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The Insidious Perspective of Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

April 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Were Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita not centrally concerned with one of western society’s most controversial taboos, it would remain one of the 20th Century’s paragons of literary fiction. Nabokov was a prodigious prose stylist, and his 1955 novel is magnificently written, a giddy rush of wit, innuendo, puns, sly allusions, vivid descriptions, and hilarious, wicked observations of and judgements on human foibles and American culture alike. His infamous unreliable narrator protagonist Humbert Humbert, the learned, urbane European “gentleman” nursing an illicit fascination for prepubescent girls and the titular American nymphet (to use his coinage referring to female minors with a certain inestimable sexual spark) in particular, is surely one of the great characters in the modern novel.

To call him “great” does not imply that he is good. Humbert is pathetic and sympathetic, confident and simpering, delightful and repulsive, a cultured monster like Hannibal Lecter, a more elusive Humbertesque character who would come to define the type. He coolly assesses and dismisses most of the people he encounters through the novel as inherent beneath him, but his snobbish judgement of their inferiority is only rarely applied to his own reprehensible conduct. The reprehensibility of that conduct – he abducts and repeatedly rapes an underaged girl, to state matters in strict legally-defined terms – must be constantly kept fixed in the foreground while reading Lolita, because Humbert’s (and Nabokov’s) intoxicating aesthetic reveries and elaborate web of deceptive justifications insidiously obfuscate the moral dimensions of his actions.

Lolita has been tarred since its publication as button-pushing tittilation and even brushed aside as mere pornography, while Nabokov has been pilloried as a dirty old man for writing it. Dismissing the book as smut is a simple and surely comforting response to its unsettling effect on the reader: its seductive inculcation of its audience into the crimes of its protagonist and the troubling implications for fictional perspective. The unreliable narrator element that Humbert typifies is generally understood in a rather literal manner: although the reader views a text’s events through the imagined gaze (usually male, and Humbert’s is just that, with a twisted intensity) of the narrating character and thus comes to at least identify and perhaps even like this narrator-character, the character’s version of events cannot be trusted, cannot be believed, may be an embellishment, a lie, a perversion. In the most common cases that this narrator-character’s perspective is the only one provided, this trust gap between reader and narrator destabilizes the consistency and internal truth-claims of the fictional work.

There is an easily-detected irony in that last phrase, and it’s one that Nabokov delights in throughout Lolita. Fiction is not truth. Indeed, it is its precise opposite: a lie. At its best, an artful lie, even a profound one, that in its culturally-heightened ideal reveals greater fundamental truths than could an accurate recitation of verifiable facts about the world (which is also far from how the coyly-named “non-fiction” functions, though that is a discussion for another time). Nabokov openly derides that ideal of fiction as “topical trash”, and considers it “childish” to read a work of fiction in order to strive to understand something important about an author’s place and times. His 1956 afterword to Lolita, from which these observations are torn, also focuses on the passages (“favorite hollows”, he calls them) in which his words convey pure sensation, as in Humbert’s obsessively involved description of the bodily movements and contortions made by his preteen paramour Dolores Haze (whom he fondly nicknames Lolita) while playing tennis.

It’s instructive to consider the corollary of this passage, however: namely, that Dolores’ exquisite corporeal aesthetics do not lead to success on the court. Indeed, her impeccable form, romanticized to sublime heights by Nabokov through Humbert’s desirous aestheticized gaze but also through her own internalization of the effects of that gaze (she reads movie magazines constantly, absorbing the cinematic star’s ideal of feminine beauty), detracts from her chances of winning. This reflects quintessential facets of Dolores’ character, of how Humbert’s fascination with and possession of her body is not paired with intellectual fascination (she’s moody and a bit shallow, her interests those of a standard girl her age, in many ways). She is always a bit of a mystery to Humbert even while she is held as his sexual captive, so seemingly simple and yet so inherent inscrutable even to his learned and nimble mind.

But just as Dolores’ visually-evident physical prowess does not make her a tennis champion, Nabokov’s evident prowess with prose quite purposely does not reveal truths. Instead, it shows how truths are constructed, Frankenstein-like, from lies, which is then labelled fiction and sold at a bookstore (though not at so many, any longer). Humbert lived a lie with his Lolita for a lengthy period of time, posing as her father while acting as her lover. His narrative account of that time is another lie, making excuses for his immoral behaviour, his shocking acts, and displaying just enough humour and self-deprecation and well-placed pathos to wheedle the reader’s tentative, fleeting forgiveness. And Nabokov, in constructing this nesting-doll of self-reflexive literary dishonesty, displays fiction’s insidious power to deceive, to pervert the certainty of meaning and of moral conclusions. If words can create such impressions and conceal the inherent nature of things in a novel about a grown man who loves a young girl below the age of consent, what even more troubling perversions can they exemplify and coax into being?

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Categories: Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Love & Friendship

February 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Love & Friendship (2016; Directed by Whit Stillman)

Whit Stillman’s stinging, practically deadpan cinematic take on Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan is a little marvel. Starring Kate Beckinsale as the unabashedly self-interested, acerbically intelligent, and masterfully manipulative Lady Susan Vernon, Love & Friendship is a welcome left turn in the recent trajectory of screen adaptations of Austen’s work. Often emphasizing bosom-heaving romance at the expense of the late 18th-/early 19th-century novelist’s biting wit and subtly subversive satire of the manners, standards, and social mores of Regency England, popular Austen adaptations of recent decades reside (in the hearts and minds of their mainstream chick-flick fans more so than their creators, if we’re being fair) in a gauzy space of gentlemen and ladies fulfilling their romantic hopes as well as their socioeconomic requirements within a set of well-defined rules that everyone recognizes and gladly abides by. In the face of the post-Sexual Revolution free-for-all of modern courtship, many women (and probably a lot of men, too) locate in Jane Austen’s depiction of the society of her time a simplicity, innocence, and intelligibility that is comforting.

At the risk of sounding like a pedantic literary critic, such conclusions, valid though they may be in the stirred soul of the viewer or the reader, are nearly the opposite of Jane Austen’s abiding intent, as much as it can be descried at our historical remove. Austen’s novels so unerringly reproduced the byzantine and frequently unspoken standards of behaviour that governed every element of public interactions in the comfortable classes of her time and place in order to probe them, puncture them, and find them wanting, even to label them as patently ludicrous. Her prose is precisely balanced to destabilize the mannered assumptions of England’s landed gentry via its own polite discourse. Romantic fulfillment and moral equilibrium are maintained in her novels as literary conventions, but Austen’s agile mind and compositional dexterity are doggedly turned to demonstrating the weakness of reliance on convention.

Stillman’s Love & Friendship gets this truth about Austen more correct than any recent adaptation of note (even the beknighted BBC costume dramas have displayed a soft-focus tendency lately). It’s a sharper pure comedy than any Austen film adaptation I’ve ever seen (with the possible exception of Clueless), treating romantic love as just another delicious punchline. It’s debatable whether Stillman selects a lesser-known minor Austen work (Lady Susan was likely written before Austen was 20 years old, and is thus sometimes classified as juvenilia, much like the separate story whose title it borrows; it also was not published in her lifetime, unlike her big six novels) in order to push her sharp wit to the foreground via material not so canonically rigid and planted in the public mind, or if the material itself, less beholden to literary convention and even freely rebellious in the face of such standards, demands such an approach. Either way, Love & Friendship constructs a convincing simulacrum of proper social etiquette and mediated courtship behaviour before primly revealing its hypocrisy and ridiculousness with dry delight.

Like other Austen novels, Love & Friendship involves the marriage relations, social interactions, and romantic entanglements of a compelx web of landed gentry, aristocrats, and occasional lower-register figures. Stillman, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed it, does a bang-up job establishing his dramatis personae and their intereweaving connections, so I won’t approximate it with an involved synopsis in print. His technique for introducing characters is clever and often amusing: characters pose in subtle post-produced oval frames with their names and brief (sometimes mocking) descriptions of their role, like descriptive portraits. He also ably approximates the epistolary nature of Austen’s novel on occasion, advancing plot and character (and even wringing out wry laughs) by displaying in onscreen titles the words being read in letters between the characters.

Plot-wise, it’s worth detailing at least that Lady Susan, a young widow without an income of her own, is simultaneously seeking an advantageous marriage match for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and for herself. Suddenly rushing away from a previous living situation with the lordly Manwarings after a scandalous dalliance with the Lord, Susan lands at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). She becomes ever more intimately acquainted with the dashing young bachelor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the brother of Vernon’s wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), while her daughter seems to be destined for a match with a hilariously dimwitted but unfailingly cheerful baronet, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The abiding disapproval of DeCourcy’s family, shocked by Susan’s unsavoury reputation and lack of wealth, ever threatens her contact with Reginald, and similar disapproval by the husband of her American best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny; Stephen Fry is Mr. Johnson in a brief cameo) consistently dogs their conspiratorial conversations.

It’s evident from very little exposure to Beckinsale’s charming and clever puppet-mistress that her smarts and insight into the psychology of others around her will win her the day. It’s a modern conceit, perhaps, that Lady Susan’s blithe unconcern for the ruling mores of her society and her sly manipulation of social assumptions and sensibilities results in great success rather than a conclusive moral upbraiding. Austen’s text reserves more punishment for her transgressions, but even then it’s mild compared to the fates of similar intriguing women in her other novels.

The dominant impression of Love & Friendship is that conceptions of romance are useful only to direct outcomes, to position people in a desired manner, as the sweet carrots utilized in lieu of a firmer stick. Stillman’s film is a minor wonder for this subversion of romantic comedy convention, yes. But it’s also sharp and funny on a consistent basis, and respects Austen’s subtly acerbic barbs with a febrile reverence. The film’s comic timing is exquisite. Stillman and his editor Sophie Corra hold the pauses after end-of-scene punchlines for just a brief beat before Mark Suozzo’s chamber-music score cues in at just the right moment, like a sophisticated, inherently satisfying laugh-track. Finally, you will find yourself thinking with every finely-modulated and impeccably delivered quip, a screen version of Jane Austen’s work that understands and intelligently conveys the scalpel-sharp wit of her writing to full effect.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Game of Thrones, The Thirty Years War and Violent Force in the Vacuum of Authority

June 23, 2016 1 comment

It is a consistent axiom of human civilization that authority is both relied upon and mistrusted, that its breakdown is wished for and feared in practically equal measure. Political movements, waves of protest, and cultural voices criticize the status quo, call for its dismantling, and puncture the elite’s ever-inflated balloon even as political party structures, entrenched bureaucracies, and stability-obsessed chambers of commerce emphasize a stay-the-course trajectory.

All of these superficially opposing but subtly reinforcing elements are baldly visible in the current American presidential election, for instance: on the Democratic Party side, Bernie Sanders appeals to more militant progressives who seek to topple the beknighted neoliberal consensus of slippery Wall Street financiers and national security hawks represented by Hillary Clinton, while amongst Republicans Donald Trump’s crude nationalistic nativism and seasoned property grifter’s self-aggrandizement has set the party’s rabidly white nationalist base against its cynical plutocratic leadership structure. Both Sanders and Trump have made serious hay with activist-minded voters on either extreme of the political spectrum by promising an overthrow of an unjust and broken system, but their exertions are unlikely to produce any more immediate result than the election of another neoliberal dynast to the White House.

Neither Trump nor Sanders would seriously deliver the sort of revolution that they intermittently pledge to instigate in their campaign rhetoric, but what might a shattering of the established order of power as we know it in the democratic capitalist West look like, and what sort of order (temporary or permanent) would fill the void? Both recorded history and historically-inflected genre entertainment suggest an alternative authority: organized violence.

HBO’s pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones wraps up its sixth season this weekend, and its vision of a fracturing medievalist power structure on the continents of Westeros and Essos, of traditional norms of legitimacy of authority failing, is characterized by that order’s incipient successor, the application of force. In Westeros, the centralized feudal authority of the crown based on the enforced fealty of cowed vassals (symbolized by the Iron Throne, forged from the captured swords of defeated lords) is weakened by the increasingly openly-questioned legitimacy of the Baratheon line of kings (the past two of which have been incestually-produced pure-blood Lannisters, a powerful noble house but not yet a royal one). This weakness is leveraged to the advantage of a savvy GOT1religious leader and political operator, Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow, backed by a literal army of armed zealots known as the Faith Militant.

But outside of the capital city of King’s Landing, the contentious intrigues between church and state have little positive effect on wider social stability. Prosperous feudal estates (like Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly’s family seat) and fortified bastions (like the Eyrie, the stronghold of the Vale) maintain a measure of calm, but elsewhere might makes right. The Riverlands, unsettled since House Frey’s coup against the ruling House Tully in the infamous Red Wedding, have been recaptured by a Tully army and troubled by the guerrilla activities of the independent fighting band, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose members sometimes branch out into pillaging and massacres of the defenseless.

In the North, meanwhile, insurgent Stark-led forces (captained by Sophie Turner’s increasingly subtle Sansa Stark and Kit Harrington’s heroic but blindly honourable Jon Snow, whose dim uprightness has already got him killed once) do battle with the Boltons who succeeded the wolf-headed clan as Wardens of the North, whose openly cruel reign of terror across the North is personified by the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The pitched medieval battle between the two sides left a literal pile of bodies in its wake in the most recent episode, a visceral, graphic expression of the recourse to violence and death in an unsettled power vacuum.

All of the Westeros-based players on Game of Thrones are, in their own ways, struggling to establish themselves within a power structure whose long-held assumptions are stumbling. Further east and north, however, lie even greater forces marshalling violence with the intention of apocalyptic overthrow. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought the centuries-old slaveowning order of Slaver’s Bay in Essos to heel with loyal armies and burnt its remnants to ashes with dragonfire, but intends this military conquest and sociopolitical transformation to be a mere prelude to “breaking the wheel” of the successive dynastic rule of noble houses in Westeros. In the frozen far north, the White Walkers and their army of zombiefied wights is incrementally proceeding south towards the inhabited southern reaches of Westeros, bringing a winter of discontent that threatens not merely the political order of a certain historical context but all life itself.

If Game of Thrones is a fictional exploration of how violent force and those who wield it most effectively can displace the political traditions and diplomatic compromises of an atrophied system of authority, then the complex, dispiriting arc of the Thirty Years’ War shows how the interwoven tapestry of those elements can predestine a social and humanitarian disaster. As detailed with concise but complicated power by historian C.V. Wedgwood in her seminal one-volume 1938 book, this legendarily destructive and protracted conflict in 17th-century Central Europethirtyyearswar (which might have claimed up to 8 million casualties) had causes in the then-century-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the dynastic rivalry between the Bourbons who ruled France and the Habsburgs who reigned in Spain and the shrinking Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which the war morphed into the state that would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would only fall in World War I). But its horrible results were the tragic consequence of the reduction of existing nodes of authority within Germany and the normalization of plundering men-at-arms extracting their wages and rations (indeed, their very survival) from the largely defenseless civilian populations of the territories they marched through. Hence the Latin phrase associated with the practices of army support during the war, bellum se ipsum alet: “the war will feed itself.”

Continental Europe’s strongest centralized states of France and Spain fought proxy battles in Germany through allies and satellite states; the conflict might have had animating religious dimensions initially, but the Thirty Years’ War increasing became a hot flare-up of a long-running cold war between Bourbon and Habsburg. From the early days of the war in 1618 until its conclusion with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the most powerful players in the saga were those who could raise, support, and command armies: soldiers of fortune like Ernst von Mansfeld and Ottavio Piccolomini, quasi-feudal warlords like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, even an energetic, warlike monarch like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Their importance as military commanders overrode diplomatic influence or aristocratic privilege, and they became so practically untouchable and necessary to any success in the field that any excess of control by them or plunder and rapine on their armies’ part, while not precisely forgiven, could not be punished or held to account by any secular or ecclesiastical authority not superior to them in arms (and basically none of them were).

The ground-level results of this tyranny of force in the Germany of this time, chronicled with frequent hyperbole sprinkled with grains of truth, were of a severity and horror that echoed the fancifully shocking miseries of Game of Thrones. Theft and pillage, rape and murder, torture, sieges, massacres, starvation, plagues, ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, and occasional battlefield abattoirs (all of these are more were depicted in an infamous series of etchings by Jacques Callot). In short, human suffering. Whether explored as thematic entertainment on television or recorded as narrative history, this is the end result of upheavals that diminish established authority. Revolutions are ever attractive in the ideological abstract but the overthrow of existing power structures that does not empower those most willing to wield ruthless force has not yet been performed. Both Game of Thrones and the Thirty Years’ War provide a dire case study of human nature in the absence of moderating social and political forces to discourage violent pillage and exploitation of weakness.

Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

It’s a common enough approach to contemporary history writing to focus, at least for framing purposes, on the similarities, echoes, and lessons that the events of the past provide in relation to our current social, cultural, and political reality. There is an emphasis on what history can tell us about how we live now, and about how we may live in the near future. But though the past never leaves us, it is also its own creature. The core contexts, perspectives, base assumptions, and fundamental realities of life in other eras as documented and imparted in historical non-fiction and fiction are not simple mirrors on our own modern world, however distant. History is a window that looks upon a landscape of human civilization that is often unfathomably alien to our own experience, and gazing through that frame has intellectual value beyond application to current conditions.

This effect is discernable in both a seminal novel and a sweeping one-volume history of 14th Century Europe: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both texts may seem like square peg examples to slot into the round hole of an argument about the bedrock unfamiliarity of history. Eco’s debut novel, his best-known and later adapted for the screen with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, transposes the quintessentially 20th-century literary genre of the detective story to a 14th Century Benedictine monastery in the Italian Alps, drawing liberally on contemporary academic theory and semiotics as well as on sensationalist subject matter. Tuchman’s magisterial history, which utilizes French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as a central figure at once representative of his time and place and oddly exceptional, draws an implicit titular comparison between the horrors of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Battle of Nicopolis and the mass disasters of the 20th Century.

But both books are, in their own peculiar ways, about the notable peculiarity of the 14th Century, about its fundamental alterity in comparison with our own time. Stacked around Eco’s murder mystery, and indeed intimately related to it, are detailed descriptions of fanciful nameoftherosemedieval art depictions of the Apocalypse, accounts of countercultural quasi-monastic dissent movements, digressions into theological debates about the nature of good and evil and faith and doubt, as well as more esoteric clerical matters. The Name of the Rose is invested at least partly in the demystification of the Middle Ages, but any text with historical accuracy in mind will dispel the ren faire mist of chivalry and noble romance with a strong, stiff breeze. The cloistered monastic world of Eco’s story and characters, not insular exactly but certainly encircled and communal and intensely scholarly, is of a different sort of milieu than the fantasy of swordplay and courtly love anyway.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror takes up the banner of demolishing the chivalric myth, however, and does its job thoroughly. The France of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (who lived from 1340 to 1397) was denuded by roving, foraging, pillaging armies and, during the frequent truces between the French and the English, by military companies of the discharged soldiers, who operated as brigands or mercenaries, depending on the profit opportunities offered by each option at any given time. In the absence of a standing national army or effective security or police force, the protection of the land and the populace fell to the nobility. Indeed, war and defence (along with diplomacy) were their only serious useful functions in society, and the basis of their privileges of land ownership, influence with the crown, and exemption from taxation.

But again and again in this period, the nobility of France had proven either unwilling or unable (or both) to fulfill their duty in protecting the people, and the people rose in mass revolt on both sides of the channel (in France, the Jacquerie; in England, the Peasant’s Revolt) at least partly in protest of this broken covenant. The denuding of the countryside by war, brigandage, plague, and excessive taxation did not stop the King and his nobles from engaging in lavish pageantry, aristocratic pursuits like falconry and the tournaments that were the era’s prime sporting spectacles. Neither did the Church, also exempt from taxation and increasingly absorbed in the buying and selling of ecclesiastical services and even salvation itself that would lead directly to the permanent schism of the Protestant Reformation, offer sufficient succour or comfort.

Tuchman recognizes that it is the poor who always suffer most in times of turmoil, and that the failure of society’s institutions holds dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. These are deep-seated truths applicable to many adistantmirrorperiods in history, our own included, but the weight of their primacy is not an impossible burden to the lives of those people. Tuchman summons kaleidoscopic detail of quotidian life and belief, women’s experiences, fashions, theatrical innovations, military systems, engineering practices, religious dogma and practice, and of course the large-scale political developments that fill the chronicles that are her primary sources. But the peasants and poorer classes did not simply live admirably amidst great suffering. They lashed out at those weaker than they were in terrible pogroms against the Jews in their communities, persecutions often encouraged by the clerical and lay authorities that wished to redirect ire from their own heads but not against the grain of popular sentiment. As Eco’s Sherlock Holmes-esque monastic detective Brother William puts it at one point in The Name of the Rose, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.”

It’s probably most accurate to state that The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror paint particular but robust portraits of 14th Century life in Europe while also respecting and mainting the distance and alterity of that era of history relative to our own. The monks of Eco’s novel see their scholarly achievements burn away to nothing, kindled by their intellectual pride and rational certainty. The French knights of Tuchman’s popular history see their glory and prestige dashed against the rocks of an ill-conceived conflict with little-understood Muslims from the Middle East. These texts contain lessons for both sides of our contemporary political spectrum, but the worlds they spring from and the forces both great and small that catalyzed them stand on their own, apart from our experience and perhaps our understanding. Great texts can balance these seemingly contradictory implications, and The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror achieve that balance beautifully.

Categories: History, Literature, Religion

TV Quickshots #25

February 14, 2016 Leave a comment

War and Peace (BBC; 2016)

The BBC’s new serialized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic novel of aristocratic love and suffering in the time of Russia’s war against Napoleon was a massive critical and popular hit in Britain and has also aired on this side of the Atlantic on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel. And for good reason: cannily scripted by Andrew Davies (best known for penning the widely-beloved Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice for the Beeb in the mid-1990s) and directed ably by Tom Harper, this was lavish, spectacular, wondrously acted and tremendously well-conceived television that did fine credit to what may be the greatest novel ever written.

At six-and-a-half hours, this War and Peace took less than half of the time to tell its panoramic decade-long story as the BBC’s last kick at this particular Russian literary can back in 1972. Indeed, in running time, approach, sensibility, and aesthetic swirl, the 2016 BBC War and Peace is closest to Sergei Bondarchuk’s seminal Soviet-era film version, although it focuses its emotional surges for more shameless impact than the 1967 seven-plus-hour multi-part movie did, invested with a certain chilly Communist calculation as it was. Of course, seeing as war-and-peaceBondarchuk’s marathon production spanned six years, allowed characters to age noticeably as they would have over a 10 years of the novel’s events, and had more extensive access to Russian historic sites and heritage props than did the new BBC version (not to mention the virtually unlimited funding of a national propaganda system), its authenticity cannot really be challenged. Bondarchuk also allowed both the narrative of Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812 and the central romantic triangle between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played here by James Norton), Count Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), and Natasha Rostova (Lily James) more room to breathe and develop (at the expense of the novel’s other rich subplots, it must be said). If this new War and Peace has a weakness, it lies in the rapid, seemingly coincidental stacking-up of dramatic incident resulting from the otherwise laudable decision to include as much of the book material as possible. Things happen at a pace that can seem almost frantic at times, and emotional heft can sometimes be a casualty of this arrangement.

If this is a weakness of the Davies/Harper War and Peace, it has very few others. Magnificently shot and designed on the basis of art history, suffused with telling detail and a certain Anglicized version of Russian robustness, with an utterly fantastic score full of resonant Eastern Orthodox choral music, War and Peace is a technically handsome production that rises into transcendence at moments both expected and unexpected. It includes and nicely stages more of the novel than I would have thought possible, including a higher percentage of the subplot of Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden), Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley), and her father the old Prince Bolkonsky (Jim Broadbent) than any adaptation of similar length has yet managed to allocate space for. Broadbent, who has never been anything less than enjoyable onscreen, is an inspired choice to embody the old Prince’s peevish cruelty and strained levity, but Buckley is truly remarkable, finding the glowing soul inside Marya’s sadness and piety that the boyish Nikolai falls for (Lowden is overwhelmed by his hairdo and hussar’s wardrobe). The wrenching but idiosyncratic moment between Marya and her dying father, maybe my favourite single episode in the book, even makes the cut, though its affect falls prey to the rushed pace of the plot.

Still, War and Peace is about the central romance and its harsh contrast with the destructive war, and this BBC serial is stronger with the former than the latter. With a CG assist, the battles have a convincing scope, though they aren’t a scratch on Bondarchuk’s breathtaking sweep (not that the Beeb could muster the Red Army for their cameras, mind you). Norton, Dano, and James are all excellent, and their key moments, their hopes, joys, pains, and epiphanies, are sympathetically and movingly rendered. The climax of the triangle receives the pause of beautiful reflection that much of the series lacks and begs for, and along with the series’ closing scene comes closest to visually approximating Tolstoy’s fair-minded philosophy of big-hearted humanism.

What this War and Peace gets most vitally correct about Tolstoy’s classic is the flip-side of its greatest weakness. The enforced haste of its compression also gives this century-and-a-half-old story a verve and dramatic momentum that no filmed adaptation has quite managed to capture. Despite its 1,200-page sprawl and frequent digressions into amateurish historical theorizing, what strikes the reader about War and Peace is its surprising vitality and vividness. Dialogue crackles with wit and emotional intensity, hunts and sleigh rides are interludes of exhilaration, battle sequences as are frightening and adrenaline-fueled as Hollywood action movies. The BBC pares down War and Peace to its essentials (plus a little more), and the result is not only lavish and spectacular but potently real and enervated. A new high bar has been set for historical-literary drama on television, and it’s an effort not to be missed.

Scott & Bailey (ITV; 2011-Present)

Scott & Bailey is a sturdy police procedural made of superficially similarly feminist materiel as the much more gripping and challenging The Fall. The series runs the travails of the contemporary British woman through a cop-shop setting and the populist mainstream melodrama milieu of Northern England, specifically Manchester in this case.

As such, it stars a former Coronation Street mainstay, Suranne Jones, as Detective Constable Rachel Bailey, who investigates cases for the Major Incident Team of the Manchester Metropolitan Police (a force which does not exist) alongside sister-in-arms DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) under the command of DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). Jones as Bailey seems to have transplanted a set of soap opera personal problems to this more straight copper drama, struggling to keep her police work on track between an unhealthy relationship with a duplicitous solicitor (Rupert Graves) in Series 1, a troubled brother in Series 2, and a lower-class mother in Series 3. Scott, meanwhile, tries to balance work and raising her kids while enduring her maddening husband and fending off persistent advances from office colleague Andy Roper (Nicholas Gleaves). And, of course, there are always murders to solve, too.

Scott & Bailey may telegraph its murder mysteries and indeed most of its plot turns, but the appeal of these television packages tends to lie in the chemistry of their leads (which is reasonably ample) and the crackle of its writing (which is snappy enough). Scott and Bailey, and Murray as well, encounter any number of patriarchal and misogynistic obstacles and irritations, from the criminals they investigate as well as from the men they work with, date, marry, are related to, or befriend. They parry and sometimes painfully absorb these blows with a particular strength of character and thick skin that England’s popular culture has long associated with the grey industrial North, yes. But Scott and Bailey build up a collective defence from each other’s support and competence as well. Like the stockaded early medieval castle that their combined names in the show’s title puns upon, this female detective team fortifies itself against external threats and nuisances.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Macbeth (2015)

January 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Macbeth (2015; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy Macbeth is rapturously shot, compellingly stark, and acted with a visceral and earthy tone, redolent of partial immersion in the uncomfortably moist sensation of a dangerous bog. Shot by white-hot young DP Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake), this might be the most astoundingly gorgeous screen version of this weird and ugly play ever made. Sweeping wide shots of majestically craggy Scottish landscapes alternate with smoky battles and annunciations punctuated by artfully elongated drips of blood and saliva. Stone castles and cathedrals give way to foggy heaths and fields suffused in reds and golds, crepuscularly brushed with weak northern sunrays. This is a thoroughly ravishing Macbeth that nonetheless never forgets to be the dirty, nasty, mud-splattered slaughterhouse that it must be as well.

Kurzel and Arkapaw serve notice very quickly of their visual and dramatic approach to the material with a stunning battle sequence that manipulates the space and time within the frame with magnificent aesthetic effect. Impressive camerawork and editing is said to render violence as beauty far more often than it actually manages to do onscreen, but this scene is truly war as art, a sublime slaughter that is no less terrible for its beauty. It demonstrates the exquisite balance and rugged abandon in equal measure, and it sets a definite tone for all that is to come.

What is to come is the familiar narrative of prediction, murder, usurpation, and inevitable downfall, but grounded in a parochial medieval context of maximum brutality. The Shakespearean text is treating not as reverently-approached holy writ to be recited verbatim in complete but as source material for dialogue, a storehouse of finely-crafted word-tools with specific functions, like a thrusting sword or a household prayer icon. The performances, especially from Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, are strong indeed, but occupy the position of subordinate parts to a greater vision on greater themes. Showboating, such a tempting thespianic vice in the face of such florid language and richly sweeping tragedy, is a kept at a minimum, as is any sneaking lining of dark humour (Macbeth’s unhinged behaviour when faced with a ghostly visitor at a packed banquet offers no respite of laughs, as it sometimes does in other versions).

The problem with crafting a screen Macbeth that is this stoically convincing and fundamentally self-serious is that the Scottish Play is loaded with elements that put a great strain on modern audience’s suspension of disbelief. Cackling witches stirring cauldrons and telling vague fortunes, spectral visions of dead men and floating daggers, and a climactic double-shot of deflating prophecy. One could argue that Macbeth‘s weird (wyrd?) characteristics deepen and peculiarize the grand tragic themes of ambition, lust for power, and moral descent, but one could just as easily argue that they detract from those themes. This text may be central to the English literary canon but it’s a bit silly sometimes, innit?

Kurzel, working from a screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, deals with Macbeth‘s hoary supernatural elements and prophetic resolution cheats by normalizing them, rooting them in a sense of physical and psychological reality. Rather than haunting Fassbender’s Macbeth solely with by shaken bloody locks of the ghost of Banquo (Paddy Considine), the thane confrère that he has unceremoniously whacked in a mad effort to safeguard his potential dynasty, the blood-soaked Scottish king and his power-hungry Lady are beset by any number of unsettling apparations giving spectral form to their regrets, crimes, and desires. A dead Macbeth child opens the film and later reappears at the conclusion of Lady Macbeth’s “out damned spot” monologue in an abandoned country chapel, prefacing the subsequent horrors committed by its grasping parents in a crushing grief. The early battle won for King Duncan (David Thewlis) by Macbeth and his cohort includes numerous slain boy soldiers, one of which re-appears later to remind Macbeth that the depth of his moral guilt infects even his great deeds, holding the ghostly dagger that he sees before him. Even the witches drop in for visits at key moments in the final act tragedy, one of them holding the swaddled infant that the Macbeths have lost along with their moral compass.

The film’s resonant treatment of at least one of the many prophecies that the witches pronounce upon Macbeth rescues it from a costly last-act deflation. Many an imaginative reader, most notably a young J.R.R. Tolkien, was filled with excited anticipation at the prophecies that Macbeth would not fall until the forest of Birnam Wood comes to his castle of Dunsinane and that he could not be killed by any man of woman born, only to be disappointed by the fulfillment of these predictions by soldiers with branches in their caps and Mama Macduff’s C-section. Kurzel doesn’t deal with this potential pitfall with Tolkien’s spectacular one-up-manship, true, but his solution is perhaps more elegant: Malcolm’s army burns the wood, the embers drifting up to Macbeth on the ramparts and the flames’ red glow providing the backdrop for the final dust-up between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris), during which Macduff’s “untimely ripped” line lands like a vicious battlefield taunt.

Whatever the how and the why, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a tremendous aesthetic experience. Had I managed to see the film prior to the end of last year, it would certainly have found a spot high in my list of 2015’s best cinematic offerings. How it rates in relation to four centuries of adaptations of the Scottish Play, I am certainly not qualified to comment upon. But it distills influences, fashions, and aesthetic textures both historical and contemporary into a heady brew of a drama that will not soon fade, a film full of sound and fury that signifies very much indeed.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

December 3, 2015 3 comments

Beasts of No Nation (2015; Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)

What are we resolved to make of Beasts of No Nation? Directed and personally shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective), adapted by Fukunaga from Harvard-educated Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name (which borrows its title from an album by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti), Beasts of No Nation is, in most ways, a remarkable film. The story of a West African boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is captured by and pressed into the ranks of a rebel army full of child soldiers and led by a charismatic but manipulative Commandant (Idris Elba), it’s frequently visually astonishing, wonderfully acted, and challenging, wrenching, and painfully sad. But it’s also emotionally cynical and sociopolitically sensationalist, bartering away its considerable aesthetic heft more often than it should in exchange for its target audience’s complicity in collaboratively experiencing an “authentic” cinematic expression of the apparently hopeless plight of modern Africa.

Like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, I can’t shake the echoes of Joseph Conrad’s deeply problematic but nonetheless vital monument of Western literature about Africa in particular and colonialism in general, Heart of Darkness, that resonate through the chambers of Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Agu’s journey in the Commandant’s retinue is a shadow of Marlow’s upriver penetration into the horror of the Belgian Congo, and Elba plays the Commandant as an African heir to the brutal feudal lord that Marlow finds there, the colonial boss gone horribly wrong (or insidiously right), Kurtz. But thematically and narratively, this reflection of Europe’s dominant literary model of the African paradigm implies a century-long discursive stasis that the rapid and unpredictable changes in the real-world African continent has lapped many times over. And yet, Africa’s footsteps continue to be haunted by the ghost of Conrad’s work and its profound but disturbing (and limiting) implications.

O’Hehir offers numerous examples of alternate films that present contemporary African life (and even Fukunaga’s specific subject of child soldiers) with a greater breadth and depth of insight, and the recommendations are worth pursuing. But those films are not streaming on Netflix like Beasts of No Nation, and do not feature a rapidly-rising Afro-Briton star like Elba prowling like a shrewd big cat and intoning mantras of twisted militarized collectivism to his pubescent legion. This is an African story that will be noticed, that will be consumed and considered and whose assumptions will be recognized and internalized by a mostly white audience in the industrialized, democratic-capitalist West.

What are those assumptions? The deflating permanence of brutal violence and organized disorder, the exploitation of weakness and desire, the impotence of decency and kindness, and the hegemony of fear, superstition, and predatory plunder. They are Conrad’s assumptions, too, arranged into a penetrative quest narrative construction that is also inescapably a descent into madness and darkness and savagery. Beasts of No Nation doesn’t begin that way. It commences with a sunny prelude of Agu’s innocent bliss in the midst of general poverty that is both a stereotype and the closest thing to a true expression of quotidian African life that Fukunaga has to offer. Agu and his friends run around with the wooden frame of a television set (we see the electronic components standing naked in his family’s home later on), offering to sell this dream machine and then re-enacting scenes from popular entertainment genres for the observer staring through the open space in the frame. It’s a simple but resonant device for expressing an idea of a culture whose dream-fulfillment is its own responsibility but has been left with only remnants of its former colonial hegemon’s expansive cultural and industrial infrastructure to work with.

Agu’s joy is encroached upon and his family is divided into inaccessible refugees and corpses by a brutal civil war, and he is swallowed by the jungle into which he flees, where he falls in with Commandant’s cult-like batallion of irregulars. The Native Defense Force, as they are called, initiates Agu into its ranks via propagandistic discourses, call-and-answer chants, and a tribal spiritual ceremony of mystical bloodthirst (the initiates pass under an arch crowned with human skulls to undergo the liminal ceremony, the clearest nod to Conrad in the film). He also must kill a man by burying a machete in his skull, an image both provocatively true of certain chaotic segments of Africa and purely, off-puttingly lurid. Fukunaga lingers on the scene with portent, daring us to parse the differences. Commandant also keeps his troops in line with buttered words and queasy abuses, including hallucinogenic narcotics. The latter memorably affect Agu’s perception during a vicious assault on an unfriendly village, as the foliage shifts to a sickly crimson tinge as the bloodshed commences (an uncredited borrowing of Irish artist Richard Mosse’s striking tinted photography of African combatants).

Without spoiling too much, Agu emerges from this ordeal intact but deeply changed (although the amazing and naturalistic Attah doesn’t play this landing on a safe shore as any species of redemption), like, one might extrapolate, Africa did from colonialism. But has Africa emerged from colonialism at all? Perhaps in some places, at some times, but then reducing a whole continent of over a billion people to the same determinist set of historical experiences and sociopolitical obstacles is just another form of the discriminatory constructions and damaging stereotypes that justified Europe’s sustained pillaging of Africa in the first place (and perhaps still does). Are cultural texts like Beasts of No Nation, as aesthetically powerful and vaguely well-intentioned as they are, small-scale catalysts in the drawn-out and difficult process of aiding Africans in dispelling the spectres of colonial brutality that continue to haunt them, or are they a contiguous portion of those persistent assumptions? Does a film like this serve to overcome, or does it need to be overcome itself?

For Joseph Conrad at the end of the 19th Century, the answers to these sorts of questions did not present themselves readily in the Africa of the moment. For Cary Joji Fukunaga in the early years of the 21st Century, they still do not. Is this a failure of these artists’ imagination or a statement of their subject’s ineffable complexity and inscrutable obscurity? Maybe a bit of both, although Conrad’s text at least grasps the gnawing anxiety of the unknown and unknowable and enfolds that feeling of philosophical emptiness into the nastier pits of despair and malignancy lurking deep in the Congolese jungle.

In both Heart of Darkness and Beasts of No Nation, brutality survives and thrives where deprivation strangles hope, and organized violence and plunder (the colonial legacy to trump all others) grow like trees watered by blood. The dark metaphorical revelation for a reader of Conrad’s time was that while Marlow expected to discover that Africa’s black core had perverted the trader Kurtz, what he finds is that Kurtz and his ilk brought a greater share of the darkness to those lands themselves. This history is distant but not unglimpsed in Beasts of No Nation, a film more concerned with the delayed aftershocks of that history on the identity and psychology of modern Africans than how the politics and society of modern Africa was shaped by it.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews