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Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

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

June 5, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 16, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Television Review: The English Game

April 13, 2020 Leave a comment

The English Game (Netflix; 2020 – Present)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 1917

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

1917 (2019; Directed by Sam Mendes)

World War I was wrong. It’s well understood (and generally acknowledged even by wet-eyeballed nostalgic imperialists) that the Great War of 1914-1918 was a totally horrifying meatgrinder of a conflict, decimating most of a generation of young men from across Europe and its imperial possessions in the muddy, bloody accelerated decay of the trenches and the battlefields. Millions of lives were meaninglessly thrown away in deluded offensives whose strategic premises were couched in military conceptual frameworks made frightfully and tragically obselete by technological innovations in that ever-cutting-edge field of killing humans. Millions more non-combatants were caught in the fighting’s crossfire or subject to genocidal cleansing, to say nothing of the global flu pandemic that swept across a weakened planet and claimed another 50-100 millions lives. And after all this mind-boggling death, the war to end all wars not only did nothing of the sort, it led in an absolutely direct line to an even more terrible and devastating war.

This much is known, but what is not as known is just how morally and politically inexcusable all of this wanton slaughter was. World War I’s preliminary causes and beginnings tend to be taught reductively: a set of interlocking balance-of-power alliances were activated by a political crisis tied to the assassination of an almost comically old-fashioned heir to the throne of a slowly-dissolving Old World empire. But World War I was the monumentally tragic and infuriating folly (George Kennan called it “the Seminal Catastrophe of the Century”) of a gilded global elite bent on clinging to and expanding on their power at absolutely any cost and utterly, sociopathically detached from the shocking human toll of their endless grasping and hoarding. Whether the war was driven by the Entente powers’ desire to contain German ambition on the Continent and in the colonial sphere or by the German Empire’s desire for conquest and expansion, the killing machine of the Western Front and the less-narrativized but just as deadly fighting on the Eastern Front was designed and maintained by governments and military command structures of Europe’s best and brightest and richest. These august men extinguished lives by the millions over detached squabbles for greedy acquisition and wounded pride, knowing full well what they were doing but deceiving themselves and the people they claimed to serve as to why, not only with public obfuscation during the conflict but with solemn, sober, and entirely nationalistic commemoration after it. That several of these governments were toppled by the war’s consuming reach (such as those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire), this seems a small punishment for the suffering visited on millions in the 1910s and millions more in decades that followed. World War I was horrifying and the loss of life it caused sad and to be mourned, but it was also wrong, and that is what ought to be remembered.

I am telling you this at the outset of a review of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 because the movie does not. 1917 is an in medias res Great War story, a visually and temporally immediate and experiential “you are there” narrative of survival, loyalty, and comradeship in the crucible of a conflict bigger than any one life but enlivened and encapsulated in the perspective of one life, or in this case two. A pair of Lance Corporals in the British Expeditionary Force, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), are chosen for a tremendously dangerous mission in the titular year. General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of numerous prominent British thesps in cameo officer roles) orders Blake and Schofield to traverse miles of No Man’s Land and enemy positions recently vacated by a German withdrawal to deliver a message to a battalion ordered to attack the retreating foe: it’s a trap. The Germans have only fallen back to the newly-built Hindenburg Line fortifications, and intelligence has found this out too late to get the message to the attacking troops any other way. These two solitary men are entrusted with the task of saving the lives of 1,600 men who are heading straight for an enemy waiting to massacre them, Blake’s officer brother (Richard Madden) among them.

Mendes, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, dramatizes the journey of Blake and Schofield as a real-time experience filmed in a simulated single shot. Although it’s an enjoyable game to try and spot the hidden cuts that stitch together this single-take simulation (watch for objects being panned across in the extreme foreground), this technique previously employed in movies like Birdman and Russian Ark is wondrously executed on a grand and powerful scale in 1917. Mendes arranges sequences of unbearable tension (passage through abandoned German tunnels, an engagement with an enemy sniper) and balances them with sequences of respite (a friendly reminiscence in a white-blossoming orchard, a tender fireside scene with a French girl and a baby, soldiers seated in a forest listening to one of their number sing an aching, lilting tune), ending with a desperate, jawdropping sprint across British troops charging against enemy bombardment, Thomas Newman’s epic score swelling with massed strings. If Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk explored how war fragments and distorts the perception of time, Sam Mendes’ 1917 uses moment-by-moment inexorable ticking-clock immediacy to convey war’s vivid, surrealistic experiences on unforgiving timelines of pending mortality, an effort greatly served by the convincingly harried performances of Chapman and (especially) MacKay.

The technical achievement of 1917 in this vein is substantial and sometimes remarkable, and one must give full recognition and credit to Mendes’ ability as a filmmaker for its success, as well as to his cinematographer Roger Deakins, a grand old master of the art and craft of light and shadow of the moving image. Deakins follows Blake and Schofield’s odyssey with incredibly impressive camera motion and shoots the world through which they pass with evocatively grimy realism (decomposing horses, well-fed trench rats, blown-out artillery, bloated bodies in a river), but also unleashes an astonishing sequence in a bombed-out town at night, expressionistically lit with nightmarishly beautiful overhead flares and fiery background conflagrations. It’s a chiaroscuro vision of a hell clumsily crafted by the cruel hand of man into an infernal inverted mirror of heaven. At least once (sometimes more) in any film with him credited as a director of photography, there is a sequence which looks so stunningly arresting and gorgeous that I can but shake my fists to the impotent sky and cry out in primally effusive admiration: “DEAKINSSSS!” In Skyfall, it was Bond’s infiltration of a Shanghai skyscraper; in Blade Runner 2049, it was K coming face-to-face with the towering holographic advertisement of his departed Joi; in 1917, it is this indelible visual triumph of a sequence.

This is how 1917 has been greeted by critics and audiences, as a visually and technically superb spectacle of transporting proportions. A thrill ride, as they say. But how does this affect reflect on the moral-historical dimensions of the film’s depiction of World War I? Does 1917 criticize war or does it glorify it? It’s hard to claim that the latter does not pre-dominate. 1917 is a proudly British film from a filmmaker who has, in the past, leaned into the comforting glow of nationalism; Mendes’ James Bond film was the most overt flag-waving celebration of imperialism in the recent history of a franchise hardly light on such themes. The ever-celebrated stiff-upper-lip heroism of the British soldier is reified in 1917, not only in the resourcefulness and loyalty and resilience of its protagonist lance corporals, but even in its army officers. Oft-villified (and rightly so) for snobbish detachment from the mortal consequences of their command and blamed for some of the war’s most wasteful expenditures of manpower as cannon fodder, British officers in 1917 vaguely bemoan these qualities in others in the command structure but not a one displays them himself: a wearied lieutenant on the front line played by Andrew Scott is sardonically cynical after unmitigated losses but not unsympathetically so, Mark Strong’s Captain Smith offers Blake and Schofield transport and kind advice, and even Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), the commander of the attacking unit that must be warned to stand down or risk a slaughter, is only lacking in context and information, despite warnings of his inflexibility and lust for a fight.

More than anything, Mendes stacks the deck for the essential goodness of the top-level command by having the orders of Firth’s Erinmore be to save 1,600 lives from a pointlessly fatal assault, rather than throw those men away in such an advance, as generals so often did in this war. It’s a statement to how the film constructs a wartime realm where everyone’s actions and motivations are justifiable or at least understandable. Even the Germans, with their superficially treacherous retreat gambit, are simply trying to gain a strategic advantage, to win. Those Germans carry on their persons cherished photographs of loved ones left behind at home just as the British do, a conventional war movie shorthand used by Mendes without much reflection. There are horrors here, absolutely, and a sequence on an abandoned farm commencing with the crash of a German biplane treads close to treating with the deadly indifference to moral consequence that prevails in such armed conflicts. But an honest observer would be hard-pressed to call 1917 anti-war in any robust fashion.

What we’re asking for here is not a scene of Blake and Schofield pausing to repeat Howard Zinn’s historical interpretations or anything (who’s the WWI-era equivalent of Howard Zinn? Eugene Debs?). Perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns could have formulated a scenario for the film that allowed for themes of moral ambiguity and injustice to find voice, although considering the title card beginning the credits saluting a veteran relative of Mendes whose Great War stories inspired him to make 1917, there may have been personal barriers to such an approach. 1917 is not an elegiac meditation on war’s inhumanity, it’s a spectacular roller-coasting ride of visceral tension and emotional turmoil. Its intent is representative realism, showing as best as movie magicians can a century removed from this terrible conflict what it was really like. But in Mendes’ hands, this intended realism is accompanied with a political neutrality that presents as centrist moral cowardice in the face of the war’s historical reprehensibility.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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