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Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

December 28, 2017 1 comment

Murder on the Orient Express (2017; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

The one true highlight, and by far the most successful feature, of Murder on the Orient Express is Hercule Poirot’s mustache. Fulsome and florid, it curves across the upper lip of Kenneth Branagh – who plays Agatha Christie’s refined and fastidious master detective as well as directs this new screen version of his most famous case – and curls ever-further up his cheeks like a garter snake cradling a bird’s egg. This is no thin, manicured pencil-stache, but a deep and broad explosion of expressive facial hair bursting with life and silvery truth. This mustache is a powerful river surging over a cataract, a shining band of precious metal, a swelling mountain range rising from the flat surface of a topographical map. It’s fascinating, mesmerizing, all-absorbing. A magnificent magum opus of a mustache. You can lose yourself in it, find yourself plunging into its hirsute abyss until all sense of self, of being, of past, present, and future, are swallowed by its compelling oblivion.

Somewhere in the wavering mists beyond the Mustache to End All Mustaches, there is a movie, too. Branagh’s Poirot, the famed Belgian master detective sought the world over to untangle the thorniest mysteries and riddles of the fashionable 1930s, is first shown theatrically solving a missing-relic conundrum involving clerics of the three Abrahamic religions before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. This cold open is hardly Christie canon, having been invented by screenwriter Michael Green in adapting the popular 1934 detective novel, but it fulfills a clear purpose: it slickly introduces the fussy but brilliantly perceptive Poirot (who insists with obsessive-compulsiveness on his breakfast eggs being exactly the same height, but benevolently declines to blame the Arab boy who rushes them to him for it) to a modern film audience perhaps unaccustomed to his personality and to his Sherlock Holmes-like clever deductions.

That personality and those deductions get a thorough workout on board the iconic titular luxury train, which conveys Poirot and a rogue’s gallery of mismatched but increasingly interconnected passengers across Europe from Istanbul to Calais on the English Channel. Snowbound after an avalanche in the Balkan mountains derails the train, Poirot must unravel the secrets of his fellow passengers to resolve a confounding murder with a dark connection to one of the most notorious crimes of the age.

If the plot summary seems circumspect, that’s because whodunits like Christie’s deserve a minimum of pre-exposition to lay out their web of clues and revelations to maximum effect. Christie’s detective fiction is an elaborate period-specific pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more legendary Holmes stories (and Murder specifically draws liberally from the torn-from-the-headlines case of the Lindbergh baby), but its clever clockwork surprises merit the respect of an absence of spoilers at least. Green’s script and Branagh’s direction trust in the witty labyrinth of breadcrumbs left by Christie, embellishing minimally. Some of these embellishments, such as quick chase sequences, tussles, and climactic gun drama, flatter conventional modern audience sensibilities and offer easy tension and frisson in predictable but hyper-competent forms. Other embellishments, such as parenthetical references to (the thoroughly sexless) Poirot’s lost love Katherine, present as extremely tacked-on, or, in the case of flashbacks to the projection of what appear to be 1930s home movies (?), completely unrealistic.

Such criticisms should not be construed as being dismissive of Branagh’s direction, which is generally strong in technical and aesthetic terms. His camera impressively conveys sweep and scope and dynamism to a scaled-up locked-room mystery set almost entirely on board a luxurious but claustrophobic train (which, for much of the movie, isn’t even moving). The luxury is depicted with a lush vignette-montage of tableaux of polishing and arranging, while the claustrophobia is emphasized in a single-take overhead shot which allows the examination of the crime scene like a schematic diagram, and is equally overcome with long horizontal tracking shots through or alongside the train cars. Branagh uses the camera smartly and expertly to maximize his mid-range budget and triumphantly surmount the potential feeling that Murder on the Orient Express might be merely television-level in scope, a smallish product inherently unworthy of cinematic scale (let alone old-fashioned, widescreen-friendly 65mm cameras, which Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos used to shoot the film). This is a film so well-made and well-shot that one cannot but laugh off and forgive an indulgently over-clever choice like Branagh’s  self-conscious reference to a seminal work of visual art in the climactic reveal scene (you’ll know it when you see it, I would wager).

But for all of Kenneth Branagh’s keen and professional work behind the camera to help Murder on the Orient Express succeed, he often can’t help himself, can’t help Branaghing, behind but especially in front of the camera. Branagh’s youthful burst of popularly and critically successful Shakespeare film adaptations in the late ’80s and early ’90s are far enough in the cinematic past to be semi-forgotten, but then so is the preening, egocentric excess of their director and star boldly self-evident in them. It’s taken Branagh two decades to work himself back into Hollywood’s good graces as a profitable filmmaker after the misbegotten Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his indulgent four-hour Hamlet in the mid-’90s, helming blockbuster fare like Thor and Cinderella like a dutiful soldier while rebuilding his on-camera performance cred with his starring role in the moody Norse-noir grit of the BBC detective drama Wallander. He even allowed himself to be seen to laugh at the heroic, self-involved golden-boy persona he built his fame upon (no wonder his chest-beating Henry V is so good, after all) as the foppish, self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie.

But Kenneth Branagh making movies with all of his toys and all of his gold can be a fraught proposition. In a lot of ways, Murder on the Orient Express should be a perfect fit for Branagh’s toolset at the moment: it allows him to tap his established skills of historical recreation, balancing literary origins with cinematic language, familiarity with the detective genre, and recently-won confidence with CG effects. And, honestly, in many ways, his Murder on the Orient Express is a success, not least of which is his use of his international all-star cast (Branagh has always been good with ensembles, no doubt a holdover from his theatre days). Branagh is canny enough to tap into Daisy Ridley’s poise and self-possession, to trust Penelope Cruz’s eyes to do the work which her mouth (when it speaks English, anyway) can never quite manage, to let Willem Dafoe fruitfully pivot from duplicitousness to impassioned decency, to work Josh Gad into a nervous sweat, to incorporate young talents like Tom Bateman and Leslie Odom Jr. alongside decorated acting vets like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, to realize that Johnny Depp is really only useful as a despicable slimeball anymore, and to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in a damn movie already!

But, you know, Branagh gotta Branagh. Holy Mustache aside, his perfectly well-played Poirot sticks pretty closely to the textual model and thus is barely differentiated from the iconic screen version of the character crafted by David Suchet for years on television. But Kenneth Branagh is directing a movie starring himself again, and beneath Poirot’s prim, sophisticated manifestation, his glee at being the centre of attention again is palpable. Agatha Christie’s mysteries are often just as interested (if not more so) in the eccentric figures clustering around an unsolved crime than the archetypal detective trying to solve it, but this Murder on the Orient Express is thoroughly Poirot-centric, and therefore thoroughly Branagh-centric as well. Poirot is always the smartest boy in the room, but is just odd and self-effacing enough (he is, after all, Belgian) to transcend the arrogance and presumption that status entails. In Murder on the Orient Express, as in his peak-period Shakespeare adaptations, Kenneth Branagh is once again the smartest boy in the room. He revels in it, and wants us to know that he does. In such conditions, the work itself suffers, inevitably. Like Poirot’s mustache (here we go again with the mustache-as-metaphor for the larger film!), Kenneth Branagh is just a bit too much for the movie he’s a part of.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Crimson Peak

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Crimson Peak (2015; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The initially seductive Crimson Peak ultimately fails to live up to the deep promise of its evocative design and syncretic root-network of influences. In doing so, it suggests with a troubling persistence that the rich litany of varied ingredients that inspire writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s visually dense, weirdly poetic, and symbolically detailed films (reflected in a touring exhibition of his personal collection currently at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) can dispiritingly add up to less than the sum of their parts. Not a proper horror film so much as an atmospheric and significantly chromatic gothic romance with elements of the ghost story, Crimson Peak stumbles from a drawn-out establishing passage into a relatively and disappointingly conventional conclusion. It’s not a case study of del Toro’s acclaimed vision being constrained, however, but an uneasy suggestion that his alchemist’s vision has limits and blindspots that display a tendency to let it down, in the breach.

Del Toro sets the latter half of Crimson Peak in the titularly-nicknamed manorial pile in Cumberland, England (all of it, mind you, filmed in Southern Ontario, where most of his recent productions have been based). This closing setting, Allerdale Hall, is envisioned as a classic Victorian Gothic construction, a rambling haunted mansion of pointed arches, restless spirits, unfriendly corridors, and blood-hued red clay literally bubbling up from its foundations like an uncontainable violent buried history. It’s a symbol of the slow decay of aristocratic privilege, with Industrial Age accoutrements stitched Frankenstein-like onto its failing body. Del Toro’s reference points for this house of horrors are numerous and probably ultimately known only to himself, but the titular house in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Dracula’s castle, and even the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stand among them.

Before he takes his story there, however, del Toro provides as an introductory contrast the robust American capitalist respectability of fin-de-siècle Buffalo, New York. This is the hometown of his heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a clever but romantically naïve aspiring novelist and daughter of wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Haunted (quite literally) by the memory of her mother’s death, her romantic aspirations are appealed to by a visiting English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who with his just-a-bit sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is seeking the Cushing père‘s financial backing for a clay-mining contraption of the tinkering Thomas’s own invention. Carter doubts the viability of Sharpe’s scheme (especially given the discouraging discoveries of his private investigator Mr. Holly, played by del Toro semi-regular Burn Gorman) and sharply disapproves of his courtship of Edith, withholding his approval of Thomas’s marriage proposal. The elder Cushing’s objections will be, shall we say, firmly overcome, however, as will those of Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and newlywed Edith will be swept away to Allerdale Hall, where she will find herself in quite a horrible and not at all romantic situation indeed.

Del Toro’s rich wellspring of sources and inspirations colours the establishment of this onscreen world, spanning haunted house movies of the Studio Era, English Gothic literature, and jump-scare modern horror flicks. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts, reflecting cultural sources as much as personal ones, are its creepiest and perhaps most resonant creations. “Ghosts are real. This much, I know,” intones Edith in narration at the beginning and end of the film, but she also tells a prospective publisher that the ghosts in her novel are metaphors. For del Toro, ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, horribly tangible revenants of past agony and regret and love and tenderness as well as spectral symbols of such fading sentiments galvanized by the mortal fear of death. Edith is warned by the ghost of her mother, clad in the black clothes of mourning (and based on the ghost of del Toro’s own grandmother, who evidently visited his mother after the older woman’s demise), about a dire “Crimson Peak” that she must avoid, and is further bedeviled by a blood-red ghoul at Allerdale Hall, which emerges from the floor like the consuming crimson clay.

Colour is vital to Crimson Peak‘s intended affect (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, whose most notable visual work was on the bonkers French genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf and who is also lensing del Toro’s forthcoming The Shape of Water), but it works best in small, well-observed moments of character-arc foreshadowing more than in the grand, baroque, violent (and unfortunately tedious) climax. The best example is a quiet but key scene between Edith and Lucille in a Buffalo park. Observing delicate, beautiful butterflies dying from the approaching winter chill, Lucille tells Edith of the black moths back home, “formidable creatures” which “lack beauty” but “thrive on the dark and cold” and consume butterflies. Their wardrobe symbolically identifies them with these contrasting insects: Edith’s hat, parasol, blouse, and skirts visually echo the colour-markings of the butterflies, while Lucille’s black dress and deep-red rose carnation align her with the predatory moths she describes.

Intricate weavings of cinematography, editing, wardrobe, dialogue, performance, and subtextual ideas as displayed in this scene define del Toro’s work at its best (it must be said, however, that only Chastain, revelling in Lucille’s waxing villainy, stands out at all among the cast). Sadly, Crimson Peak, for all of the splendour and the near-novelistic density of its visual world, never quite comes together in the way his strongest films do (I’m thinking, of course, of Pan’s Labyrinth, above all). The tense horror-thriller sequences of Edith being stalked by the ghosts are impeccably paced and orchestrated, but are of secondary or even tangential significance compared to the pulpy central plot of the Sharpes. This is a trademark of del Toro’s treatment of fantastical or supernatural elements in his work, granted: the magic he conjures is grand and beautiful and dangerous and terrifying, and it certainly does not abide by concrete human-conceived rules of logic or causation.

But in Crimson Peak, these elements seem at once to be stitched onto a different body of a film and to act as a pestilent virus seeking to take over its host. There’s a better film buried inside the tangled intertextual vines of Crimson Peak, struggling to free itself. There is no doubting the breadth and depth of del Toro’s vision here as elsewhere, but whether for budgetary or generic or imaginative reasons, Crimson Peak doesn’t unfold the possibilities of that vision so much as narrow its focus as it proceeds. This is what it looks like when Guillermo del Toro gets lost in his own head and takes a wrong turn. Those of us who have admired the products of his mind and his imagination in the past do fervently hope that he rights his path again.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

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?

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.