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Film Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 26, 2020 Leave a comment

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020; Directed by Jason Woliner)

Do we expect too much of comedy? In our contentiously polarized culture war moment, it is no longer enough for comedic products to merely be funny, to succeed in their core light entertainment function of catalyzing the primordial cathartic release of laughter. Comedy that is not also trenchant and enlightening social commentary is often considered deficient, inferior, lacking in essential ambition (witness the negative reaction in many quarters to the undeniably popular comedy of Adam Sandler). The applicable definition of satire, long a vibrant but separate subgenre of comedy in case we forgot, has been stretched to encompass more and more sectors of the comedy realm, even some spaces that have been (and remain) basically apolitical in intent and execution. And of course in the rhizomatic online world of social media and creator platforms and neo-forums and political subcultures, the term “satire” has been misapplied to an ever wider and less consistent variety of humour that cannot support it, from parody Twitter accounts to mean and shouty response videos to outright expressions of reactionary fascism, racism, sexism, and anti-semitism that employ superficial snark and internet memes to paint naked prejudice over with a thin veneer of irony.

The conception of comedy as an art form serving a deeper and more vital social and political function as brazen truth-telling agit-prop delivered with a spoonful of humourous sweetener (the politics elevated above the catharsis) is obviously nothing new. Migrating from the comedy counterculture of boundary-pushers like Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to more popular figures like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and even Monty Python (on occasion) in the 1970s, the reified image of the comedian as a brilliant utterer of bullshit-dispersing blazing truths beneath the punchlines attaches itself to comedians (usually from stand-up) in every generation since: Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Bill Burr, and most recently (and with purposeful self-awareness in her semi-confessional Nanette one-woman show) Hannah Gadsby. But it’s also been co-opted to prop up lazy humour writers and performers who seek to swathe the deficiencies of their craft in the suggestion of trangressive bravery and to preemptorily defuse criticism of their work by characterizing it as a threat to free speech. Ricky Gervais, please step to the mic (or not, actually, we’d rather you didn’t).

To some comedy fans caught up in the heady rush of free speech endorphins, the truth utterance displaces the joke. There is a defensive element to this process, a knee-jerk response to prestige culture’s compartmentalizing of comedy as an unserious subgenre unworthy of recognition as important culture (the Academy Awards, for example, would rather nominate a superhero movie for Best Picture than a comedy, unless it’s made by a child rapist). But it goes beyond circling the wagons. That political issue you’re attempting to soberly discuss? Well, you just have to see Carlin’s bit on that, he gets right down to the truth quicker and more effectively than whatever political scientist or historian or other knowledgeable scholar you’re trying to cite.

But because comedy, like all art, is highly subjective, this will to truth interpretation is highly fraught and prone to problematic applications. The fuzzy and not always easy to delineate edge between satirical norm-challenging comedy and nasty, retrograde humour built on harmful stereotypes and prejudices is forever a deadly and noxious no-man’s-land of discursive quagmires, especially when it comes to sorting the humour that is simply reproducing and buttressing those stereotypes and prejudices as perceived accurate reflections of marginalized groups from the humour that summons those stereotypes and prejudices in exaggerated form in order to skewer, undermine, and ultimately defeat them. Bad faith political actors are absolutely hiding authoritarian, discriminatory tendencies behind the shiny cloak of ironic humour, labelling their racism as “satire” when it’s sincere and direly real and the impetus for dangerous and harmful public policy. The trappings of comedy are being used to advance the rise of a new fascism, make no mistake. But there are also a lot of people consuming comedy right now, as there surely always have been, who don’t get the joke, and furthermore cannot fundamentally agree who the joke should be directed at: the powerful who create, maintain, and benefit from systems of oppression, or those marginalized by those systems, of which the punching-down style of comedy is a base-level mechanism that feeds on and serves to reinforce their marginalization.

This brings us, belatedly, to Sacha Baron Cohen and his most famous comedic character: Borat Margaret Sagdiyev, the fourth-best journalist in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. Originally one of the Jewish Brit comedian’s outsized caricatures that gained prominence in his UK television sketch series Da Ali G Show (alongside the titular urban-culture poseur and flamboyant gay Continental fashionista Brüno Gehard), Borat is Baron Cohen’s most enduring and popular character for delivering his unique brand of outrageous comedy: a creatively-edited combination of scripted segments full of often-vulgar punchlines and sight gags and unscripted in-character interactions with innocent bystanders and sometimes even public figures foolish enough to let him get close to them (more on one of them later). The unscripted ambushes are Baron Cohen’s most controversial practice, sparking fretful conversations and thinkpieces about the ethics of sucking ordinary people into situations that may embarrass them and even damage their livelihoods for the purpose of a laugh, or in order to cast them as representative figures for satire of the society or culture that they are made to stand in for, problematic as that may prove to be.

The Borat character in particular has come in for broader-based criticism for his naifish but cartoonishly rampant prejudices and ignorance of the social norms and niceties of Western democratic society (which of course is the core point of the character, to throw those norms into sharper relief and lead us to question their normality). These offensive elements of his personality are all the more controversial for being made very clear to be the result of his lifelong indoctrination by the backwards beliefs and practices of his home country. Kazakhstan in the Borat Cinematic Universe is not the real-world Kazakhstan, of course; the scenes set there are filmed in Romania, Baron Cohen speaks not Kazakh as Borat but an amalgam of Hebrew and Polish, and only superficial details in the films and shows align with the real place. That muddled lack of specifity is not about plausible deniability alone, but also part of the joke. As Benjy Sarlin pointed out in a Twitter discussion today expanded upon by Jeet Heer, Borat’s Kazakhstan is a ludicrously extreme caricature of a post-Soviet Eastern European state as filtered through American parochial ignorance of the rest of the world. It’s a dark mirror, too, for a more extreme version of America’s own darker tendencies: stricken by poverty and retrograde social mindsets characterized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, unusual sexual practices, and above all antisemitism. This last subject is the fodder for much of Baron Cohen’s most envelope-pushing humour, in which the Jewish comedian (working very much from inside an established cultural tradition as such) emphasizes the irrational ridiculousness of raging Old World antisemitic tropes for satirical effect: witness the notorious “Running of the Jew” sequence from the 2006 Borat movie, or the recurring references in its sequel to Kazakhstan’s pride at aiding in the Holocaust, up to and including a celebratory national holiday. It’s all hugely silly, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t offended Kazakhs and spread an inaccurate picture of the country around the world, conceivably harming its international reputation. One thing you can certainly say for Borat is that you can tell that your satire is hitting its marks when you offend an entire nation state.

Borat exploded to wider notoreity beyond UK television comedy in 2006 with the release and surprise megahit status of his cinematic feature debut, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (like the title of its sequel, I won’t be typing this entire long title out every time I reference it; scroll up to read either one as we continue, if you need reminding). It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I was among those bowled over at the sheer reckless abandon of its hilariousness at the time of release, which I referred to in my review as “a comedic war of attrition”; I was hardly alone, as Borat grossed $262 million worldwide from a $18 million budget and became an enduring pop culture meme presence, especially online. For Sacha Baron Cohen, this was almost more of a curse than a blessing, however. Although distributor 20th Century Fox was eager for a follow-up to keep the profits rolling, Borat had become so famous after the film that Baron Cohen found it impossible to appear in public disguised as the character without being recognized, thus defusing his bread-and-butter awkward ambush stunts. Baron Cohen hid behind other disguises and chased that style in feature films Brüno and The Dictator with less success, and has worked steadily in Hollywood comedies and dramas since then as well. But Borat remained dormant, seemingly retired by fame and recognition as well as being likely incapable of satirizing American politics, culture, and society with the same bite during the Obama years as he did under the Bush Administration.

These circumstances are incorporated into the introduction of the narrative of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a return to hilarious form for Baron Cohen’s signature character that could not have been anticipated and yet so completely fits the barely-controlled alarming and stupid wildness of public life in 2020 that one could be deluded into believing that a re-emergence at this time in history was part of a grand design all along. Borat has been stripped of his journalistic privileges and sent to a gulag by Kazakhstan’s strongman head of state (who shares a name with the country’s real dictator, although otherwise is another comic caricature) for so thoroughly embarrassing Kazakhstan in front of the whole world in the first film, and when he gets out and heads back to America on a diplomatic mission (which I will explain in a moment), Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner (a vet of US television comedy direction) include a montage of the character being recognized by on-the-street millenials who ask him for photos and autographs and shout his catchphrases at him (Baron Cohen makes subtler hay of the non-sequitur-loving ironist online leftist meme status of Borat’s pronunciation of “My wife”, delivering the line with added relish the first time it’s spoken in the film).

But Sacha Baron Cohen is nothing if not creative with his comedy, and his Borat uses a series of disguises (which often lampoon American stereotypes in and of themselves) in order to get the same kind of outrageous interactions with ordinary Americans that he achieved in the first film. Freed from imprisonment and dispatched to America by a Kazakh government eager to impress strongman-friendly U.S. President “McDonald Trump” with the gift of an intelligent chimpanzee (who is also their Minister of Culture), Borat decides instead to substitute his 15-year-old daughter Tutar, who stowed away in Johnny the Monkey’s shipping crate and was, shall we say, instrumental in the ape’s disappearance. Played with movie-stealing firecracker energy and impressive commitment by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, Tutar is a half-feral wild child with even less conception of American customs than Borat has. She’s been tied up in a muddy animal enclosure her whole life and has been inculcated in the deeply patriarchal and misogynist cultural brainwashing of Kazakh society which treats women as animal-like breeding stock and little else. She aspires to live in a nicer woman-cage one day, and in her wildest dreams hopes to one day marry a rich and powerful old man like her heroine “Queen” Melania Trump, whose perceived trophy wife status is lampooned hilariously in a Cinderella-esque cartoon that she knows by heart. Eager for this future as well as to spend more time with her father, Tutar goes along with his plan to gift her to “Vice Premier” Micheal “Penis”, who “was known to be such a pussy hound that he could not be left alone in a room with a woman“; I don’t want this to devolve into humour-explaining, but that is such a fucking fantastic joke, I’m sorry.

And so Borat and his daughter wreak uproarious and often sharply satirical havoc across America. Borat learns about cell phones and communicates with his execution-threatening government via fax in a copy shop (it may be the “customer is always right” service industry mentality, but both the cell store salesman and copy shop guy seem like they’re in on the joke, a factor which can be hard to parse in the film’s person-on-the-street interactions). He visits a bakery and buys a chocolate cake which he asks to be decorated with the now-infamous alt-right slogan “Jews will not replace us”; the proprietor is happy to oblige (the whole episode is no doubt a comment on the Supreme Court case affirming homophobic business practices). He cuts hair for a little extra cash (really not sure why this scene was left in, honestly, it’s just killing time) and eventually falls in with a pair of Facebook-fed right-wing QAnon conspiracists (again, these scenes seem too involved at times to preclude some cooperation by his apparent marks) who bring him to an anti-masker “plandemic” rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Washington State. At one low point in his travels, he suicidally wanders into a synagogue dressed in an outlandishly antisemitic get-up expecting to be torn apart by ravenous Semites, only to have his prejudices against them largely dispelled by a couple of kindly old Jewish grandmothers.

His most public antics were earlier this year at the conservative policy conference CPAC, which were reported at the time but in neither case were known to be Baron Cohen’s doing: hoping not to be recognized and seeking to blend in with American Republicans, he entered the hotel hosting the conference dressed in full Ku Klux Klan robes and later donned a fat suit and Trump mask and interrupted VP Mike Pence’s keynote address to the conference on February 27th of this year (during which Pence touts Trump’s swift action to arrest the spread of the now-unchecked and raging coronavirus, a reckless propagandistic lie only more astonishingly terrible in retrospect) to offer his underaged daughter to the renowned over-pious theocrat before being escorted out by security.

But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has an unlooked-for emotional core and an animating central theme, and that is Tutar’s gradual and insidious realization of her worth as a woman and as a person from prolonged exposure to American norms around femininity, which for all of their well-recognized flaws certainly beat living in a cage or a barn. Most of the movie’s funniest and most satirically penetrating sequences revolve around these ideas and take full advantage of Bakalova’s brilliant comedic performance (I mentioned the Oscars’ antipathy to comedy earlier, but if that is to break down at any time, it might be this COVID-limited movie year and with a turn like this one). After swallowing a plastic display baby while enthusiastically devouring her first-ever cupcake, Borat cluelessly brings Tutar to a faith-based crisis pregnancy center to “get the baby out”, which the aghast pastor they speak to of course understands to mean an abortion (the miscommunication-based dramatic irony that drives this scene’s laughs is off-the-charts incredible; it should be taught in writing classes). They attend a debutante ball in Georgia and perform an absurd and graphic traditional fertility dance for the wealthy and staid fathers and daughters, thrusting the creepy patriarchal sexual politics of the affair right to the forefront. They arrange plastic surgery for Tutar to make her more attractive to rich American men. And after an African-American woman who works as a professional babysitter debunks the lies of the discriminatory Kazakh “woman manual” that both she and her father consider gospel when it comes to the nature of women (again, this is a bystander who must have been at least partly in on the joke), Tutar walks into a Republican women’s group meeting and extolls the virtues of newly-discovered female masturbation (she does not have a vagina dentata that will devour her hand like the book says after all), exhorting the scandalized conservative ladies to touch their “vagines” with her (“Somebody call her an Uber,” says one woman in a note-perfect accidental punchline). American society and culture has no lack of problems when it comes to women’s rights, the movie makes clear, but its freedoms are still attractive and inspirational for women worldwide whose home countries may not share them and are thus worth defending.

All of Borat and Tutar’s adventures lead them together to Manhattan at the movie’s climax, when having failed to gift her to Pence at CPAC they decide instead to get her to Trump via his personal attorney, former New York City mayor and current spittle-flecked Trumpist loyalist Rudy Giuliani. Leaked days prior to the movie’s streaming release on Amazon Prime Video, this scene is the clear “get” of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and therefore Baron Cohen structures the whole movie around it. The scene is already notorious: Giuliani is being interviewed in a hotel suite by a fully made-up Tutar who is posing as a foreign journalist who is not underage, flirting with her the whole time, after which they retire to the bedroom and he touches her suggestively before lying down and and putting his hand into the front of pants (he claims to have been tucking his shirt in but if you watch the scene you can judge for yourself). Baron Cohen as Borat then bursts in wearing lingerie and tells him that his daughter is 15 years old and thus “too old for him”, precipitating a quick exit from the situation by Giuliani and his security.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this moment as to whether you find it all that funny or all that revealing (Giuliani is not currently married and nothing suggests that any sexual interaction wouldn’t have been consensual). I certainly laughed harder at other times in the movie, although that may be because the scene was spoiled beforehand. The timing of the movie’s release certainly did not do Giuliani and the Trump circle any favours in regards to their already flimsy appearance of integrity and judgement, as he happened to have just been the focal point of their attempt to engineer a pro-Trump “October surprise” for the second presidential election in a row in the form of an obviously fraudulent story fed through the archconservative New York Post about a laptop belonging to the son of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden being found and turned over to the FBI with compromising emails connected to Ukraine. It’s all part of a convoluted Fox News World conspiracy theory that isn’t worth getting into here or frankly anywhere, and was already on its way to petering out without any noticeable polling effect before Giuliani got Borat-ed. It sure doesn’t make him look especially worthy of the benefit of the doubt, that’s for sure.

As I mentioned, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm sees Sacha Baron Cohen and his best-known character get their shared mojo back at an unexpected time, and it’s just when it was most needed. Baron Cohen stated two years ago that he felt he needed to do more with his comedy to address the alarming rise of reactionary ideologies like fascism and antisemitism and their threats to democracy, and resurrecting his most powerful comedic tool for doing so is a clear statement of intent. Even if Borat Subsequent Moviefilm‘s key themes run more towards women’s rights and freedoms, it touches on any number of other elements of our mad world of 2020, and saves its sharpest daggers for American conservatism’s terrible ideas and even more terrible governance, up to and including their conspiracy-drenched and downright inhuman mishandling of a global pandemic whose death toll rises every day (and is crescendoing anew just as this movie is released). In case this point might be missed or muddled by “ironic” alt-rightists (many of whom convinced themselves that Borat was a shadow-conservative humourous character despite the lampooning of the Bush Administration in the 2006 film), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ends with the iconic “Running of the Jew” festival being discontinued and replaced in a Kazakhstan now more woke under the influence of Borat and Tutar with the “Running of the American”, which I wouldn’t dream of detailing and thus spoiling beyond that.

When I say that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the kind of comedy that we most needed right now, what do I mean? Am I belatedly subscribing to the free-speech-aggrandized conception of comedy as a vitally important act of political resistance to power and putting this hilariously crude movie on a pedestal as just such an act? I’m not, although this is a movie that distills, exposes and productively mocks so much about the current moment that it cannot help but be used as referential shorthand for explaining the bizarre reality of Trump’s America and its dark but ludicrous shadows. If Trump loses the White House on or after November 3rd, it would be too much to credit this movie with playing a role in that result; its role in discrediting Giuliani in particular or TrumpWorld in general is minor, and I don’t feel that it preaches to anyone other than the choir on political matters, ultimately. But it’s in terms of comedy’s lighter but in many ways far deeper function, that of cathartic release, that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is such a well-timed and oddly comforting triumph. More potently and hilariously than almost any other comedy being produced in this seemingly satire-proof time in history, Sacha Baron Cohen’s surprising and highly satisfying laugh riot plays like gangbusters to a progressive audience worn down and disheartened by an uncontrolled pandemic, quarantine lockdowns, a shuddering and uncertain economy, eroding civil rights and democratic norms, persistent systemic racism, sexism, antisemitism, and even Holocaust denial, public policy based on fabulist conspiracies and corporate manipulation, and half-measure compromises being sold as the best possible positive outcomes. If all politics is personal, comedy can be personal and political simultaneously in a similar way. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a weird but welcome relief and comfort. Very nice! Great success!

Film Review: L.A. Confidential

October 8, 2020 Leave a comment

L.A. Confidential (1997; Directed by Curtis Hanson)

A shapely and well-constructed Los Angeles neo-noir set amidst a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department in 1953, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential was a cinematic text charged with current affairs applicability upon its release in 1997 that would not have been expected of a period genre movie. Following a fraught decade of antagonistic relations between the LAPD and the city’s poorer minorities with many police brutality incidents achieving local notoreity, the LAPD’s problems exploded into the national and international spotlight in the 1990s, first with the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots following the acquittal of the officers behind it, and then with the negative press around the department’s racism and poor handling of the highest profile murder case in the city’s history, the O.J. Simpson double murder trial. Hollywood had long been firmly in the grip of copaganda (and still is), but if any time was likely to see a critical re-evaluation of the positive framing of law enforcement, it was the late 1990s.

L.A. Confidential fits that bill to a T, and as a result ages well into our own time of increased public scrutiny of ingrained police practices, behaviours, and mindsets. Directed by the late Curtis Hanson from a screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland (who would go on to write and direct A Knight’s Tale and 42) and based on the crime novel by James Ellroy, the film examines a corrupt police structure through a trio of cops who are all abusing the system in their own ways coming together to topple a larger and more deadly conspiracy. Kevin Spacey, now well and truly cancelled but in the late 1990s arguably the most acclaimed American screen actor working, is Jack Vincennes, a fashionable, spotlight-hungry narcotics officer who has leveraged high-profile busts coordinated with Hush Hush gossip magazine editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) into a cushy consulting job with a television police drama (copaganda isn’t anything very new). Russell Crowe, in the role that made him an A-List Hollywood star after only a few films in featured supporting roles, is Wendell “Bud” White, a plainclothes beat cop and muscle-on-call for “enhanced interrogations” with a violent streak often turned against men who abuse women. And Guy Pearce, Crowe’s fellow Australian in his first major American film, is Edmund “Ed” Exley, a smart and outwardly progressive and by-the-book legacy hire (his father was killed in the line of duty) who is unafraid to leverage department politics to win a promotion to a rank he has yet to earn.

These three men become enmeshed in a murder case involving White’s portly partner (Graham Beckel) as a victim that connects to a wider conspiracy of corruption, sex, killing, and blackmail involving a high-class, well-connected pimp (David Strathairn) and his star Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, who doesn’t give much of a performance but looks iconic in every shot, which at the time was enough to win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) with whom White enters a romantic relationship, an imprisoned crime boss, a DA with secrets, and their veteran commander, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). It’s impeccable hardboiled noir potboiler material, elevated by the clockwork intelligence of the script and Hanson’s sure-handed naturalistic direction and homages to the classic cinematic iconography of both the 1950s Studio Era Golden Age of Glamour and the grittier urban landscape of 1970s crime movies that saw a revival vogue in the ’90s. L.A. Confidential was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and lost every single one to the irresistible sweep of James Cameron’s Titanic, but it has overcome the potential film-history footnote status such a fate might have engendered, enduring as one of Hollywood’s finest elevated genre pictures of the 1990s, a mostly pre-franchised IP era in which that was the dominant mainstream form.

As mentioned, part of the reason L.A. Confidential has aged well is that it is extremely ambivalent about the police and their propagandistic claims to an unimpeachable and unchallengeable position of authority as the “thin blue line” between safe, respectable citizens and violent criminal monsters. After the murder of White’s partner and numerous other people in a diner, Captain Smith and his officers cover their own complicity in the act by swiftly railroading first a group of Hispanic youths into suspicion for the crime (leading to a severe stationhouse beating of the suspects based on the real-life 1951 event known as “Bloody Christmas” which tarnished the LAPD’s image) and then some African-American men, who are slaughtered in a shootout with Exley. Smith has White aid him in torturing suspects for information and false confessions, and the District Attorney (Ron Rifkin) is a pawn of not only Smith’s blackmailing schemes but later of White and Exley’s violent coercion in uncovering the conspiracy.

Hanson and Helgeland’s script tries to balance the moral scales of their three cop protagonists, giving them all reasons for the audience to sympathize and identify with them but also to see them as complicated and ethically compromised men who are in a sense attempting to redeem themselves in exposing Smith’s extortion ring. The movie tries to sell that redemption as having been completed by the end, and although some interpretive space is allowed, it works extra hard to give Crowe’s violent hard man Bud White a happy ending with Basinger’s Lynn. Given his rather pronounced violent toxicity, turned with hot-blooded abusiveness towards his beloved Lynn at one point, this effort rankles more than a little.

It’s a flaw more evident in retrospect in a very strong genre revival noir that treats default Hollywood heroes the police with far more skepticism and criticism than is generally the case. There is a catch, however, in L.A. Confidential‘s historical framing. Much like period films about racial injustice like 42 and Green Book that treat with racism more openly and confrontationally but also pre-assume it to be a relic of the past that progressive American society has mostly grown beyond, L.A. Confidential stares police corruption and brutality so directly in the face because it presents those negative aspects of policing as rough-hewn relics of another time. As argued, it was harder to ignore in the 1990s in Los Angeles that they were still very alive and well in the then-current LAPD, but Hollywood never really came closer to tackling those issues in its products at the time than this film, which situated them more comfortably in a rougher and more easily disavowed past that was also romanticized with all the aesthetic splendour that could be mustered.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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: 42

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Late on the night of August 28th, 2020, the movie-loving world learned to its immense shock, chagrin, and sadness that Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 from colon cancer after a practically entirely private four-year battle with the disease. One of the most prominent and acclaimed African-American actors of his generation, the charismatic and poised Boseman made a tremendous impact on screen in a very short amount of time, racking up a nigh-on unbeatable set of roles memorably playing renowned black cultural icons both real and fictional in the scant space of half a decade: James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, King T’Challa in Black Panther, and, in his breakthrough performance, the immortal Jackie Robinson in 42.

Boseman carried himself with a grace, composure, and conviction onscreen and (seemingly) in real life, making him a superb choice to play Robinson, who in a very different and outwardly less tolerant time from our age of politically conscious and outspoken sports stars elevated the now-dismissive bumper-sticker slogan “shut up and play” to saintly proto-Civil Rights heights. Robinson, a talented multi-sport athlete out of California who had served in the military in World War II and then plied his sporting trade in the black-only Negro Leagues, became the first African-American player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the colour barrier in America’s favourite pastime despite considerable prejudiced pushback. Integration of the league followed this first significant, symbolic victory for black rights in segregated post-war America, a warning shot for the Civil Rights era to come. Jackie Robinson was a human being with flaws like all of us, of course, but along with a select few elite Americans (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.) became a rarified icon, a mythic embodiment of idealized national character all the more powerful for his brave defiance of one fundamental aspect of that national character (namely racial hierarchy) that persists in an apparent death-struggle to this day, to the shame of the country and its people.

Not that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would have claimed such a lofty mantle when he was a Dodger, or that white (or even black) American baseball fans of the late 1940s would have tolerated him doing so. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play ball, to show what he could do and show that he belonged with the game’s best, whatever the colour of his skin. The racial political dimension of doing so can’t have been lost on him, but focus was fixed on the athletic achievement rather than any hint of social revolution. Likewise, the trailblazing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played in 42 with pleasingly engaged broadness by Harrison Ford) was at pains to emphasize that he signed Robinson in order to win games and attract attention and money to his team, which as evidenced by their proletarian image and nickname “Dem Bums” had tended to be a poorer third-wheel to New York City’s other ballclubs, the dominant Yankees and the Giants (who, like the Dodgers, would move to California a decade after Robinson’s major league debut).

Although Rickey offers a private explanation of his choice to Robinson in the film (he claims lingering guilt over not doing enough to help a black college teammate who was driven from the sport by abuse and exclusion), capitalist motives dominate his public stances. Robinson and Rickey alike, at least as depicted in 42, hew to pragmatic utilitarianism rather than to moral elevation in their pursuit of a clearly apprehended but strategically disavowed incidental justice. Capitalist America is ever ruled by displays of value rather than by the higher principles it claims to hold to (hence slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistent racial hierarchy, which benefitted owners and elites with the capital they generated, financial and symbolic), and Robinson displayed the value of black ballplayers beyond doubt. Social change followed that revaluation, hardly as an afterthought but arguably as a corollary.

Boseman anchors 42‘s ensemble cast (including Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, André Holland as his sportswriter friend and sometimes chauffeur Wendell Smith, and a sadly underutilized Christopher Meloni as the womanizing, no-nonsense Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who is suspended at the start of Robinson’s rookie season due to a scandalous affair offending Catholic ticketholders) with a quiet strength typical of a man who could not respond to the racist provocations hurled his way by prejudiced whites lest he undermine the entire effort. Ford’s Rickey points out the Christ-like, patient, turn-the-other-cheek calm of this required equilibrium, and Boseman registers and communicates the unfair cost and simmering injustice of his plight. If the historical Jackie Robinson could not let out the resentment and hurt surely inside him at his treatment lest he labelled as angry, tempestuous, weak, and therefore inferior to the white men around him, then Boseman’s 2013 portrayal of him cannot let these unequal social aggressions of white supremacy pass without acknowledgement.

In an invented scene following the relentless racial abuse aimed at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Boseman’s Robinson smashes a bat and howls and sobs in rage in the dugout tunnel after going out on his second at-bat beneath the torrent of Chapman’s slurs, only to be calmed by an empathetic Rickey. His teammate Ralph Branca (who acted as consultant for the film and no doubt as a result receives a sympathetic depiction as Robinson’s open-minded ally by Hamish Linklater) says the breakdown didn’t happen, but as compellingly acted by Boseman and central to Robinson’s myth as his stoic endurance and reserve is, the catharsis of allowing his frustration to show is to a large extent a necessary dramatic choice, demonstrating the psychological wear of persistent racism (distanced by time and located safely in the past, of course, as Hollywood liberalism prefers it).

42‘s writer/director is Brian Helgeland, who made A Knight’s Tale and wrote L.A. Confidential, and he crafts a sturdy if formalistically unchallenging sports-hero biopic along fairly predictable but bluntly effective formulaic lines. He builds to a climactic Big Game in which Robinson overcomes minor antagonists (including Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, played by Linc Hand and blanketed in anti-German slurs by Branca during a bench-clearing brawl after he beans Robinson in the head) and helps his team win the pennant, to the cheers of the masses and the swelling score of composer Mark Isham. Helgeland’s framing of the nature of the racism that aligns itself against Robinson’s unprecedented position is likewise bluntly effective. Robinson’s on-field defeats of the Phillies and Pirates are understood likewise as defeats of the racist prejudice of Chapman and Ostermueller and former teammate Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). Vignettes of segregation at a gas station, a hotel, and in a Florida town during spring training are unsubtle reminders of the Jim Crow order that Robinson was challenging.

42‘s treatment of 1940s American racial politics does not tend to challenge, but Helgeland and Boseman manage to carve out one sequence of mild insight. The Dodgers are in Cincinnati, just across the border from Kentucky, home state of the Dodgers’ future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Reese, a generally beloved All-Star, has received a threatening letter ahead of the road trip (Rickey assuages his concerns about it by showing him the three folders’ worth of even worse letters addressed to Robinson), and sure enough, the crowd’s racist vitriol towards Robinson is particularly vicious as the team takes the field. Helgeland focuses in on a young boy in the stands with his father, talking effusively like a Reese superfan and then, clearly modelling the behaviour of his prime male authority figure as well as the communal mood around him, unleashes the n-word when Robinson takes his position. It’s an ugly moment, but Reese’s response to it is more heartening while also being sharply nuanced: he strides over to Robinson and puts his arm around his black teammate’s shoulders while telling Jackie that he wants to show his family in the stands what kind of man he is. His fanboy in the crowd brightens at this moment, the positive modelling of his idol overcoming the negative modelling of his father and tipping him towards a tentative tolerance.

But Boseman’s mostly-quiet performance in this scene explores different implications. There’s a keen awareness in Boseman’s expression that Reese’s actions (what we’d now generously call allyship) are as much about Reese’s own feelings and public appearance as they are about supporting Robinson. Pee Wee needs this as much as Jackie does, if not more; he as much as says so. Black’s Reese trots off with a casual note of further support, offering to get the whole team to wear Robinson’s #42 uniform “so they can’t tell us apart”. Boseman’s Robinson lets a wry smile escape his lips. If only it was so simple to shift the weight of his burden. Is Robinson glad to have Reese in his corner? Sure, and the scene clearly signals that we’re supposed to feel glad about it too. But Boseman turns the serene composure and strong-silent-type nature of his Robinson into a stealthy critique of the performative allyship of liberal whites, of their need to make aiding in the quest for black justice about their own edifying redemption first and foremost. It’s far from ungenerous of him, but it shows that he’s no man’s prop either.

Chadwick Boseman’s serene strength as a performer was a classic Hollywood feature given more modern contour and shape by such notes of wry knowingness, and it characterized his later movie-star turns, especially as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little wonder that in the last new film he appeared in prior to his death, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was cast as a strong, wise-beyond-his-years idealization of just and brave black masculinity, literally framed in a key scene by crepuscular rays like a holy ghost, a superhero. An iconic subject like Jackie Robinson would overwhelm many very fine actors, but it fit Chadwick Boseman like an old baseball glove. What a devastating loss to cinematic art.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Paddington & Paddington 2

Paddington (2014; Directed by Paul King)

Paddington 2 (2017; Directed by Paul King)

Far more than actual cinematic continuations the Fantastic Beasts films (of which there surely cannot be three more of yet to come, especially given the toxic division embraced recently by their rich and powerful screenwriter), Paul King’s Paddington movies are the spiritual and metaphorical successor to the massively successful Harry Potter screen franchise. They are, of course, British-based productions from Potter‘s Hollywood studio Warner Brothers and produced by Potter‘s primary overseer David Heyman, and they feature several actors who also appeared in the Potter movies: Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, and the voices of Imelda Staunton and Micheal Gambon. But like Harry Potter (and the James Bond movies and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and even Matthew Vaughn’s wildly amoral Kingsman movies to a much lesser extent), Paddington and its sequel Paddington 2 are among the carriers of the weight of post-millenial British (but especially English) national pride and international image-making both domestically in the UK and around the world. The United Kingdom is an empire no more; the sun has well and truly set on its global power, and increasingly sets on the disparate people and the harshly unequal society within its own borders, which its most important political leader of the past half-century firmly insisted did not exist, an assessment whose current Tory leaders seem bluffly determined to prove correct. Still, a prominent global position has mostly been maintained by the UK through high-finance shell games, disproportionate sport spending and consumption (see the English Premier League and the 2012 London Olympics), and particularly through internationally-disseminated popular culture: British television, popular music, the stage theatre of the West End, and mainstream cinema.

The greatest and most uncertain threat to that prominence since the end of the Second World War is Brexit (although its supporters will no doubt tell you that it will Make Britain Great Again), and it arrived like a bolt from above (or from below) in between the release of the two Paddington films. How sad and incongruous it is that the UK narrowly voted to sever itself from Europe and (in its right-leaning media and Conservative political ascendancy at least) embrace the besieged Little Britain fortress mentality of the Euroskeptic fringes at the same time as some of its very talented film artists were crafting a pair of transcendent family films whose themes, ideas, and emotions embraced a very different and more inclusive and warm image of the UK as a welcoming shore for strangers and a society and culture held together by fundamental goodness, fairness, politeness, and openness to vital changes of heart. It might strike one as wrong and deluded to preface the Paddington movies in such political terms, but make no mistake, these are political movies just as they are absolutely masterfully crafted entertainment storytelling for all conceivable audiences. The first Paddington movie is about the fundamental decency and good-heartedness of a foreign transplant winning over native-born anxiety around the risk of integrating difference and literally triumphing over the exploitative legacy of colonialism. The second Paddington movie is a parable of community cohesion and empathetic carceral state reform. These movies are about an adorable and clumsy talking bear in a hat and coat who loves marmalade, but they’re sociopolitical fables as well. If there’s a third movie, maybe Paddington will abolish the police. Who’s to say?

What is Paddington? Well, he’s a talking bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) from the jungles of “Darkest Peru” (that’s how it’s said every time, as if to emphasize a certain fantasy nature to the exoticized place). His Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy (Gambon and Staunton, respectively) are his adoptive guardians (he tells another character that they raised him after his parents died, and Paddington 2 opens with them saving him from a river as a cub), who speak English and have a dedicated fondness (if not exactly a deep knowledge) of British culture after a meeting with a friendly and respectful Brit explorer (Tim Downie) sometime in the colonial past. They pass this fondness and knowledge and sense of civilized politeness on to the cub, as well as a ritualistic adoration for marmalade (I can’t say that I share their taste for it, unfortunately) and their lifelong ambition to go to London on the invitation of their explorer friend (the movie corrects for the colonialist implications of all this, and we’ll get to that). When an earthquake shatters their homely tranquility in the jungle, Paddington is bundled onto a ship by the elderly Lucy bound for London, acquiring his English moniker when he arrives at the major city railway station of the same name.

Expecting to be taken in by a kindly family like a World War II orphan, Paddington has no luck attracting the attention and sympathy of the busy rail commuters until he meets the Brown family, gently bickering upon their return from a domestic holiday (the vital essentials of the family dynamic and personalities are imparted in the scant 30 seconds of screen time between train disembarkment and meeting with Paddington, a marvel of screenwriting and acting economy). Despite the initial distaste and dismissal of family patriarch and officiously prudent risk analyst Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and the embarrassment of teen daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), muse-following book illustrator and warm matriarch Mary (Sally Hawkins) feels sorry for him and, supported by inventive tinkerer and pre-teen risk-taking son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), offers to bring him home for the night and help him find a more permanent home the next day. Henry is eager to be rid of him, especially after a destructive flooding of the washroom and a later small kitchen fire threatens to push up their insurance premiums. But Paddington’s guileless and polite friendliness and fish-out-of-water wonder with their simple suburban lives gradually wins over even the more hardened Browns, as well as kindly locals like antique-shop owner Mr. Gruber (Broadbent), an immigrant to London like the bear. At the same time, however, Paddington must contend with an ornery and prejudiced neighbour, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi, quite funny in the first film more so than in the second, where he has less of a plot role), and Curry’s loose ally and unrequited romantic interest Millicent (a gleefully villainous Nicole Kidman), taxidermist director of London’s Natural History Museum, who murderously seeks to add Paddington to the museum’s stuffed animal specimen collection.

Paddington slowly convinces the Browns to embrace their better qualities through his sheer boundless nicety, and even leads Mr. Curry to a limited redemption, when he balks at Millicent’s violent intentions and anonymously tips off the Browns after she snatches the bear (Henry recognizes his “disguised” voice on the phone right away). Pre-redemption, both Henry and Mr. Curry speak of Paddington in thinly-veiled prejudiced anti-immigrant language: Henry initially dismisses him as a likely urchin who will look to sell them something at the railway station, and Curry frames him in terms of an unwanted desirable likely to ruin the neighbourhood (Curry is a self-appointed neighbourhood watch agent in Paddington 2, even declaiming to the street denizens about a raised Bear Threat Level with a printed colour-coded Terror Watch-style chart); he is reinforced in this xenophobic-coded thinking by Millicent, who warns darkly of slippery-slope tableaux of comedic bear-related social decay like hair clogging storm drains and “all-night picnics”. This connects with the colonialist implications of the black-and-white newsreel prologue, when it is later revealed that (spoiler!) Millicent is the daughter of the friendly explorer who encounter Lucy and Pastuzo, who was blackballed from the Geographers’ Guild for refusing to bring back a not-so-alive specimen of the rare bear species for museum display and the glory of the Guild and of himself. Seeing her father’s kindliness and lack of ego as unforgivable weakness that carried with it harsh consequences, Millicent seeks to imbue the cathedral of knowledge with a neo-imperialist glory that will reflect on her as well, instead of joining the chain of goodness that so impressed itself on Paddington and is the foundation of the realm of polite warmth that grows up around him.

This realm of polite warmth is more apparent and expanded upon in Paddington 2, the far funnier but equally well-crafted sequel. Paddington is now firmly a vital heart of the neighbourhood, despite Curry’s fussy objections, and his decency elevates and brings out the best in not only the Browns but in most of their neighbours as well. In one visually illustrative moment, after Paddington becomes a window cleaner, he scrubs the grime off the windows of a sour, solitary military veteran (Ben Miller), quite literally letting the sun into his life and changing his outlook almost instantly. But this all changes with alarming suddenness when Paddington observes a bewhiskered thief snatch a rare and expensive pop-up book of London landmarks from Mr. Gruber’s antiques boutique. Due to Paddington’s pursuit of the robber along the city’s canals and his own publically-observed interest in obtaining the book (legitimately, by paying for it with his work earnings) as a gift to his London-pining Aunt Lucy in her Home for Retired Bears in Lima, however, the bear is arrested for the theft and sent to prison.

While the Browns attempt to prove his innocence and the guilt of suspected culprit Phoenix Buchanan (a terrific Hugh Grant), a disguise-loving egotistical washed-up actor who sought the book as part of an elaborate and potentially lucrative treasure hunt whose proceeds he plans to use to rejuvenate his flagging career, Paddington works his positive transformative powers on the (gently-)hardened inmates of the prison, particularly the intimidating cook Knuckles McGinty (Gleeson, doing his hard man with a heart of gold act to light-touched perfection). By the time the Browns have their first visit with him, Paddington has befriended the entire inmate pool (the scene where he introduces them all by name at the visitation window might be the funniest of the many very funny moments between both films, especially when one of the prisoners is a Tory-ish baronet politician who hopes he can rely on the Browns’ vote and “couldn’t possibly comment” on mugshots of potential criminal gang members behind the theft) after softening McGinty’s resistance with his delicious marmalade sandwiches, involving other incarcerated men in pastry cooking (another British cultural import), and convincing the warden to read bedtime stories over the loudspeaker, to make the jail seem more like a home. It’s Paddington’s positive influence taken to a purposeful and thus more impactful extreme: even prisoners, viewed as society’s dregs and barely-human criminals even in a nation like Britain that treats them more fairly than some others do, are worthy of kindness and good treatment, and respond with their (mostly) best selves when so treated (this is even imparted visually by their striped prisoner scrubs being dyed a soft pink hue by a red sock that sneaks into the washing machines as Paddington is on laundry duty).

It’s not often that children’s movies featuring a talking CGI bear speak simply but eloquently to the positive social influence of immigrants and advance potent arguments for progressive prison reform, but the Paddingtons are very special children’s movies, and not just on the level of surprising political themes. They are based on the children’s storybooks by Michael Bond, first published in 1958 and widely beloved and frequently adapted in Britain since then (Bond cameoed in the first film but died the year the second one came out, which is dedicated to him). Their director is Paul King, who also wrote the first film himself (from a story he co-penned with Hamish McColl) and co-wrote the second with Simon Farnaby, who appears in both films as a dim security guard who is very attracted to men dressed as women (another British cultural import). King hadn’t done much notable film work before totally knocking the Paddingtons out of the park, but he did direct the inventive Brit comedy series The Mighty Boosh (left-of-centre Brit comedic talent like Matt Lucas, Noah Taylor, Kavyan Novak and Richard Ayoade have small but funny roles in the films). Paddington and Paddington 2 are fantastic family entertainment in the vein of Pixar’s opuses, delighting children as well as including smart humour and sophisticated (but not pop-culture dated) references for older audiences, especially to film history from the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Hitchcock thrillers to the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Patrick H. Willems details many of these references as well as numerous other great strengths of these films in a video essay about them: they are tightly and cleverly-written narratives full of efficient but effective visual storytelling, witty sights gags (for example, when the Browns first come across Paddington, he is seated in front of the station lost & found, with only the word “lost” lit up behind him; when Mary offers to let him stay with them, “found” flickers on as well), and satisfying pay-offs for even seemingly throwaway gags with later story callbacks and resolutions (King shares this screenwriting skill with another vet of small-screen British comedy who transitioned to feature film, Edgar Wright), they are often hugely funny, genuinely moving, and they are beautifully composed and shot (Erik Wilson was the cinematographer for both). The musical score hits the key emotional and thematic cues (Nick Urata is the composer for the first film, Dario Marianelli for the second) but it’s in the use of pop music inserts that the Paddingtons really shine (The Mighty Boosh was largely a musical comedy piece, so King is versed in mixing it into a comedic narrative). The needle drops in the first film can be pretty on the nose: James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” when Paddington commandeers a small dog to attempt to navigate the Tube like a confident local, Steppenwolf’s Easy Rider anthem “Born to Be Wild” over a flashback to Henry and Mary as motorcycle-riding hippies (Paddington 2 uses Boney M’s “Daddy Cool” to establish the freak-flagged young Henry as a deft hand at Brit carnival game coconuts), and a hilarious snippet of Lionel Richie’s meme fave “Hello” to underscore Curry’s lovestruck astonishment at first glimpsing Millicent. The movies’ most consistent musical element is King’s deployment of a middle-aged UK calypso band called Tobago and D’Lime as a recurring semi-diegetic Greek chorus, showing up on street corners and even in prison to sing jaunty tunes tonally related to Paddington’s adventures. And of course Grant’s spotlight-loving Phoenix Buchanan closes the credits of Paddington 2 with a big flamboyant production number with the pink-clad prison inmates as his chorus line; the Paddington films are generous enough in their souls to give even one of their self-centered bad guys a spectacular stage musical redemption.

These are movies with huge hearts but also with huge brains, and the combination is pretty special. The cast is special, too: Hawkins was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for The Shape of Water the same year Paddington 2 came out, and brings both a flighty suburban-bohemian quality and an emotional centre to Mary; Bonneville specializes in stodgy Brit authority figures with unglimpsed reserves of bravery and sentiment, and Henry (whose long-haired hippie past in amusingly flashed back to in both films, as noted) is a fine example of this; Walters is a flinty proletarian Scots delight, especially when she distracts a museum guard during the climax of the first film by drinking him under the table; the kids are solid, Broadbent is at his buoyantly avuncular best, and as mentioned the villains played by Kidman and Grant are hammy scenery-chewing joys (Kidman picks up a stuffed rodent as if it’s a phone when Curry rings her at her office at one point, while Grant slips from one accent to another while conversing about his treasure hunt masterplan with his mannequin-mounted stage costumes).

It’s Ben Whishaw who is the anchoring soul at the core of Paddington, though. Adopting a winsome, fussy, vulnerable tone, Whishaw uses vocal ability alone to give the computer-animated bear (who is given some furry realism but mostly held by the VFX artists as a cartoon figure) an irresistible heart without slipping into preciousness or even hinting at anything but a deep-felt sincerity. Whishaw has been recognized as one of the UK’s finest young actors for a stretch of years now and has headlined numerous British TV projects (his Richard II outshone the kings of Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch to be the best lead performance of the Shakespearean Henriad/War of the Roses series The Hollow Crown), but has not gained the American film roles to achieve international fame like some of his contemporaries (minus his role as the new Q in the Bond films). His voice acting in the Paddington films may not be a major breakthrough, but they are a testament to his powers as well as to his ability to chameleonically embody a certain idealized Englishness.

Likewise embodying a certain idealized Englishness, the Paddington movies are great, even if real-world events in the country of their setting has made them into even more fanciful fantasies than they essentially are, as imagination-laced children’s tales. King transitions with poetic wonder into Paddington’s imaginative liquid memory of his Darkest Peru jungle origins in both films: in the first, the bear steps through the watery membrane of a film projection screen into a lush green tropical woodland, and in the second, a tear he sheds in his prison cell when he thinks the Browns have forgotten him sprouts green shoots from the floorboard cracks that likewise grow into the jungle flora of his subconscious mind. In a similar way, if you’ll indulge the metaphor, the Paddington films are a wondrous, imaginative memory-dream of a Greater Britain that the nation seeks to project to the world but that also seems to be a form of faded nostalgia disconnect from social and political reality. Audiences can look upon a fairer and kinder land through the refracted liquid membrane of Paul King’s sparkling family movies, and perhaps even imagine, with their best hopeful hearts, that the United Kingdom will emerge from the contentious and dangerous crucible of Brexit as a better and more empathetic national community. The real UK appears unlikely to abide by Paddington’s favoured mantra from Aunt Lucy that “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” if only because so many on or near the levers of power and wealth benefit from the opposite. But the Paddington movies can but be the best model for fair and friendly social and moral behaviour as well as for skilled, inclusive filmcraft that they can be, while hoping that as many others as possible follow their example.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990; Directed by John McTiernan)

It’s an ironic historical oddity that Hollywood only began to adapt the neoconservative military/espionage novels of best-selling author Tom Clancy after the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The first of the imperialist adventures of Clancy’s go-to hero – the intrepid CIA analyst, former Marine, and all-around instrument of covert American hegemony Jack Ryan – came out in print in 1984, at the mid-point of the Reagan Era of whose international political mentality and approach Clancy’s work was the purest popular-literary embodiment. Paramount Pictures only got around to making a film adaptation of the submarine-focused novel a few years later, releasing The Hunt for Red October in March 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic revolutions of the Eastern Bloc, and the effective end of the U.S.S.R. with the Communist Party’s removal from power.

It’s somehow fitting that The Hunt for Red October arrived onscreen as an already-formed expression of the nostalgic fantasy view of the just-ended Cold War, a view that Clancy’s literary output is predicated on and that has pervaded American popular culture and even American global and domestic policy thinking down to today. In many ways, the Cold War mentality never really ended in the American psyche, because the Cold War was not where it started. This is the deep persistence of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”, pivoting after 1991 from the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets to alternately hyperbolized and wholly imagined existential antagonists to American power foreign and domestic: tinpot dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Islamist terrorists after 9/11, and conspiratorial elite cabals deeply suspected on fringes of both the Right and the Left, before most recently circling back to the contemporary heirs of the U.S.’s literal Red Scare foils, Vladimir Putin’s election-disrupting Russia (whose association with President Donald Trump’s manifold corruption is a favoured Cold War callback attack vector of centrist neoliberals) and the ever-rising economic powerhouse of authoritarian Communist China (whose human rights violations and failures in pandemic containment Trump’s loyalist enablers on the Right have been eager to emphasize in order to deflect criticism of his own).

The Hunt for Red October‘s theatrical release timing is fitting because if Clancy’s earliest books were marinated in the historical context of the belligerent paranoia of Reaganite neoconservatism (his second, Red Storm Rising, was co-written with Larry Bond and fictionalizes a third world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), his very first novel (and first cinematic adaptation, which is extremely faithful to the book’s events) actually imagines a scenario of late Cold War rapprochement between the implacably opposed superpowers, or at least a couple of their national security representatives. This makes it part of a micro sub-genre of onscreen political thrillers made in a very narrow window of time that narrativized the Cold War’s imminent end with themes of peace agreements, burying hatchets, seeking reconciliation, and looking ahead to an uncertain but hopeful future. These are the kind of themes that liberal Hollywood could get behind as the Reagan Era transitioned into the First Bush Interregnum before the new false dawn of Clintonian neoliberalism. The sixth Star Trek movie, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country, is this film’s most notable sibling in this micro-genre, surpassing its thematic and symbolic eloquence as expressed via genre filmmaking more fully when viewed through the lens of the history of that science-fiction franchise, though not necessarily in more general terms.

The Hunt for Red October introduces a career-prime Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as a voice of moderation, rational action, and cooperation amidst a shoot-first intelligence and military apparatus. Ironic again, perhaps, that this version of Ryan, conceived during the waning days of the Cold War, is an advocate of soft-power man-to-man diplomacy with the Soviet adversary, when later versions of the character – played in subsequent films by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine – shifted more in the direction of buttressing American power in a dangerous and unpredictable world, culminating in the current super-imperialist Amazon Prime television series, a glorified CIA recruitment video starring the oft-risible John Krasinski. Baldwin’s Ryan leaves behind his family (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Gates McFadden has a single scene as his wife, and there’s some humanizing business with his kid’s teddy bear) at the behest of CIA Deputy Director Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) to delve into some worrisome surveillance photos and maritime reports of a new Soviet super-submarine, the titular Red October, which has put to sea with what is suspected to be a state-of-the-art new jet-like “caterpillar” propulsion system that would empower it to run silent through the water and thus evade sonar detection, allowing it to conceivably sail right into U.S. waters with its nuclear payload before anyone in the Navy knew it was there.

This, of course, profoundly worries the military brass, intelligence bosses, and National Security Advisor (Richard Jordan), who seek Ryan’s expertise as a CIA analyst and naval historian. But by the time he briefs them, the situation has only grown in complexity and urgency. Red October‘s captain, highly-regarded Lithuanian submariner Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has blown off a training rendezvous with another Soviet sub (its Captain Tupolev pursues him doggedly and thus becomes the closest thing the film has to a villain; this was one of the first attention-grabbing English-language roles for Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), surreptitiously murdered his political officer (named Putin in a historical irony that now seems almost unbelievable in its rich serendipity), and used his caterpillar drive to slip off of sonar and head across to the Atlantic Ocean towards North America, just as a pre-posted letter from Ramius lands on the desk of a Party leader informing his superiors of his intention to defect to the U.S. with his crew and high-tech boat.

As it heads west Statesward, the Red October believes to have slipped by an American sub, the USS Dallas, captained by Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), but the Dallas‘ brilliantly observant classical-music-loving sonar operator Jones (Courtney B. Vance) picks up a hint of their sonar signature and manages to track and/or anticipate their trajectory. Presenting all this information and acting on a firm hunch that Ramius, whose file he knows back to front and whose wife recently passed away, intends to defect (the Soviets, ever deceitful in American eyes, inform the U.S. that Ramius is a renegade madman and ask them to help sink his sub), Ryan convinces the authorities at one turn after another to allow him to risk an attempt to intercept Red October and contact Ramius to ascertain his intentions, rather than invite a potential nuclear incident by firing on him. Their rendezvous on Red October will require them to find a mutual understanding while holding the trigger-happy Americans at bay, defeating the implacable Tupolev (a former protégé of Ramius), thwarting a mysterious onboard saboteur, and deceiving the Red October‘s crew as well as the entire Soviet fleet if they’re to have any chance at a successful defection on the road to a more lasting peace.

The Hunt for Red October was directed by John McTiernan, following on the heels of his helming of Predator and Die Hard, a high-quality three-film run nearly unparalleled in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (he would make up for it with the legendary flop Last Action Hero a few years later, a movie perhaps unfairly maligned for its attempt to subvert action movie tropes). With that kind of resume, I don’t have to say that his direction of the underwater tension is deft and surehanded, if perhaps not quite up to the gold standard of the claustrophobic submarine thriller, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. But McTiernan is a thinking-man’s action genre artist, and employs subtle but definite techniques to impress the themes of Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart’s screenplay into the perception of his audience. One of these techniques is shown through the use of language in dialogue, with the transitions between spoken English, unsubtitled spoken Russian, subtitled spoken Russian, and finally into English again chosen very deliberately and intelligently to impart core ideas about Cold War worst-case-scenarios (Russian and English share the same word for “Armageddon”, aptly) and the common-humanity olive branches of mutual understanding (Patrick Willems details these techniques and what they communicate to the audience in a good video essay on the movie). The cinematography also works to this goal, bookending the film with complimentary scenes of Ramius’ sub leaving and entering secure inlets and generally serving McTiernan’s needs for clear, effective visual communication with occasional stylish flourishes (the DP was Jan de Bont, later a notable action and thriller director in his own right).

As is often the case when movies deal with social and political issues, The Hunt for Red October grounds the macro in the micro, rendering the slow crumbling of large-scale generational ideological conflict and global-power rivalry in illustrative gestures of relatable human connection. Ryan’s family life is imparted in broad strokes early on and paid off with a closing callback moment. Ryan speaks Russian to build a bridge with Ramius; the Lithuanian submariner’s father was a fisherman, and he and Ryan discuss angling in the coves of New England in the nocturnal denouement. Ramius chats with his right-hand man Borodin (Sam Neill, also in one of his early breakthrough American film roles) about their future lives in the States, and Borodin speaks with aspirational humility about a simple life in Montana, which grants pathos to his eventual fate.

We’re used to American characters, ever the protagonists in movies of this sort, being given human dimension, but vitally the crew of the Red October is afforded the same privilege of identifiable traits and earned empathy; even supporting figures like Tim Curry’s fastidious ship’s doctor (left out of the officers’ defection conspiracy and target of a ruse to remove the ordinary crew for the very reason of his rule-bound nature) and Ronald Guttman’s chief engineer (who nails a particularly Russian sense of sarcastically grim dedication to duty redolent of the character actors in Chernobyl) are given space to paint quick-stroke personalities among the larger plot intrigue. Films that render larger-scale politics in small-scale emotional intimacy can oversimplify and stereotype in the process, but the most remarkable thing about The Hunt for Red October is that it preserves the political sweep and the personal dimension. Especially given its genre, subject matter, and primary source material, all often subject to whittled-down archetypes and black-and-white moral dichotomies, this makes it a notable effort, regardless of the resonance-granting incidentality of its release timing in historical context.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

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

June 5, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

“Doesn’t money make you horny?” seasoned veteran exotic dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) purrs to tentative new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) upon their first meeting on the floor of a Manhattan strip club. Destiny (and the audience) has just watched Ramona make a stunning entrance, bringing the house down with a pole-dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (foreshadowing!) in front of a light-wall of violet bulbs that leaves the strip-club stage strewn with paper cash. It’s an indelible introduction to the core themes and ideas of Hustlers. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s swaggeringly entertaining and doggedly substantial crime dramedy about a cadre of strippers who drug and swindle a succession of Wall Street bankers and traders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars is a movie about the fundamental intersection of capital and sex, the tessellating forces of greed and lust, and the purely amoral transactional nature of American capitalism. It’s about a society and economy where money makes people horny, and the consequences of a cutthroat competition for the seemingly arbitrary expanding and contracting pool of that money – the eternally necessary hustle – being driven on a primal level by those animal urges.

And here you thought from the trailers that it was a just cock-tease heist movie full of sexy strippers! It’s not not that, but it’s also something even sexier: a trenchant social critique. Pull out your cash clips and get ready to toss those bills, gentlemen, because we’re going to talk about exchange value!

Destiny is not entirely fresh to the exotic dancing realm when she meets Ramona in 2007, but she is a newcomer at the club in question, New York City’s Moves, and isn’t sure how to fit in with the girls and pitch her wares to its high-powered Wall Street clientele. Ramona becomes her mentor and best friend, a pragmatic fount of penetrating advice and insightful street-level philosophy on how to maximize her earning potential in this snakepit of desire and wealth (“Are you an investor in this place?” she chides Destiny when she buys a drink at the club’s bar. “Let the guys get fucked up.”). Destiny is soon raking in the cash with Ramona’s guidance (despite the cuts of her profits owed to various male figures in the club hierarchy), spending lavishly and bonding with the sorority of dancers at Moves, including Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and more minor characters like Liz and Diamond (cameos from pop stars Lizzo and Cardi B, respectively, the latter having actually worked as a stripper in her pre-fame days). Destiny (her real name is Dorothy, like The Wizard of Oz heroine adventuring in a strange world of fantasy and artifice) very much needs the money, as she lives with and supports her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), having been abandoned as a child by her immigrant mother (leading to a central sense of emotional insecurity), and soon enough has a daughter of her own (Ramona is also a single mother, a deciding factor in their bond), although the ne’er-do-well father is soon out of their lives.

The apex of the times of plenty at Moves is a sequence featuring another pop star cameo, R&B star (and Lopez’s fellow one-time network-TV talent show judge) Usher, whose appearance sparks a joyful explosion of spontaneous release, all of the club’s women dancing for him on the stage in indulgent slow-motion. The good times do not last, however, as the 2007-2008 financial crisis hits and greatly reduces the gusher of easy money spurting from the once-deep pockets of Wall Street’s investment vultures (interstitial news reports from the time bemoan the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a bit too real to watch now that we’re facing an even worse one barely more than a decade later). Destiny and Ramona each leave off stripping and fall out of touch as they struggle to support themselves in more straight-edged and respectable sectors of the contracted economy: Destiny ineffectually pretends that her dancing was actually bartending in an interview for a high-end retail job, while Ramona is frustrated by a clueless male manager who won’t let her off earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

Returning very reluctantly to a greatly changed Moves full of Russian immigrants willing to race each other to the bottom for paid sexual favours to customers, a discouraged Destiny crosses paths with Ramona again and becomes inculcated in the aforementioned drug-and-swindle scheme alongside Annabelle and Mercedes, slipping a mix of ketamine and MDMA (one of the movie’s funniest scenes shows them tweaking the formula and waking up on the kitchen floor after a taste-test) into the drinks of unsuspecting and horny businessmen and traders and then surreptitiously running up the men’s credit cards while partying at the club. Expanding their hustle and their network of collaborators along with their profits, Destiny and Ramona become the matriarchs of a loose family of women bonded by the exploitation of their exploiters (more on that in a moment), at least until their criminality inevitably brings the unavoidable personal and legal consequences.

Scafaria frames Destiny’s narrative through intercut scenes of her retrospective interview in 2014 with reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), ostensibly for a fictional version of the 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler upon which the movie is based and which gets at the ambiguous and hypocritical meanings of the story with more thoughtfulness than Hustlers affords. This movie is a lean and cleverly ferocious animal, predating with relish on slow and fat themes concerning wealth, sex, gender power inequalities, and criminal enterprise as capitalist acquisition simply by other means, no more or less moral despite being very much less legal. Without question, it is deeply indebted to the style and thematic content of the Mafia films of Martin Scorsese; his fellow Italian-American Scafaria pays homage with the first shot of the film, an immersive one-shot long take following Destiny and the rest of the dancers from their dressing room down service hallways and across the neon-lit floor of the club that echoes numerous Scorsese oners, most notably and immediately obvious the Copacabana long take from Goodfellas.

Hustlers also references and recontextualizes the construction of Scorsese’s mob movies via gender inversion. The film depicts female-dominated spaces in which men serve either as sources of capital or leeches of their own hard-won capital, the reverse of the smotheringly homosocial world of Scorsese’s male criminals, with their patriarchal pursuit of capital and status interrupted by occasional demanding female anchors in the form of wives and daughters and mistresses. It’s not feminist, exactly, as all of the stripper characters are too hopelessly immersed in the tumult of mutual capitalist exploitation to care a whit for liberation, solidarity, or gender equality. Scafaria revels in scenes of female togetherness and bonding like a joyful Christmas sequence at the height of success of their drug-and-pump scheme, but this is not an entirely unified realm of uplifting sisterhood; Ramona and Destiny fall out a few times, and furthermore the interactions between Destiny and Elizabeth display cleavages of class and education that drive distrust and conflict, as does the late-film split over Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a reckless junkie recruited to join their schemes by a protective Ramona but perceptively viewed as a liability by Destiny (leading to one of the script’s bluntest but funniest zingers: “We’re breaking the law here. We don’t wanna work with criminals.”)

But Scafaria also finds it inherently romantic that sexualized female labourers subject to the most blatant male gaze brazenly swindled the swindlers, and Hustlers echoes some of the criticism of the avaricious perfidy of financial elites delved into more deeply and procedurally by a film like The Big Short (also produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), albeit in a limited and targeted fashion reflective of media traditions of neutralization of radical political ideas, known as recuperation. Lopez (as much a creature of capitalist processes as any other enormously famous person, tonally spurrious claims to working-class authenticity notwithstanding) megaphones a few lines as Ramona criticizing Wall Street’s exploitation of Main Street and the lack of consequences for this exploitation, although Lopez’s performance (which is very good in a pure-movie-star way and, although hardly great, no less Oscar-worthy than, say, Brad Pitt operating in the same mode in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is nuanced and perceptive enough to register that this is less principled political grandstanding than self-serving moral justification for her actions. Scafaria is careful to include one male client who is milked for thousands and confronts Destiny with the real pain and difficulties for himself and those close to him caused by being robbed. This is not a victimless crime, whatever Ramona tells herself and her compatriots.

One of Ramona’s macro-truisms resonates much more deeply, and serves as the thesis statement of Hustlers. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” she opines. “You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” These words cut deep down to the transactional performativity of capitalist exchange value in America, and the seedy symbiosis of greed and lust that underlies it. Hustlers is doubtful about the purity of feminist solidarity and recognizes the superficial influences of socialist and anti-capitalist ideation in the national polity, but it’s one of the most perceptive and viscerally effective recent films in terms of the depiction of the wages of capitalist competition, especially when contrasting boom times and recessions. When the economy contracts, the ability of strippers like Destiny and Ramona to earn a robust income through skilled exhibition of their sexualized bodies while maintaining some measure of bodily autonomy contracts with it. Throttled flow of wealth sparks increases labour competition from abroad (ie. the Russian women at Moves), whose entrance into the labour pool drives down wages (by capitalist design, of course) while escalating the compromises required of labour to earn a living income (ie. $300 blowjobs).

The dancers’ fraud and theft is driven by these straitened circumstances; crime stems from economic desperation. But like the wider crime film genre and the mobster movies defined by Martin Scorsese’s work above all, Hustlers argues, or at least posits aloud, that there isn’t a meaningful moral distinction between the theft and fraud that Destiny, Ramona, and their collaborators engage in and the theft and fraud perpetrated on millions of Americans by Wall Street investment banks, nor is there a difference between the hedonistic spending habits on both sides of this particular coin either. There is a distinction of degree and amount, certainly, to the great advantage of the elite. Capitalism is the common denominator, and in the contemporary American economy, everyone has a hand in each other’s pockets (or under each other’s g-strings, as the case may be). It’s a competition at all times, and the winner is the one whose hand emerges from the other’s pocket with a greater share of the booty (pun very much intended). In the world of Hustlers, money is the ultimate turn-on, whether you’re tossing it or dancing for it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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