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The Masque of the Red, White, and Blue Death: Edgar Allan Poe, Donald Trump, and the Plague of the American Elite

October 5, 2020 Leave a comment

First published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1842, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror story The Masque of the Red Death tells a simple but richly evocative tale of an unfathomably wealthy and fashionably eccentric medieval duke who seals himself and a thousand fellow privileged nobility and entertainers in a magnificent abbey to safely revel away the hours while the titular deadly plague ravages the surrounding countryside. But death, like time, is not hindered by the walls of class privilege, and a masked figure personifying the Red Death brings the inevitable terror of mortality with it into the duke’s multichromatic halls. The duke falls dead attempting to confront the figure, and his guests follow suit in rapid succession. Poe’s final sentence makes the story’s pitch-black conclusion starkly evident: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Like this personage of the Red Death, The Masque of the Red Death casts a long and ominous shadow for a literary apparition of such brevity and simplicity. The story is a mere 2,417 words long (this essay is just a bit longer!), distributed across 14 paragraphs; now in the public domain, you can read it for free as an e-text on Project Gutenberg in the space of 15 minutes or so. Its meanings and textual implications are clear: death comes for us all, regardless of class, wealth, privilege, or bold defiance of its absolute dictates. Although the story’s obvious allegorical meanings have sometimes been de-emphasized by scholars of Poe’s works on the grounds that the influential American horror writer disdained didactic literature, its symbolism is on the nose enough to be taught in grade school English Lit class.

The duke Prospero – who is the only named character in the text, his moniker a very literal marker of his prosperity as well as a reference to the lead character of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a powerful lord who rules over a superficial paradise that conceals a darker reality – has arranged and decorated the seven halls of his abbey refuge in a horseshoe pattern and decorated each in a dominant colour scheme illuminated by brazier light filtered through similarly-hued stained glass Gothic windows: the rooms progress from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet and finally to a room of velvet-black whose light is filtered through scarlet panes. In this last room, which due to its creepy red-black ambience is avoided by the revelers like the plague, there is also a large ebony clock which rings out every hour on the hour like a resonant grave-bell, halting the light-spirited music and conversation in the other halls and spreading a ponderous silence as it rings out its undeniable herald of the inexorable advance of time. One can quibble with authorial allegorical intent if one wishes (Poe did ridicule the works of the contemporaneous Transcendentalists as “metaphor gone mad”, preferring meaning as an undercurrent just below the surface), but there’s little doubt what this is signifying, especially when Poe capitalizes Time in reference to the clock’s resonant reminders. Prospero meets his final fate before the clock and the Red Death personage in this velvet room, the definitive symbolic thrust.

It’s no stretch to extend Poe’s generalized themes of the “illimitable dominion” of mortality to class critiques, given that the upper-class privilege of Prospero and his lavish courtiers fails to protect them from the Red Death that they consider to be an affliction of the mere rabble to which they are, by their lofty social position, effectively immune. Edgar Allan Poe, for his part, is one of the common models for the popular archetype of the struggling artist, the starving underappreciated genius toiling in his cage of poverty, the literal poet in his garret. It is true that Poe had a difficult life which afforded him little comfort, marked by illness, alcoholism, and consistent penury, receiving little recognition or reward for his fictional output (he was somewhat known as an acerbic and uncompromising critic, which is cold comfort, believe me) during his lifetime. Indeed, his total earnings for The Masque of the Red Death, now one of the best-known short stories in the English language, added up to $12. Socialist political movements seeking to equalize the inequitous distribution of wealth and power of societies in Europe and the Americas were becoming active in both intellectual circles and on the streets during Poe’s life, and his work has often been understood by scholars through the lens of capitalist critiques. But his Gothic horror stories in particular used wealth and privilege as a pedestal of august heights from which his characters might plunge all the further into darkness, madness, and death. Trangression of class privilege is not a political project to Edgar Allan Poe so much as an aesthetic and symbolic tool to amplify his work’s dark implications about the human spirit.

The class politics potentialities of a story like The Masque of the Red Death have burst to the surface in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, however. Poe’s story has joined literary works like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z and previously discussed Hollywood movies like Contagion and Outbreak as epidemic texts that have drawn wider interest from readers and viewers in the time of global viral crisis. The Masque of the Red Death in particular has very recently presented as extremely relevant to the latest COVID-19-related developments in the United States, as noted in a tweet by Canadian writer and queer scholar Anthony Oliveira that largely inspired this essay (a similar analogy was drawn in a Los Angeles Times op-ed by David L. Ulin). The news that broke in the early morning hours of October 2nd that U.S. President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 was stunning but not precisely surprising, given his consistent downplaying of the threat posed by the virus, his undermining and even outright mockery of precautionary measures such as mask usage and social distancing, and the blanket response of the federal government (as well as of American capitalist society in general) to the pandemic that has prioritized the preservation and even expansion of the political and economic elite’s wealth and privilege at the very literal expense of the lives of ordinary American citizens. After a brief period of limited circle-the-wagons crisis unity when the virus first burst out of China and across the world in the early spring, the response of America’s powerful has settled back into avaricious self-interested crisis capitalism. Collective action will only be marshaled in the service of class solidarity. To quote Poe in Masque: “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

The event that has emerged as a particularly perverse and resonant echo of The Masque of the Red Death, like the eerie tolling of the ebony clock in the velvet room, is the one that Oliveira tweeted out in comparison: the ceremony held in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, September 26th to announce conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett as President Trump’s latest nomination to the Supreme Court in the wake of the death of iconic liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th. Despite a looming election that, just four years ago, Trump’s Senate-controlling Republican Party used as justification for refusing to hold hearings or a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s liberal SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP and conservative movement did not hesitate at all before steaming full-speed ahead on replacing the Democrat-appointed Ginsburg with Trump’s third conservative Supreme Court appointee, intending to hold Senate confirmation hearings and seat Barrett before the election in less than a month’s time. Reading the polls that show Trump being demolished by Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the coming presidential election (a recent poll taken after Trump’s disastrously belligerent debate showing but before his COVID diagnosis had him down by 14 points nationally), the GOP has seized on the chance to give themselves a 6-3 majority of conservative justices as a bulwark against a potential Democratic takeover of the White House and Congress, allowing them to potentially strike down the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, and any other left-leaning legislation passed into law by Democrats in the event of their opponents defeating them at the polls, and even to rule on installing Trump back into the White House in the case of a contested election which, with the President’s dishonest voter fraud rhetoric and the party’s full-court-press assault on voting rights, mailed ballot validity, and dissenting protest, they seem determined to force.

Despite the scandal-prone clusterfuckery of the past four years of the Trump-ruled GOP and above all the continuing, consistently-downplayed pandemic, the Republican elite could not help but bask and gloat in their apparently imminent and unstoppable triumph over the enemy in the decades-long struggle for America’s final, unelected, seated-for-life arbiters of the law (there are remedies, but whether the Democratic Party has the spine for the fight to administer them is an open question). The September 26th Barrett announcement was attended by Trump family members, Cabinet officials, Republican Senators and Congressmen, religious leaders, conservative legal grandees, and even the President of the University of Notre Dame, where the extremist arch-Catholic Barrett (who has been paid to speak to a homophobic hate group on five separate occasions, to give an idea of her views) teaches. As detailed in Kevin Liptak’s CNN article on the event linked above, coronavirus precautions were in place but largely for show: not-fully-reliable rapid tests were administered to guests who were admitted to the ceremony with a negative result and told that they could remove their masks, those unlikely symbols for a recklessly unwise right-wing culture war on public health measures (in The Masque of the Red Death, the infuriated duke likewise demands that the party-crashing figure of the Red Death be seized and unmasked). Photos and video of the event show well-dressed Republicans sitting closely together, chatting without social distancing, shaking hands, even hugging each other. For Americans who have not been able to safely interact with friends and family for months, even if those friends or family members were dying alone in a hospital, the implications of these visuals alone had to be infuriating.

But they became all the more infuriating and alarming when positive COVID-19 tests began to cascade across the ceremony attendees in the week that followed. First presidential advisor Hope Hicks, then Trump and his wife Melania, and then numerous Republican Senators and White House advisors and staff and the President of Notre Dame were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. As speculation and recrimination flew through the press and social media about when Trump knew he was COVID-positive and how many events he attended and how many people he exposed before (and after) being airlifted to hospital this past Friday, the Barrett announcement event became instantly infamous as a presidentially-run superspreader event, emblematic of the administration’s shambolic and blithely unconcerned pandemic response and the American elite’s arrogant assumption that their wealth, power, and privilege would make them immune to the plague that was disproportionately killing America’s poorest and most disadvantaged minorities.

In The Masque of the Red Death, Prospero’s abbey is ringed by a “strong and lofty wall”, “girded with iron”. Poe continues:

The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death”.

In the same manner that Poe intended his meanings to be evident just below the surface of the text like a looming, plankton-skimming whale, the implications of the right-wing American elite’s pompous sense of invincibility and privilege-girded security while death raged outside the walls are so clear as to barely be subtextual at all. That the coronavirus raged through them (though has felled none of them as of yet) as they fêted the coming undemocratic generational dominance of their fortress-of-greed power structures and did so specifically because of their personal disregard for pandemic precautions after months of undermining them in order to preserve the flow of profit in defiance of public health and safety for the country at large, well… that’s Irony discernable even in at a high-school English essay level of critical analysis. Edgar Allan Poe as a literary critic and theorist would find much to grimly appreciate in our blunt age of political and cultural subtext becoming inescapably bare text.

American power elites are hardly alone in their soulless disregard for pandemic precautions and mitigating sacrifices and the unrelenting emphasis of capitalist profit over more communal social health and economic security. Closer to home, as COVID cases rise in urban Ontario in general and Toronto in particular, the Conservative provincial government of Premier Doug Ford stubbornly bowed to its business lobby donor class and refused to meaningfully roll back the restaurant, bar, retail, and school openings that most likely led to the rise in cases in the first place, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government has likewise bowed to corporate interests in ending the CERB benefit payments that have kept the Canadian economy afloat since the pandemic closures began in March. The capitalist-democratic order of the neoliberal West is ever at its most rickety in the midst of crisis, and even if COVID-19 is yet to deal a decisive blow to that system and its overblown inequities, it has laid many of its core destabilizing contradictions as bare as they can be, to the point where even the Pope feels the need to point out that they cannot feasibly or morally continue. But the conduct of the courtiers of that opulent trickle-down order, welding the bolts that they might bid defiance to contagion while the external world fends for itself, is increasingly untenable and becomes ever more difficult to forget for those locked out (and locked down).

As The Masque of the Red Death makes painfully clear, however, it will not even protect the elites who wall themselves off from the rest of the world in manners figurative or literal. The coronavirus, its vesture dabbled in blood, stalks their magnificent halls and awaits them before the ebony clock of Time. Whether a literal personification of the COVID-19 illness or a figurative representation of the unpredictable social, political, cultural, and economic forces that may yet cascade irrevocably in its wake, the Red Death may still hold illimitable dominion over all, not matter their net worth or position of power and privilege.

Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Television Review: His Dark Materials

April 10, 2020 Leave a comment

His Dark Materials: Series 1 (BBC/HBO; 2019 – Present)

For those not familiar with the best-selling fantasy novel trilogy by Philip Pullman upon which BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials series is based, consider the following (mildly spoiler-y) summation. Imagine C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy books, but they’re only nominally written for children (or even young adults, necessarily). Instead of a mysterious and a little whimsical portal inside a wardrobe leading to a single medieval-ish fantasy world, imagine numerous portals leading to a literally infinite number of alternate universes conceived on the basis of multiverse theory, each one either slightly different or wildly divergent from the next. Instead of a clutch of virtuous English children meeting an umimpeachably heroic talking lion, imagine a resourceful and special young girl befriending a full-sized talking polar bear wearing metal armour. And instead of a barely-veiled Christian allegory, imagine a rich scientific/cosmological metaphor for a totalizing atheistic belief system. His Dark Materials is a reasonably involving narrative full of complex world-building, science-fiction touches, and resonant themes about morality, liberty, and theocratic oppression.

If that sounds to you like it’s pretty awesome, I’m here to tell you that… yeah, it’s all right. I read the book series something like a decade ago (it was published about a decade before that, from 1995 to 2000) and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but retained its forceful non-deistic anti-creation mythos much more than any of its character’s arcs and emotional journeys, let alone Pullman’s febrile but unremarkable prose. Pullman is a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, among whose most august alumni is the legendary author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Pullman very clearly conceives of himself and his literary output, His Dark Materials in particular, as being a comprehensive agnostic rebuttal to the seminal and beloved mid-century fantasy works of fellow Oxford dons Tolkien and Lewis, their involving stories based in mythology with themes ultimately reinforcing their authors’ Christian worldviews.

Pullman has flat-out said in public that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, and was labelled “the most dangerous author in Britain” by conservative writer Peter Hitchens. His Dark Materials (its title is taken from Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in that context the phrase has clear creationist implications) is utterly and completely not subtle about this primary goal, sometimes to its larger storytelling detriment. The primary antagonistic power-structure aligned against Pullman’s protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in the trilogy is the Magisterium, a nearly all-powerful theocratic world government with its own globally-reaching armed police force that imposes total orthodox of belief and practice. It’s essentially as if the medieval Catholic Church was never splintered by the Protestant Reformation (or even the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for that matter) and retained complete moral and spiritual authority over the Christian faith while extending that authority over all secular institutions and the entirety of world society as well.

If turning the Catholic Church into the evil Empire from Star Wars wasn’t enough, the plot of the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, initially published as Northern Lights in the UK but released as The Golden Compass in America, revolves around the Magisterium secretly abducting children in order to literally take away their souls (manifested in Lyra’s world as constant animal-spirit companions called daemons) in a deluded attempt to squash out the imagined source of sin. Pullman’s metaphor for his perception of organized Christian religion’s quashing of individual freedom of expression and of scientific inquiry is crystal-clear, and this plot strand and its thematic underpinnings perhaps unintentionally evoke the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal while it’s at it. Hell, by the third book, Pullman is literally unmasking “God” as a con artist and killing him off in diminished ignonimy. He’s not hiding what this stuff is about in any way, inside the text or out of it.

To put it mildly, His Dark Materials has proven a tiny bit controversial with religious conservatives. The Catholic Herald‘s Leonie Caldecott called it “a Luciferian enterprise”, a work of art “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry (Potter)“, its far more popular modern fantasy contemporary that has attracted laughably old-fashioned religious objections for promoting witchcraft, as if we’re living in the 1660s (although we’ve got the plague for it, after all). Caldecott was perhaps inadvertently making Pullman’s point for him (he asked his publishers to include her quotes in his next book), but she recognized the core feature of His Dark Materials: it’s extremely potent propaganda against religion aimed squarely at impressionable young readers. No doubt she’s worried that her side is falling irrevocably behind in the war of ideas, if it hasn’t already done so. Catholicism, once the (often literal) gold standard in self-justifying artistic propaganda, can’t boast any works of equivalently effective polemic in the half-century since cantakerous old C.S. Lewis gave up the ghost. A generalized smothering disdain for contemporary culture as well as a dogmatic adherence to outdated modes of thought and expression will tend to have that effect, one might find.

At any rate, nervousness about the intellectual property’s anti-religious intent was one of the contributing factors to the failure of the only previous attempt to adapt His Dark Materials to a visual medium. New Line Cinema, swelling with profits and prestige and confidence following the world-beating success of The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy, swooped down on the film rights to Pullman’s books and poured $180 million into The Golden Compass, the first of what it hoped would be a trilogy of films that might approximate that great prior genre success. Unfortunately, approximating Rings was too thoroughly the mantra for The Golden Compass for it to ever work on its own terms. New Line hired a director of decent, middling-cost movies who was unproven with a budget and thus a cinematic canvas of such magnitude, but unlike with Peter Jackson, the bet did not pay off so spectacularly well this time: Chris Weitz’s biggest prior success was American Pie (co-directed with his brother Paul), and in The Golden Compass he cannot make the epically-scoped visual storytelling (sweeping landscape shots galore!) feel anything but inert and lifeless (his next film was a Twilight sequel, so those qualities were right at home with that material). Weitz himself even agreed with this assessment before the fact, actually resigning as director during pre-production, citing the enormous technical challenges that he didn’t feel up to (he did come back on board to finish the film, of course; I wonder if he regretted it).

Also, New Line insisted on casting recognizable Rings wizard actors, against Weitz’s wishes: Ian McKellen voiced Lyra’s armored bear buddy Iorek Byrnison in post-production, and Christopher Lee was shoehorned into a cameo as a menacing Magisterium big-wig. To top it off and come back to the initial point, New Line was also in nervous sweats over the material’s core of atheism hamstringing its vital Stateside grossing potential in the face of anticipated well-organized and well-funded conservative Christian protests in God’s Country. Therefore, in The Golden Compass, the Magisterium is clearly an all-encompassing villainous institutional force dedicated to intellectual dogmatism and authoritarian abuse of power, but just isn’t very specifically church-y. This dilution troubled Pullman and annoyed fans of the book (it’s hard to fathom how the content of the later books would have been handled with such an approach), and did not placate right-wing church groups like the Catholic League, which boycotted the film anyway. Other similar changes watering down elements of the novel and making them more palatable to mass audiences added to the problems, and although the film earned $372 million worldwide in box office receipts, it was considered a disapointment and its two planned sequels were not made. Disney’s contemporaneous Rings-piggybacking Chronicles of Narnia film was also pretty flat, but at least it made boatloads (or evangelical church-funded busloads, anyway) of money at the box office. New Line Cinema, barely a decade after changing Hollywood with The Lord of the Rings movies, was done in by The Golden Compass and was folded into corporate overlord Warner Bros. Pictures.

Belatedly, this brings us to the television adaption of His Dark Materials, a co-production of BBC and HBO which aired its eight-episode first season over the last weeks of 2019. Like the failed film trilogy attempt that preceded it, His Dark Materials comes to screens bearing the baggage of the genre and medium success of an influential precursor, namely HBO’s dark-fantasy (“hot fantasy… that fucks”) cultural juggernaut Game of Thrones, which ended its massively popular eight-season run by smearing lukewarm feces all over its own legacy a few months before His Dark Materials debuted on the same network (as well as on the Beeb). Unlike The Golden Compass movie, however, His Dark Materials is accorded the running time, the storytelling space, and the general creative freedom to produce a relatively faithful and more importantly relatively good adaptation of the novels that it’s based on, while at the same time being allowed to be fundamentally itself without shoehorning in dragons or bare breasts or Kit Harrington’s slack lips just because the studio suits wanted themselves another We$tero$. If anything, the series’ arrival in what might prove to be the COVID-19-enforced tail end of the Peak TV Era works to its advantage in a way that New Line’s all-eggs-in-the-basket approach to investment worked to the movie’s detriment. There’s less pressure on His Dark Materials as one ambitious, handsomely-budgeted long-form television narrative among very many to be anything greater than it is.

His Dark Materials manages to be what it is but not really all that much more. It’s miles better than The Golden Compass movie, but still somewhat basic, finally. Written by UK television veteran Jack Thorne with episodes directed by the likes of Otto Bathurst (Criminal Justice, Peaky Blinders) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, the already-infamous Cats), the first season of the series adapts the entirety of the plot of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass encompassing the adventures through England and the polar regions of the North of its pre-teen heroine Lyra, played capably by Logan standout Daphne Keen. An apparent orphan raised at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College in a steampunk-ish world different than ours in many ways (airships are used for transport rather than airplanes, for example, the Hindenburg disaster never having happened, most likely), Lyra yearns to join her adventuring “uncle” Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a polar explorer and scientific researcher with a heretical interest in a mysterious, elemental substance called Dust with connections to daemons, trans-dimensional portals, and, the Magisterium believes, to sin. Also interested in Dust and its significance from a rather different angle is Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a beautiful and elegant woman working for the Magisterium who whisks Lyra away from Oxford to be her “assistant” in her London penthouse.

At the same time, Lyra is deeply concerned about a rash of child disappearances linked to a shadowy cadre known only as the Gobblers. Many children of the Gyptians, a riverboat-bound culture of nomadic Roma-like travellers, have vanished, and Lyra’s fellow college orphan and best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is snatched up as well, which Coulter does not seem nearly so concerned about as Lyra thinks she should be. Eventually, Lyra will accompany the Gyptians in the frozen North in search of their missing children and Roger, armed with a truth-telling alethiometer (the titular golden compass) that only she can preternaturally read, where she will encounter Iorek (Joe Tandberg) and his fellow panserbjørne, a rogueish balloon-piloting aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (an oddly-cast Lin-Manuel Miranda), and discover what Coulter and Asriel are up to near the top of the world.

The first book in the series is more episodic than the others (like a lot of child-aimed fantasy books, including Tolkien’s The Hobbit and initial Rings novel The Fellowship of the Ring), but that works better in a television series than a film, given the medium’s structural division into episodes. His Dark Materials also plans for the future of its own storytelling more effectively; while Lyra’s co-protagonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) is not introduced until the trilogy’s second book The Subtle Knife, he begins appearing halfway through the show’s first season, pursued by the surveillance of trans-world-crossing Magisterium agent Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). Speaking of the Magisterium, they are much more clearly a monolithic Christian-esque religious institution here than in the compromised movie, and Pullman’s core themes about faith and science, belief and doubt, control and freedom, and innocence and experience (Pullman was profoundly inspired by the illustrations of William Blake, proving that he hardly seeks to discount all faith-inspired artistic influence) receive clear and solid treatment by Thorne’s scripts. The battles, namely Iorek’s bear-to-bear tilt with usurping king Iofur (Peter Serafinowicz) and the Gyptians’ assault on the remote facility where the missing children are held and experimented on, scale down their magnitude when compared with the more epic but more lifeless installments in the movie; mostly they are seen from Lyra’s child-level perspective, thus focusing on their narrative significance rather than on their spectacle.

As strong as Keen is as Lyra, Ruth Wilson’s more-than-a-little skewed performance as Coulter is the centerpiece of the show. Wilson, with her unique, richly-curved, leering and cruel mouth, first gained notice in the Idris Elba-headlined BBC detective series Luther as a twisted trickster-figure sociopathic murderer, and she brings that disturbed energy to Coulter. Anne-Marie Duff also stands out in a deeply-felt turn as Lyra’s Gyptian surrogate mother figure Ma Costa, and of course reliable players like an all-business McAvoy and HBO vet Clarke Peters as Master of Jordan College do solid work. Miranda as Scoresby is a choice, for sure, and one of the season’s lag points is the episode in a northern town featuring his largely pointless tavern fight and Iorek resolving the problem of his stolen armour a bit too perfunctorily. The series also spends the requisite amount of time depicting the relationship and connection between people and their animal daemons because it’s vital to the plot’s climax, but also uses Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) as a frequent expository substitute for an internal monologue, thus depriving him (and all the daemons, really) of a personality. Daemons are also almost always absent in crowd scenes, a likely compromise to the CG effects budget that nonetheless detracts from the established internal reality of the world.

There’s a general perfunctory character to the drama in His Dark Materials the television series that should be noted, but I’m not entirely sure that character isn’t one shared by the literary source material. As discussed, Pullman has a very specific set of ideas and goals that he means to share and accomplish with these works, and although the drama and the characters are not exactly secondary to those ideas and goals, they are very intentionally and obviously conduits for his themes and message, to the frequent detriment of their emotional impact. His Dark Materials is a good but not yet great television series, and even if the pieces are nicely in place for adaptations of the two subsequent books in Pullman’s trilogy, there isn’t a whole to suggest that the adaptation will go to any special places in the journey to come.

Film Review: A Knight’s Tale

August 11, 2019 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #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.

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.

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