that the achievements of JFK’s administration were quite comprehensively eclipsed by camera-friendly appearances and the hindsight mythos of his martrydom (they were also outdone by the much more important legislative advancements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s succeeding administration, although both Democratic presidencies were fatally compromised by the expansion of the Vietnam War). Essentially, reality swamped by fantasy, in a manner that reflects, in a rudimentary funhouse mirror way, the complete devastation of reality at the hands of fantasy of the present presidential moment.

John Curran’s Chappaquiddick captures the moment at which the hard pitiless difficulty of reality – random, amoral, and unconcerned with justice or legacies or human intent or emotional fulfillment – most finally and most irrevocably caught up with the Kennedys, when the boundlessly consuming ambitions of the clan at last ran out of spare male scions upon which to lay the mantle of hopeful power. Over a weekend in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew set first foot on the moon in a vindication of JFK’s inaugural speech pledge to put an American on the lunar surface as an aspirational image of national courage, spirit and ingenuity, his younger brother Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off a dike bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, leading to the death by drowning of his also-slain brother Robert F. Kennedy’s former staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Ted Kennedy’s confused and shambolic response – he did not report the incident until 10 hours later, seems to have tried to suppress some details and positively spin others at several points, and later clownishly showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace that he clearly did not need – deepened a PR crisis that erupted in the U.S. media once the glow of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind faded from the headlines. Although Ted later ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1980 (losing to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who then lost the White House to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan), the Chappaquiddick incident was widely understood to have cost Ted Kennedy any hope of ever ascending to the highest political office in the United States.

The careful, procedurally-minded, step-after-step approach of Chappaquiddick shows effectively how poor the judgement of Ted Kennedy and his immediate circle was in the aftermath of the incident (which, of course, showed literally fatally poor judgement in the first place). Kennedy cousin and close advisor Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) acts as the exasperated voice of moral reason, while the imperious family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern) – physically reduced by a stroke and months from the grave but still as unbowed and unscrupulous as ever – raspily urges his last surviving son to craft an alibi and summons a cadre of canny suits (including Clancy Brown as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara) to cover up and spin the situation as much as still may be possible.

Chappaquiddick notes that Edward Kennedy went on to four distinguished decades in the U.S. Senate (where he likely leveraged more influence on the direction of the country than he would have in four or eight years in the White House), and it treats his martyred elder brothers (not only John and Robert but eldest brother Joseph, Jr., killed in action in World War II) and their political and personal legacy as a model to which he could never hope to live up to. Indeed, while the script (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is careful not to even hint at any sexual impropriety between Ted Kennedy and Kopechne (which was always forefront in the rumours and innuendo about the incident), it characterizes the Senator as being hopelessly weighed down under the pressure of the expectations of his greatness.

The crash on Chappaquiddick Island, this film suggests, was the final instance of Edward Kennedy crumbling under those expectations of his family, his country, and above all of his iron-willed father. In the scenes leading up to the crash and flashing back to before it happened to reveal additional details, director Curran and lead actor Clarke portray Ted Kennedy as being not so much drunk on alcohol (though maybe he was also that) but mentally and physically disoriented and exhausted by self-doubt and despair at the thought (perhaps the certainty) of failing to live up to those expectations. Kopechne is intelligent and sympathetic (we have patriarchy to thank for having needy man-children like Kennedy and not capable women like her as natural assumed leader material), and attempts to comfort, or steady, or understand this weak man who is supposed to be a great one. That effort sucks her into his vortex, and costs her life.

“I’m not gonna be President,” Clarke’s Ted Kennedy utters to Gargan as he returns from the crash site to seek his friend’s aid. Clarke is careful to imbue the necessary weight and sadness in his character’s voice as he says this, but surely there must have been a sore temptation for him to express a note of relief as well. One core premise of Chappaquiddick, made explicit in Clarke’s final scene with Dern’s wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, is that Edward Kennedy never wanted to be President, whether or not Mary Jo Kopechne’s death made that impossible. The mythic Kennedy curse is invoked, but maybe the curse of Edward Kennedy and his elder brothers was one of inheritance, not merely of their difficult father’s character (or, more psychologically compelling, as a result of that difficult character) but of a patriarchal masculine hero complex (perhaps more firmly inculcated into the younger three after the eldest’s war hero demise) that refused to release them from its domineering grasp for even scant moments of respite.

This male hero complex, a cultural inheritance of the sort of chivalric knighthood romance that was being invoked with the Camelot moniker, is still often lionized by traditionalists and conservatives as a catalogue of lost virtue. But we know from the #MeToo moment of our culture, and can see from Chappaquiddick‘s case study example, that these conceptual frameworks of male power and superiority not only preclude emotional self-examination and psychological honesty in a manner damaging to men and to those around them, they also compel immoral (or at least self-interestedly amoral) conduct in those powerful men when the fanciful assumption intended to justify those codes is that they should compel moral conduct instead.

One ought not to suggest that John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated because they adhered to this code, but their younger brother’s troubles as re-created in Chappaquiddick can be traced straight back to it, and are. Hardened by self-righteous anger, Helms’ Joe Gargan confronts Ted Kennedy at one point during his messy, disheartening response to the crash that, after all, killed another person, telling him that he is not a victim. But Ted Kennedy, like most men reared in his time, is a victim, though not in the way that Gargan is thinking of.

Chappaquiddick feeds into the narcissism of focusing on male suffering when it is in truth eclipsed by the suffering of others with the misfortune not to be important men, but it also subtly tracks, so deep in the subtextual background that it could easily be missed, that this narcissism (a trait not alien to the Kennedys, whatever other positive things might be said about them) can also be debilitating, a peculiar species of slow-poison curse. There is a tension of surface and depths, fantasy and reality, political spin and bare human tragedy, in Chappaquiddick. As in the case of the real-life incident as well as in the case of the Kennedy political legacy, that is a tension that is never, and inherently can never be, satisfactorily resolved.

Advertisements
Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Outlaw King

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment

Outlaw King (2018; Directed by David Mackenzie)

It’s fascinating to watch Scottish director David Mackenzie’s earthily epic narrative telling of the initial stages of early-14th-century Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce’s largely successful wars of resistance and independence against the English crown in comparative contrast with its much more famous historical counterpart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning biographical epic of contemporaneous Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace, Braveheart. Outlaw King operates partly as a parallel story to Braveheart: Wallace is mentioned a few times in the first act, and his execution by the English is constructed (somewhat inaccurately) as an impetus for the Bruce’s own rising, so that if one was so inclined it would not be difficult to imagine that previous narrative of medieval Scottish-English warfare taking place somewhere just out of frame.

This makes Outlaw King a sequel of sorts to Braveheart, a sequel-in-spirit more than an intentional continuation. But to a greater extent, it functions as a corrective text, setting straight the story that Mel Gibson turned into such a self-serving Hollywoodized myth in 1995. Robert the Bruce was made an equivocating fence-sitter in Braveheart, whose doubting-Peter unwillingness to commit to Wallace’s rebellion cost Gibson’s mud-splattered paladin of freedom his life in a Christ-like sacrifice (Gibson has always loved those, which is why he literally filmed one a few years later). History tells us, of course, that despite swearing fealty to the English Crown and pledging not to take arms against it, Robert did eventually commit and accomplished what Wallace could not: Scottish independence from England, maintained by his descendants for centuries. He was the one actually called “Braveheart”, not Wallace; after his death, his heart was transported at his request to Southern Spain on Crusade by his right-hand man Sir James Douglas and, according to romantic poetry sources at least, tossed symbolically into the midst of battle against the Moors. But he did what he did as a more complex, compromised, and flawed figure than Wallace, or at least than Gibson’s absurdly lionized version of Wallace.

This complicated antihero profile (emphasized by the title card of Mackenzie’s film, which inserts a slash between “outlaw” and “king” to gesture at Robert’s dualized nature) marks Outlaw King‘s Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, as a cultural figure of the moment, with all the good and bad associations that entails. In retrospect, Braveheart was the last gasp of a more traditional and soon-to-expire version of Hollywood historical fiction that almost entirely jettisoned the history for the fiction (the film’s depiction of belted plaid kilts in medieval Scotland remains the gold standard for period anachronism onscreen, for my money). Outlaw King is the reflection of the same sort of cultural view of the Middle Ages that Braveheart trafficked in, one characterized by violence, dirt-bound poverty, ritualized superstition, and brutality par excellence, what Umberto Eco classified as “Barbaric Age” medievalism and what Shiloh Carroll has called (largely in reference to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its hit companion TV series Game of Thrones) “grimdark” medievalism. This more grim and realistic depiction of the medieval era (where “realism” generally means plenty of mud) is offered as an overcompensatory corrective to the colourful, scrubbed-up, ren-faire version of the chivalric Middle Ages derived from medieval romance poetry, which influenced films set in Medieval Europe for a long time; look at the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, for example, which does not at all seem to be in the same contiguous reality as a much later medieval film like Outlaw King.

Although possessed of a greater level of historical fidelity than Braveheart, Outlaw King still understands the Middle Ages, or at least the warfare in their midst over political power and dynastic succession carried out by feudal society’s war-drilled aristocrats, as a consistently dirty and bloody affair, with none of the trade and agriculture and prosperous plenty and feast-day revelry that characterized much of pre-Black Death High Medieval Europe. To be frank, though, if the barbaric terms of grimdark medievalism did actually apply anywhere on the continent in that era, it was surely in Scotland, with its almost constant warfare both intercenine and inter-state, the latter mostly with the England of King Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots for his forceful victories over and pitiless treatment of his country’s northern neighbours.

Outlaw King‘s avatar of that brutal reality is not Edward I (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones plays him here as a rusting iron fist) or even his more weak-willed and thus more desperately cruel son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), later Edward II. No, the grimdark ambassador is clearly Robert the Bruce’s lieutenant Sir James Douglas, played by a quite nearly feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a canny killer of enemies, a prolific fornicator, and a vicious berserker on the battlefield. Outlaw King‘s battles and skirmishes and slayings are prodigiously gory, full of mutilated bodies and bursts of red mist, and Taylor-Johnson’s the Black Douglas is ever at its blood-pumping heart. Outlaw King includes a rendition of the infamous Douglas Larder episode of the Wars of Scottish Independence, in which Douglas and his men-at-arms infiltrated his home seat of Douglas Castle and ruthless assaulted the English garrison that holds it, ambushing and slaying men as they prayed in the chapel (as an applicable side note, James Douglas’ great-great grandsons, the elder of them the 6th Earl of Douglas, were the fatal targets of the infamous “Black Dinner”, the model for George R.R. Martin’s centerpiece of grimdark medieval violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Red Wedding).

But Outlaw King is, after all, about the outlaw king, Robert the Bruce. Played by Pine (surely now established as the most able and gravitas-ready of the Chrises) as a plain, pragmatic, and conflicted moral man who leads more by example than by inspiration. He dutifully lugs his taxes to the English king’s agents but is persuaded to embrace rebellion by a popular riot at the display of the executed William Wallace’s severed arm. He is gentle and loving with his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) and gives space to his intelligent and strong-willed arranged bride, Irish aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), until she is ready to love him and come to his bed. He is kind and familiar with servants. He is thoughtful and sensitive but determined in adversity, and not boastful in victory. On the cusp of the turning-point Battle of Loundon Hill which forms the film’s climax, he digs strategic ditches alongside his men, and instead of full-lunged exhortations about freedom, his pre-battle pep talk to his troops eschews all the standard appeals to personal and ideological motivating factors in favour of bloody-minded directness: you’re here, now fight and fight hard.

Though still an idealized and glorified figure in many ways, the earthbound directness of Pine’s Robert the Bruce defines the film around him. This is a tremendously pragmatically-minded film, primarily concerned with the grim acceptance of unwavering necessity of action compelled by events, history as action and reaction. When Robert commits his most antihero of acts, the sudden, shocking stabbing of his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) at the altar of a church where they were meeting under supposed truce, this cold-blooded murder is couched as being a snap decision of necessity driven by Comyn’s explicit statement of his intent to reveal Robert’s incipient disloyalty to the English authorities. Although the Bruce claims the mandate of the Scottish people upon his coronation, his rebellion against the English is not defined by fidelity to high ideals but by basic hardscrabble survival. Director David Mackenzie gained wider critical notice with 2016’s Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), a film about men driven to outlaw extremes by moral objections to wider injustice. Outlaw King doesn’t universalize Robert the Bruce’s struggle for an independent Scottish throne and, despite personal grievances between him and the English leaders, doesn’t turn it into a vendetta either. The real Robert the Bruce was ambitious and power-hungry, and Pine’s version isn’t not like that, though not too openly.

Whatever medieval historians might think of the species of social and military realism represented by movies like Outlaw King, there’s something convincing in its understanding of this particular conflict later enshrined as a national struggle as a nasty species of rural gang scuffle, a glorified street battle with swords and mail and lances and horses. It’s hardly a great film despite its handsome production and firm performances, but Outlaw King is a step away from the chest-beating of Braveheart and just maybe, in spite of its dominant grimness, towards a more honest and nuanced representation of the Middle Ages on the big screen.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

December 19, 2018 Leave a comment

BlacKkKlansman (2018; Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee surely must be master of the problematic nearly-great film. One of the most talented American cinematic craftsmen and capable ideological disseminators of his generation, Lee has nonetheless made frustratingly few above-average films over the past quarter-century. It’s always difficult to diagnose from a remove, but the Spike Lee joints that climb close to greatness since his early-’90s peak – Bamboozled, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, his definitive Hurricane Katrina HBO documentary series When the Levees Broke – accomplish much only to be frustratingly hamstrung by something: generic convention, low-rent production, thwarted ambition, a questionable choice or five. But sometimes that something is very obviously Lee himself, polemically preening and chest-beating and double-underlining his intentions and pushing his luck too far, finally.

BlacKkKlansman nearly makes it to the rarified heights of Lee’s best work (by which we mean Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, though I’m working by reputation alone since I am mortified to admit that I haven’t yet seen either of them to remedy that particular gap in my film history knowledge), only to badly miss its landing. It can be argued, as Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley did on Twitter upon the film’s release in August, that it’s only by a series of dishonest fabrications and general political wishy-washiness that BlacKkKlansman even approaches those heights. We can consider those complaints in due time as well, and indeed the film’s problems vis-à-vis its supposed “true story”, though strictly speaking lying outside the textual purview itself, are inextricable from the elements of the film text that kneecap its stronger aspects.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington). A fresh addition to the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, Stallworth chafes at his rookie assignment to the records room and the casual anti-black bigotry of white officers. He presses Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to use him on undercover work, which the chief eventually does, but only to run intelligence against local black activist groups and surveil a speech in town by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, now going by the Africanized name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Though he is there to sniff out potential black radicalism and threats of insurrectionist violence (the real Stallworth infiltrated and destabilized radical groups along the lines of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, as Riley notes but Lee does not), Stallworth has a sort of stealth awakening listening to Ture’s words about historical and current oppression of African-Americans. He also meets and becomes involved with a local college’s black student body president and activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a “pig” and would be quick to dump his cop ass if she did.

Perhaps impelled by Ture’s ideas but also seemingly on a random whim (more than a few plot points here feel this way, to be frank), Stallworth dials up the phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter advertised in the newspaper and pretends to be a virulently racist white man (unfortunately while using his real name) who is interested in joining what initiates call “the Organization”. He strikes up a rapport with contacts by repeating bigoted Klan-friendly talking points and even applies for membership, but cannot infiltrate the group in person, for obvious reasons. Fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends Klan meet-ups and ceremonies in his place, though Flip’s being Jewish introduces another wrinkle of tension to his encounters with the anti-semitic Klansmen. Together, Ron and Flip get an inside view of “the Organization”, and uncover members in sensitive military and national-security positions as well as a deadly plot against Patrice and her fellow black activists, even as Ron becomes telephone pals with the KKK’s Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs for his prized new recruit’s initiation.

Broadly speaking, this is some of Spike Lee’s strongest material in years, and BlacKkKlansman‘s core premise is suffused with dramatic irony and tension that proves both entertaining and productive for raising ideas about the African-American struggle for social justice. In a conversation with Ron, Patrice introduces W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of Black American identity as a kind of double consciousness, an internal psychological and identitarian cleavage in every African-American body between the American ideal of citizenship (liberty, justice, inalienable rights) and the oppressive reality of life in American as a black person (where the rights that are inalienable for white folks are consistently denied to black folks, whether in law, in systemic tendencies, or in social conditioning and practices).

BlacKkKlansman‘s layered ironies and juxtaposed ideas are grounded in double consciousness. Ron and Flip both find the beliefs and rhetoric of the KKK deplorable, but Washington and especially Driver slip so convincingly into performing the role of white supremacist that they bamboozle the targets of their investigation and even trouble the audience with the thought that they might really mean it. Both men have internalized the language of bigotry that they hear around them (and sometimes about them) in their country, and when they project it, it is readily believed. There is a double consciousness to this performance, and performance it is, as signaled firmly by Lee in the film’s opening sequence, with Alec Baldwin as a Klan propagandist recording polemic for the group and frequently breaking the litany of racism with actorly touches like enunciation exercises and line checks. This double consciousness is even legible in the figure of David Duke, who presents a well-dressed professional corporate front to the Klan as an extended PR campaign but can slip with sinister ease into the worst racist tropes in a manner made only more unsettling by the inspired casting of Grace, who presents as an amiable Eric Foreman all-grown-up before slipping on the robe and hood.

BlacKkKlansman‘s employment of Du Bois’ double consciousness reaches a virtuoso crescendo in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and one of the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Lee crosscuts between Flip’s Klan initiation ceremony as Racist Ron, which includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 KKK propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, and a speech about the heinous and contemporaneous 1916 lynching of African-American Jesse Washington made to Patrice’s activist group by a witness to it, Jerome Turner (played by civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte, no less). Turner details the inhuman torture, mutilations, and execution of Washington by a white mob, the carnivalesque atmosphere that accompanied it (photos were taken of the lynching and souvenir postcards were sold), and the role of Griffith’s blockbuster film (“history written with lightning”, as President Woodrow Wilson praised it) in rejuvenating the Klan and emboldening its attacks on the black way of life, while Flip/Ron’s Klan confrères hoot and holler approvingly at a KKK lynching depicted heroically in Birth of a Nation. Lee closes the scene with contending chants of “black power” and “white power” at each event, his crosscutting (a filmic technique pioneered by Griffith in Birth of a Nation, as AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger notes in its Scenes of the Year entry) becoming a counterattacking weapon against the racist cinematic propaganda enshrined at the heart of American movie history by Griffith while also noting the intractable persistence of the racial divisions that animated that film and define American society down to today.

“Propaganda” is a key term, because for all of its considerable strengths, BlacKkKlansman is partly undone by a turn towards the propagandistic, complete with the form’s fabrications of convenience and self-favourable framings. For all of its compelling subtextual applications of double consciousness, the forefront textual use of it is to consider, and ultimately provide a stamp of thoughtful approval to, Ron Stallworth’s contradictory attempt to turn the authority and power of the police towards social justice goals. Boots Riley comes down particularly hard on this element of BlacKkKlansman, criticizing the script’s inventions and elisions of Stallworth’s work: he was undercover in radical black organizations for not one night but three years and did not begin his Klan infiltration until 1979, not in 1972; his white undercover partner was not Jewish, there was no ticking-bomb terrorist threat by the KKK he investigated as the film’s climax depicts, and a goofy feel-good coda sting on a bigoted white cop did not happen.

According to Riley, much of what BlacKkKlansman shows as going on behind the scenes in its Klan investigation could not happen: Black Lives Matter and related social justice spearheaders continue to spotlight police profiling and oppression of and violence towards African-Americans in the country of today, as well as law enforcement’s comparative kid gloves approach towards hard-right groups who incite and commit violent acts with far greater regularity. Riley firmly believes and expresses his belief that the police are not on the same side as progressive black social activists, and notes suggestively that Spike Lee has been paid by the NYPD to help improve their image with black communities. BlacKkKlansman is premised on the idea that the police not only can and should but have previously busted up racist organizations in a humbly semi-enlightened effort to be social justice warriors. Riley argues it’s a lie, and despite Lee’s protestations, it’s hard to learn much about the subject and say that he’s entirely wrong.

Lee mildly fudges his film’s true-to-life claims with an opening title card in his idiomatic vernacular: “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. But BlacKkKlansman turns from polemical fictionalization to sober, pointed documentary in a startling and more than a little off-putting whiplash switch at its conclusion. The film gives way to news footage of the August 2017 far-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (BlacKkKlansman‘s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the event that shocked the country), reports of the murder of liberal counterprotestor Heather Heyer that weekend, and President Donald Trump’s infamous hood-lifting moment in which he informed the press that some of the tiki-torch-wielding neo-nazi marchers were “very good people”. The real David Duke even makes an appearance, his continued presence as a public figure proving that Stallworth’s duping of him was of only marginal use, in the end.

BlacKkKlansman has its problems beyond its predilection towards propaganda and provocation. The screenplay by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott shows a fondness for silly, borderline-cartoon supporting characters (like Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie, the ebullient but virulently racist wife of Jasper Pääkkönen’s hostile Klan member Felix who cannot wait to be the virginal white female rape victim in a vigilante lynching fantasy), and overemphasizes beats that another filmmaker might have left respectfully subtle and implied. Wilmott’s screenwriting credit calls to mind his politically challenging but inescapably cheap (in all senses of the word) satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (which Lee produced), and BlacKkKlansman contains far more of that film’s cornpone carnival-barker tone than is good for it (though I laughed at the callback to Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s immortal catchphrase from The Wire, his early cameo including it takes one out of the film right at its beginning).

But ultimately BlacKkKlansman is afflicted with a larger, self-hampering double consciousness. It is grounded in a deep knowledge of African-American history and politics and considerable filmic craft and film-history literacy. In the memorable Birth of a Nation montage sequence, Lee makes a powerful audio-visual argument about how racial inequality is reinforced and spread. It leans towards manipulative fabrications on top of established fact to strengthen its points and concludes its essentially comedic story with feel-good limited triumphs and solidarity while paying lip service to the ingrained inequity and cover-ups endemic to the system. But it renders these narratively-earned victories entirely pyrrhic with its concluding documentarian evocation of the continued and even increased relevance of far-right racism of the Klan sort. The struggle, of course, always continues, and racism, in America as elsewhere in the world, persists and must continue to be fought. But just how it should be fought is a matter that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, as potent and effective as it can be at its best, proves frustratingly inconsistent, obtuse, and disingenuous about.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

“The Terror” and the Consuming Horrors of British Imperialism

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Terror (AMC; 2018)

There’s a moment in the graphically baroque climax of AMC’s compelling Arctic survival horror/drama The Terror that gives in to temptation and drags the burgeoning anthology series’ grinding subtext about the costs of ravenous British imperialism into full-throated text with amplified bravado. Fair warning, though, that to discuss this moment (and indeed the entirety of the series, which the strong-stomached viewer is sure to devour regardless) involves venturing into spoilers.

Engineering a fateful confrontation with the avenging polar-bear-esque monster that has been hunting down and consuming the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Arctic for months, sociopathic mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) takes leave of the shackles of respectable Victorian reason, order, and hierarchy. He addresses the spirits of the windy wastes, renouncing the anchoring mainstays of the Empire that spanned a third of the world but whose best technology and ingenuity proved no match for the inhospitable cold and difficulty of the North. “Our empire is not the only empire,” Hickey monologues as the beast known as tuunbaq lumbers towards his band of terrified expedition survivors. But his attempt to appropriate the role of indigenous shaman to the creature fails in a spectacularly gory fashion, even as tuunbaq succumbs to its sustained unhealthy diet of diseased British sailors. This predatory emissary of the hostile native environment that the imperial subalterns seek to conquer consumes them, but that consumption likewise poisons and destroys that emissary.

The visceral explosion of this climax is a sweeping thesis statement of a series of themes and ideas about imperialism, masculinity, and military hierarchy that had built their impact prior to that point in The Terror with slow (perhaps too slow, at first) incremental aggregation. The ten-episode narrative begins with the entry into the Arctic waterways of the polar exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). It takes its time establishing the various characters onboard the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, among them leadership figures such as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), as well as surgeon and naturalist Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) and men lower down the ranks like Hickey, with their own tensions and concerns interwoven with and separate from those of the officers. With the vicious Arctic winter coming on and the Erebus and the Terror stranded in constricting ice, Hickey urges Franklin to abandon his plan to weather the season on board the ships and begin travelling on foot towards settlements in order to survive. Their disagreements on this point are complicated by the appearance and attacks of tuunbaq, as well as by the presence of an Inuk woman they call Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who might exert some influence or at least possess some important connection to the monster that might safeguard the crew from its wrath.

Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of a decade ago, The Terror is built on the imaginative uncertainty underlying the horror of the Franklin expedition’s cataclysmic end (not a man who set out from the last port of call returned alive, but only fragmentary clues suggest the causes). Simmons’ addition of an element of supernatural horror served to dramatize and account for a disaster that history and the isolated hardness of the land, sea, and ice had left tantalizingly under-detailed, and combined with a flash-forward ending emphasizing climate change’s terrible effect on the polar regions gave this tale of Victorian heroic folly some contemporaneous relevance. History, science, and questionable notions of Canadian arctic sovereignty have since combined to alleviate more of the mystery around the Franklin expedition’s fate with the discovery in recent years of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror. But this still leaves major thematic and metaphorical implications to Simmons’ fictionalized narrative of the destruction of the expedition, whose television adaptation was supervised by Dan Kajganich and his team of writers (and executive produced by Ridley Scott as well as by Simmons himself).

The Terror doesn’t merely park the Franklin expedition’s demise on the premises of a (slightly goofy) gigantic all-devouring behemoth. The unforgiving elements, hostility to and misunderstanding of indigenous peoples who could have aided them, encroaching disease, lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned canned food, and despair among and in-fighting between the men contribute to the disaster, as do a litany of unwise command decisions, first from Franklin (played by Hinds as an ineffectual booster too rigid in his ways and too far out of his depth), but later from Fitzjames (Menzies excels at playing men of assumed dignity who find themselves sinking into disastrous and fatal self-doubt) and even from the series’ putative protagonist and most sympathetic figure, Harris’ layered, savvy, brave Crozier, who proves as susceptible to weakness in the face of the howling Arctic wastes as any other man.

But the grander point of The Terror is that this well-supplied and capable band of British adventurers could not have helped but met lonely, cold, gruesome ends in the frozen north of the world. It is the logical end of their grandiose imperial hubris. Franklin’s team seeks to penetrate the Arctic waterways in search of the fabled commercial throughway known as the Northwest Passage, but when Goodsir attempts to explain to Lady Silence the vital importance of finding this passage for British economic and prestige concerns, he not only comes across as incomprehensible to her but ridiculous to us. There are numerous examples early in the series of that breed of confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance imperial/patriarchal/hierarchical masculine order that enervates their quest and provides the men with a sense of unity of purpose that is often the only thing that binds them to one another and keeps them alive. But that same binding sense of order also contains the seeds of the expedition’s demise, growing brittle and unenforceable as numbers dwindle and authority can no longer compel obedience with brute punitive force.

Cornelius Hickey is the nexus of authority’s impotent impunity. An Irishman and a homosexual, Hickey is already doubly othered in relation to the British imperial centre and its identity markers. He is privately chastized by a straight-arrow bible-thumping lieutenant for his penchant for buggery: in one of the series’ funniest scenes, this Lieutenant Irving, played by Ronan Raftery, suggests alternative outlets for these sublimated sexual energies, including “climbing exercises”. Hickey conceives of his Irishness, meanwhile, as a potential bridge to favour from fellow Irishman Crozier, but it mostly gains him epithets from his crewmates (it is never gestured to, but it’s hard to ignore that as Franklin’s men were starving to death in the Arctic between 1845 and 1848, the British Empire stood by as a million or more Irish starved to death in their own food-exporting country).

Punished for insubordination (ironically, for acting on a plan without orders that the command group was on the cusp of ordering anyway) with painful and humiliating lashes, Hickey is not cowed but emboldened. Crozier orders his punishment in recognition of the necessities of chain of command and the need to protect authority to preserve order, but ordering the whipping of Hickey is the one decision that most directly leads to the expedition’s disastrous demise. Otherwise canny and open-minded when it comes to strategies of survival, Crozier falls back on the imperatives of pitiless imperial authority and masculinized command strength in this instance and it costs his men dearly. This is not to diminish Hickey’s mutinous choices, which are deplorable and increasingly monstrous and entirely of his own terrible volition. But the punishment prods him in a dangerous direction that leads to a frozen vision of hell.

This hell, of course, involves cannibalism (oddly ritualized, in a carnival-mirror inversion of imperial etiquette), a possibility initially denied by a Victorian public culture that painted Franklin and his men as fallen heroes but now basically accepted as the evidence-supported horror of desperate survival that had to have been the expedition’s only end-point. There are layers of meaning to consumption of nourishment in The Terror: the men become sick from eating the lead-poisoned preserves, tuunbaq becomes sick from eating the men. Seal meat in a man’s stomach unveils Hickey’s treachery. When Hickey’s faction begin eating each other, a moral or spiritual sickness reduces them, especially the anatomist Goodsir, who is compelled to become their designated butcher against his will.

“Tell me what you eat,” declaims Lt. Hodgson (Christos Lawton) in anticipation of the final meeting with the creature, “and I will tell you what you are.” What Franklin’s desperate men eat is what they constitute as agents of imperial expansion and dominion: poison, corruption, cannibalistic self-destruction. Tuunbaq, superficially a vengeful spirit representing diminished and exploited indigenous peoples that strikes satisfyingly back against British colonial hubris, eats these corrupted bodies and is poisoned by them too. Even when utterly annihilated in microcosm, imperialism leaves an indelible mark. If Victorian Britain saw jingoistic masculine endurance and heroism in the Franklin expedition in the immediate aftermath of its loss, The Terror reflects a worldview more jaded and wary of imperial chest-beating and the long, cruel tail of its consequence.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Mudbound

April 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Mudbound (2017; Directed by Dee Rees)

The opening scene of Mudbound features two white brothers digging a grave in the sodden earth of their farmyard in 1940s Mississippi. It is revealed that the hole is for their father when elder brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) unearths human remains and realizes that a slave’s grave is located on the spot. There’s nothing that the bigoted old man (played in life by the current master of deep-grained crusty menace, Jonathan Banks) would have despised more than being buried alongside a black person, but with a saturating rain coming on, younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) notes that they have little choice but to finish the trench, and thus lay their racist pater eternally beneath the ground with the people he considers his inveterate inferiors. As the deluge begins, Jamie is consumed with anxious fear that Henry will leave him in the grave, stranding him fatally in this drowned, unwelcome delving into the painful past.

This sequence foreshadows events and themes of Dee Rees’ shaded and powerful adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, but it also sets down Mudbound‘s significant method of weaving its characters’ dominant qualities and psychological cores into the larger social forces of racial and gender hierarchy in the segregation-era American South. Given its early-’40s setting, the film also productively introduces the perspective-widening exposure of American GIs to World War II-era Europe’s differing (though hardly non-discriminatory) cultural norms as well as to the mentally-disfiguring horrors of combat carnage. These unfamiliar elements, when gradually introduced into the hardened psycho-sexual gauntlet that was the rigid order of the Deep South, have brutal and tragic consequences for the men and women of different races brought tentatively together in the crucible of a hard country life.

After Henry McAllan asks for the aid of his African-American tenant farmer and amateur preacher Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family in burying the deceased old man, Mudbound flashes back a few years to before America’s entry into the war. Henry meets and proposes to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who finds the dashing, handsome, liberal-arts-educated Jamie a bit more attractive but is glad to be plucked from nascent spinsterdom by his duller, seemingly more dependable brother. The initial happiness of their growing family in Memphis is cut off when Henry makes a unilateral decision to move them back to small-town Mississippi to start a farm and care for his aging father. Henry is constantly thinking he has told Laura of his often-poor decisions and middling ambitions before he acts upon them, which he never has, perhaps because he does not value her opinion or consider it worth his consideration, perhaps because, despite his bluff matter-of-fact entitled manner, he does not value his own judgement. He also seems always to be away when crises descend and he is needed most by his family. As an upholder of a tradition ideal of Southern masculinity, Henry is an inept and foolishly diminished embodiment of white patriarchal privilege, and emotionally and morally insufficient to every challenge he faces.

The more sensitive and romantic Jamie goes off to war, traumatized in a flying metal coffin as a bomber pilot but also shaken from his culture’s racial assumptions by the experience of fighting alongside African-Americans. Upon his return, he connects with Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a tank sergeant under Patton who also saw death in mechanized boxes but found love overseas too, with a white German woman with whom he fathered a child. Building a friendship over pulls of a whiskey bottle (alcohol dulls Jamie’s shell-shocked unease) and combat veterans’ reminiscences, their hopes and frustrations forge a common bond that, much like Ronsel’s unwisely open disdain for the South’s racial segregation when compared to the relative openness of Europe, will prove extremely dangerous to both men when it collides with those dedicated to violently upholding these hierarchical norms.

Mudbound can be a little on-the-nose when dealing with the racial violence that sustained an unequal social order in the South (not that lynching was ever especially subtle as a tool of influence on social behaviours). Banks’ villain Pappy McAllan is a sneering old backwoods racist with a posse of Klansmen backing him up, while the film takes pains to note early on that the most sympathetic and least bigoted whites, Jamie and Laura, are also the most educated and well-read (Laura insists on keeping a piano in their rural shack, as a single token of civilization in this near-wilderness). In Laura, the patriarchy is shown to cruelly oppress women in a manner similar to but different than the white supremacist order cruelly oppresses blacks. Literally stuck in the mud of the farm, she is inculcated in the violent dramas of others and in family disasters of her own: whooping cough afflicting her daughters, an agonizing miscarriage.

With Henry increasing emotionally unavailable, Laura can only find (fleeting, forbidden) comfort in the largely-broken Jamie, but more so in Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), who nurses her children back to health and tends to her in her abortive pregnancy. Even this tentative female compact across colour lines, however, is compromised by systemic mechanisms of racism. Florence is hired as domestic help by the McAllans, her paid service to them, like a mule rented almost forcibly by Henry to an injured Hap so that he can complete his harvest on time, constituting a web of pecuniary obligation between white landlords and their black tenants that serves to perpetuate a deep-rooted system of economic subservience undergirding the brutally-enforced social hierarchy.

Mudbound is part and parcel of a recent renaissance of ambitious and eloquent African-American films that are addressing historical and contemporary injustice in bold new ways. Despite its four Oscar nominations (two of them came from Blige, for Supporting Actress and Best Original Song, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for Rees and Virgil Williams and Best Cinematography for DP Rachel Morrison, astonishingly the first woman ever nominated in the category), Mudbound found itself lost a bit among some of these other, more forceful pictures, like Get Out, Black Panther (which Morrison also shot), and even last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. As the grave, handsome, and serious realist historical drama out of this list (one might include Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to these recent annals as alike films of that type), it might be surprising that Mudbound did not leapfrog some of its thematic brothers and sisters, but then genre films are breaking down old prestige-film distinctions more each year (or perhaps more film observers are belatedly recognizing the oft-glorified realist drama as simply another genre among many).

Still, Mudbound is a fine and significant work, intelligently and movingly communicating the injustices of racial discrimination and hierarchical society as enacting upon the lives (and bodies) of sympathetically-drawn and beautifully acted individuals. There is no Best Ensemble Oscar, but Mudbound ‘s uniformly excellent cast snatched up awards and accolades from various critical bodies that do hand out such honours. Watching them work small wonders in Dee Rees’ exquisitely-crafted examination of inequitable social and economic forces working on mid-century Southerners grants Mudbound a particular appeal of its own, regardless of its relative position in any conceived wave of social justice films.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.