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Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film Review: Snowden

August 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Snowden (2016; Directed by Oliver Stone)

If you want to know more about Edward Snowden, the computer whiz and intelligence agency contractor who exposed damning evidence of the United States government’s secret, sophisticated, and privacy-violating data-collection system of mass electronic surveillance of its citizens and of people worldwide in 2013, Oliver Stone’s dramatized narrative of the events of the principled analyst’s life ought to be close to a last resort. Far better to trust Citizenfour, the superb documentary filmed by Laura Poitras as Snowden hunkered down in a Hong Kong luxury hotel to release the revelatory NSA material to her and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, to get the details correct, compellingly featuring as it does the whistleblower himself in the very act of blowing his whistle.

It’s not that Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an eerily-accurate impersonation of the controversial figure, is especially non-good. Stone’s film treats its subject broadly, and presents Ed Snowden’s final truth-to-power choice to reveal what he feels to be inexcusable government overreach regardless of his personal safety and the potential legal consequences with the stirring triumphalism of a melodramatic victory in an against-the-odds underdog sports movies. The director of the magnificent JFK, the tour-de-force dramatization of the paranoid style in American politics, is no longer possessed of such tremendous conjuring powers.  But his depiction of Snowden’s disillusioning movement through the American intelligence deep state makes complex technical terms and systems intelligible without distorting their implications or consequences. He also makes it a dramatically and even emotionally involving odyssey (Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) while avoiding particularly inaccurate flights of creative license. Perhaps Stone had little other choice, as Snowden obtained the participation of and even a closing cameo by the famously exacting Edward Snowden himself, residing in peaceful (if precarious) exile in Russia since his revelations went public in 2013.

Snowden is structured to intercut between the progress of the Hong Kong hotel sessions in 2013 between Snowden and Poitras (played here by Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and the experiences in the intelligence world that shake his faith in fundamental American righteousness. A third plot thread details the costs on his long-term relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) of his frequent cross-global relocations, the strains of classified non-disclosure of his work, an epileptic condition, and his mounting moral doubts about what his government employers are up to. Yet another thread involves his CIA training mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who recognizes Snowden’s abilities and facilitates his rise through the intelligence world but also begins to suspect a wavering in his loyalties.

All of this presents vaguely as a political thriller, although any pursuits down dark alleys by shadowy, menacing figures are manifested primarily as sequences of furtive digital downloads (Stone can’t resist indulging in some danger-of-exposure tension in a climactic instance of this scene near the end of the film) or quiet displays of Snowden’s (justified) paranoia. Some ambitious and metaphorically-illustrative effects-driven sequences attempt to visually represent the mass aggregation of private digital information that Snowden discovers, including one in which countless linear streams of data flow to a circular central dome that pulls back to become a human eye. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is varied but excellent, and he facilitates some of Stone’s most striking visual approaches, most notably a final video-link conversation between Snowden and O’Brian in which the teacher looms with intimidating, dominating accusation over his soon-to-be extremely rebellious student on a large screen.

Snowden is most an Oliver Stone film in his incremental dripping reveal of illegal government overreach and its disillusioning, curtain-pulling effect on Ed Snowden’s beliefs and understanding of patriotism. Snowden begins as a smart conservative with libertarian leanings (he earns O’Brian’s particular approbation in an entry interview with approving comments about Ayn Rand), though Mills’ liberalism works its way into his thinking over time and even convinces him that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama might abide by his promises to do things differently, better. Coming from a military family with intelligence and defense department ties, his earnest hopes to serve his country are redirected into intelligence analysis after a fractured tibia gets him discharged from the Army Special Forces. In his work, he learns of the secret FISA courts allowing the U.S. government to run electronic wiretaps without a warrant, a suite of technology and programs designed to search through reams of personal data of private citizens worldwide, CIA field operations that unethically destroy lives for miniscule advantages, and remotely-ordered drone bombings of children, families, and innocent people across the Middle East. In short, Snowden gets a closer and more detailed view of the processes and practices that prop up American global hegemony, and he doesn’t like it at all and decides to do something about it.

It goes without saying that Oliver Stone sees his own political beliefs reflected by Snowden’s evolution. He fundamentally understands the exposure and criticism of the clandestine operations of the U.S. deep state that support American interests worldwide to be the most patriotic and nation-loving act possible. What Stone thinks that he’s doing in films like Snowden (or more comprehensively in his revisionist history documentary series The Untold History of the United States), he sees Edward Snowden doing in his planned public leak of NSA data and processes. That Stone was unable to obtain Stateside funding for Snowden or to film it in the U.S. due to official government and Hollywood studio disapproval and even interference speaks to the controversial nature of Snowden’s story even today, as some political leaders acknowledge the positive conversation-starting contributions of the Snowden leaks and as some of the worst abuses of mass surveillance are preliminarily rolled back.

Snowden’s arc from the patriotism of following orders to the patriotism of disobeying them is a bit pat, however, and sees Stone falling into a classic trap of liberal thinking about political persuasion. Snowden’s is an exceptional case, an example of a citizen both tremendously intelligent and inherently principled with special access to classified information most Americans will never have, and with a willingness to ingest and be redirected to different ideological paths by the implications of that information that most Americans do not have either. The vast majority of American political alignment is a matter of inherited and socially-conditioned tribal loyalty, on both left and right. Most American voters do not change their minds or their allegiances even once during the course of their lives, even if the leader of their faction trangresses any and every boundary of civil and constitutional behaviour or proves quietly divergent from his pledged policy positions (like Barack Obama, who ultimately disappointed Snowden’s hopes for him).

If Edward Snowden is more exceptional than representative, Oliver Stone mostly treats him as such: a conflicted and flawed but ultimately true hero, the exemplar of a new sort of hard-won patriotism. It’s hardly as clear as Stone’s film makes it seem where America goes after Snowden’s revelations, and his story tells us much but offers little in the way of a roadmap forward on privacy issues or any other policies related to the nearly all-powerful national security apparatus. Stone, forever sceptical of government power and the influence of the intelligence sector no matter what party is in charge, firmly believes in speaking truth to power. He sees Edward Snowden through this prism. Snowden’s message has slightly more nuance to it, but Snowden gets as much of it as might have reasonably been expected. Just don’t expect too much of it, and give Citizenfour a glance to fill in its gaps.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

The Confederate Lost Cause, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right: The Roots of the American Moment

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The events of this past week, which have revolved around a far-right rally and march in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned predictably deadly, feel definitional of the fraught current moment in American politics and society. A complex web of long-simmering ideological subcultures and raging-id grievances combined in this event. Ostensibly organized and headlined by a variety of far-right internet and alternative-media figures to protest the debated removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) in Charlottesville, the so-called Unite the Right rally last weekend became a magnet for right-wing groups from neo-Nazis to neo-Confederates, pseudo-intellectual white nationalists to heavily-armed “patriot” militias, the Ku Klux Klan to the smugly ironic online “alt-right”. The glue holding together these disparate pieces and giving them some desultory but dangerous sense of cohesion and social validation is a shared allegiance to President Donald Trump. His golf-course attire of light slacks, white polo shirt, and red “Make Americ Great Again” hat was even an unofficial uniform for many of the reactionary marchers.

The Unite the Right cohort were confronted by a prominent and critical swath of media coverage for their Friday night torchlight event and a strong showing of diverse but not ideological-fixed counterprotesters, united more than anything by their opposition to the white supremacist ideals being advanced by the chanting marchers, on Saturday. Violent clashes erupted between the opposing sides, culminating in a terrorist car-ramming attack by a far-right-connected young man who took the violent rhetoric of his confrères all too seriously. His attack killed one person and injured 19 more, but also turned general public opinion even more strongly against the fascistic rightists than it had initially been.

The aftermath of the deadly rally has become even more disconcerting. Amidst arrests, chastened media-shy Nazis losing their jobs, and denunciations by politicians of both parties, the reaction of President Trump was watched most closely. After running a victorious presidential campaign that featured the most openly racist and authoritarian tone in modern memory, Trump’s team continued to cultivate close ties with many of the very far right groups involved in the rally, who were also among his most loyal supporters. His chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was a key figure in this new resurgent extreme Right through its most prominent media mouthpiece, Breitbart News. Moreover, Trump himself often echoed the language and beliefs of this troubling slice of the spectrum, spouting racist conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and anti-left insults like a particular belligerent Redditor.

Trump first partially hijacked an intended inoffensive White House statement of dismay and denunciation with ad-libbed equivocation about the “many sides” to blame for the organized gathering of proponents of a violent ideology descending into violence. Then, after delivering a seemingly-forced stronger repudiation of the specific hate groups involved in Charlottesville’s tragedy, Trump alarmingly and semi-incoherently ranted out a series of Fox News talking-points and responsibility-deflecting YouTube comments blaming the essentially imaginary “alt-left” for the violence and insisting that there were many “good people” among the Nazi apologists chanting about exterminating Jews and threatening African-American churches with burning tiki torches. Even for wearied observers used to new descents into the muck by this most odious President, not to mention the savvy critics who have noted that Trump’s only consistently-held belief (besides his own continued self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment) is his racism, the sight of a sitting President openly and vociferously defending no-fooling Nazis and KKK was shocking.

How did America reach this moment? The contributing factors stretch on back before the founding of America or even the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, to be frank, but the shock of Charlottesville has a set of clear antecedents. The rally’s impetus, the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, links everything back to America’s founding sin: slavery. Furtively outlawed after the Union defeated the rebellious Confederate States of the South in the grindingly bloody Civil War in 1865, the enslavement of black people, and the racial order of white supremacy that mandated it, was thereafter transmuted into different forms: Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial violence, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary on these mechanisms of structural racism, 13th, offers a strong summation of their intent and effects.

In cultural and discursive support of these structures, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy gained prominence almost immediately after the Southern surrender at the end of the Civil War. Valourizing the bravery and sacrifice of Confederate Army soldiers but eliding the truth that what they fought for was the enslavement of African-Americans, the Lost Cause manifested itself in many ways, from the founding and periodic resurgences of the KKK to cinematic fictions of Southern nobility like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. But through the first decades of the 20th Century, it manifested noticeably across the South and beyond with a flurry of monuments honouring Confederate generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as political figures like Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rebels against government authority who would have been hanged as traitors in previous times and historical periods, these Confederate figures were instead enshrined as heroes in the public spaces of the old Confederacy (and in a surprising litany of non-Confederate states as well).

The commemoration of these monuments (many of which were cheap and mass-produced for quick distribution to counties across the country) not only rallied white citizens to the Confederate values of white supremacy reflected in then-contemporary social, legal, and political elites, but it also served as an implicit statement and even a threat to the African-American minority and its white allies that trangression of this order would meet with the full force of its vengeance. Combined with the increasing official usage of the infamous Confederate Battle Flag by state governments of the South, these monuments to slaveowners and slavery-defenders were a clear message: the White Man is in charge here, and don’t you forget it. Thus, the gradual progressive effort to remove these flags and statues from America’s public spaces is understood by right-wing white nationalists as a symbolic prelude to their feverish nightmare fantasies of “white genocide”.

While the cultural and discursive battles of the Lost Cause narrative have worn on, another parallel force arose on the American Right in recent decades: the so-called “patriot movement”. Focused around white-dominated (but not necessarily or inherently racially-demarcated) state militia groups, gun-ownership activists, and anti-government libertarian extremists, “patriots” conceive of gun control campaigns and legislation as the opening parry in the establishment of an authoritarian suppression of individual rights in America. The development of this subculture is traced indelibly in two films from PBS’s American Experience which aired, with serendipitous confluence, in the weeks following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President earlier in 2017: Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City especially acts as an illuminating history of the anti-government ideology that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led him to commit one of the worst terrorist acts of American history: the bombing of Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995, which killed 168 people. The events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 – a deadly stand-off between law enforcement and an isolated and armed family – as well as outside of Waco, Texas in 1993 – where a 51-day standoff between a fundamentalist Christian sect and the FBI lead to shootouts and an infamous conflagration that killed 76 people in total – figured vitally into the self-conception of the patriot movement and into McVeigh’s motivation for his mass murder. But the films also detail surprising unorthodoxies in the belief-systems of their principle actors. Ruby Ridge raid target Randy Weaver was a conservative Christian who socialized with white power groups but did not share their racial views; Waco’s Branch Davidians might have constituted a cult, but David Koresh’s followers were an inclusive and racially-diverse cult; Tim McVeigh began doubting his government’s intentions after serving in the Gulf War, his stated objections to what happened in Iraq reflecting progressive anti-imperialism more than right-wing ideas.

Often appearing in public heavily armed but purporting to be fundamentally law-abiding, current “patriots” may not sympathize with many of the beliefs of Lost Cause neo-confederates or white power groups, but they feel that they share the same enemies (liberals, the federal government, cultural elites). And they also increasingly share the same champion: Donald Trump. Add Evangelicals and cultural conservatives to his basket of deplorable acolytes, as well; although they were not necessarily wielding torches in Charlottesville, the relative silence of these groups in the aftermath of this past weekend makes their sympathies, or at least their perceived best interest, crystal-clear.

The absurdity of looking to a petulantly unstable, hideously narcissistic, and incompetently corrupt New York City business tycoon far more interested in golfing weekends than in ethnic cleansing to achieve their oppressive goals will surely dawn on even the most obtuse of these new fashionable Nazis and their loose affiliation of fellow-travellers sooner or later (though they’re mostly stunningly dim, so perhaps not). Donald Trump will disappoint and betray them as he always does to those who put their faith and trust in him. He can do no better. But racist white supremacists have far more reason for confidence in his dedication to their cause than anyone else, and he has signalled once again that he is firmly on their side.

Much of the criticism of these new young Nazis, most of whom are little more than wishy-washy weekend fascists trying on a shocking costume as they stumble around in search of an identity, has focused on the unAmerican-ness of fascism. But as we’ve seen, the ideological bedrock of the Lost Cause and the patriot movement is deeply entrenched in American history. Indeed, in both cases, much of the heavy lifting of self-justification of baldly undeniable treasonous resistance to the authority and legitimacy of American government is achieved by a historical appeal to the founding national myth of the Revolutionary War. Confederate rebels during the war (and their venerators well afterwards) thought themselves the Second Coming of the Sons of Liberty, defending the social order enshrined by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence from a changing, confused, bastardized nation that had lost its way. From their self-given moniker, it should likewise be obvious that the patriot movement considers itself the heirs to the righteous rebels of the 1770 & 1780s, upholding their constitutional right to keep themselves well-armed in the event that they would need to revolt against government tyranny once again.

The alt-right, as the social-media-savvy millenials arguing for everything from anti-Muslim laws to unfettered gun ownership to rollbacks of LGBT and minority rights to old-fashioned racist views of the inferiority of blacks to whites with Facebook posts and Tweetstorms and YouTube video essays, have marinated in the juices of the various Lost Causes of the Right for their entire adult lives. They can trumpet these ideas without understanding them, without conceiving of the contours of their consequences, and certainly without having witnessed the damage those ideas can do. They dip their toes in water that runs deep and cold, toss around casual extremisms in meme form like so many skipping stones as the ghostly corpses of past horrors float up beneath the surface like in the Dead Marshes. But the past cannot be simply retweeted. Its roots entangle us all, and they will drag us down if we do not cut ourselves free from them, from time to time. Now, Americans appear to be coming upon just such a time.

Canada 150 and the National Identity of Plausible Deniability

This year, Canada’s annual national holiday, Canada Day on July 1st, will be the focal point of well-funded and well-marketed government- and private-sponsored commemorations and celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. The political union of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, approved by British Parliament under the British North America Act in March of 1867, the Dominion of Canada went into effect on July 1, 1867, a century and a half ago this very day.

As much as Canada 150, as it is officially dubbed, is not much more than an excuse for slightly-juice-up Canada Day parties and any number of corny consumer tie-in and promotions (see Tim Horton’s unappetizing-looking poutine donut, notably only offered in American locations), the country’s sesquicentennial has also been greeted as an opportunity to reflect on national identity, character, and history. Although there is little to suggest that Canadians are particularly invested in thinking about these things, the media and pundit classes relish any sliver of a chance to pontificate on the subject of Canadian-ness.

Canada 150 represents considerably more than a sliver, and in all seriousness does demand a sober consideration of the ongoing Canadian project. The anniversary, and specifically its demarcation of a particular, official Anglo-Canadian political milestone and applying it to the entirety of a diverse country, has sparked more contentious discourse from non-white-Anglo minorities, including Francophone Quebeckers, recent generations of immigrant Canadians from outside of Christian Europe, and especially First Nations peoples. Not only is this latter group’s Canada count much higher than 150 (it’s somewhere up in the thousands), but the white European dominion over their lands fêted on Canada Day does not have such positive associations for Native peoples, to put it mildly. For many indigenous Canadians (political activists and ordinary citizens alike), Canada 150 is a birthday party for exploitative colonialism, and they’ll have to be forgiven for not waving a tiny maple-leaf flag.

We’re told by that same sober class of thought-leaders that Canadians in general aren’t much for waving flags, but it isn’t really true. Canadians are just as prone to the inartful display of empty nationalism as citizens of any other nation-state, particularly on the summertime national holiday or its proxies at other times, mostly during sporting events or Tragically Hip concerts. Nationalism is a team-colours blanket to throw over a complicated, messy history and a present order that falls short of best intentions, obscuring unacknowledged horrors and underappreciated triumphs alike. Nationalism is a conformist, assimilatory impulse that discourages the very displays of multicultural diversity that are just as often praised as one of Canada’s finest features. Nationalism is not a guaranteed malevolent force, but it’s a force that we might wish Canadians mistrusted and discarded as readily our thinking class believes they do.

Inevitably, on occasions such as Canada 150, the question is posed to the national ether, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” An answer that might strike some as flippant but is perhaps more descriptive than it appears at first glance might be: “Plausible deniability”. Being Canadian, as has been often observed, is a definition of identity through opposition: it means not being British or French, with their lamentable imperial histories and still-rigid class divisions; it means not being American, with their larger-scale disavowed sins against visible minorities, clumsy international influence, crass capitalist mass discourse, and endemic habit of parochial cultural self-sabotaging. I once called this identitarian tendency “exceptional unexceptionalism”, and still think it applies to the Canadian self-image. Smug Anglo-Canadian unity-and-assimilation-yearners (and there aren’t many other voices available to be heard in Canadian media) lament the ambiguous terms of Canadian identity, but that ambiguity frees Canadians from a crushing, irresolvable sense of historical responsibility for collective mistakes, the kind that seems to be dooming America to political stagnation and unbridgeable social rifts in the Age of Trump.

Perhaps this plausible deniability is a neat, slick trick at evading the consequences of past nation-building as nakedly if not always as violently racist as that Canada’s southern neighbour. But maybe a certain liberty lies in this ambiguity of Canadian identity, too, an inherent allowance for difference and fresh meanings that lets people in instead of shutting them out. Conflicts on this point are beginning to creep into our politics on the right, with failed Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposed citizenship tests for “Canadian values” literally enforcing governmental standards of identity on entrants into the country. But the nation’s generally welcoming attitude towards Syrian refugees, for example, shows that social and cultural norms resist such clamping down on openness; while a certain definite amount of hostility exists towards these refugees in particular and Muslims in general, especially on the Canadian right (which lies in a semi-embryonic culture-warrior state when compared to U.S. conservatives, which is currently encouraging but should be more worrying to Canadian progressives), elected politicians of all ideological stripes in this country still find it more advantageous than not to make welcoming public gestures to these newcomers and align policy in a similar direction, which is far from the case in the U.S. and many European nations.

Combined with a general (indeed rather remarkable) consistency of social and cultural stability in the country’s history, the lack of a fixed identity, of clear-cut terms of cultural qualification (let alone racial, ethnic, religious, etc.) for membership in the Canadian family grants a level of freedom that even woke progressives who are inherently distrustful of that oft-misapplied and appropriated term ought to convince themselves to appreciate. It can be tempting to dismiss Canada as more of a well-run publically-held corporation than a country, and a preference for economic prosperity over social fairness can lead to deep social pains, as can be seen in America (and often in Canada, as well, to be honest). Maybe Canada’s openness is better understood in such terms, as the eagerness of a retail nation to attract and not to alienate potential new customers.

Therefore, Canada’s collective marketing effort damps down ugly exclusionary impulses but also, we must acknowledge, past instances of corporate malfeasance as well. Canada 150 is just such a marketing campaign, in many ways, an accentuation of the good and a glossing-over of the bad. As you wave a maple-leaf flag, don red-and-white paraphenalia, down a few brews, or exercise your complete right to do none of the above, spare a few thoughts for both the good and the bad in Canada’s 150 years and beyond. It’s a step towards a honest way forward together, at least.

Categories: Culture, History, Politics

Kathy Griffin and Caravaggio: Decapitation and Atonement

It’s hardly difficult, amidst the bewildering swirl of news, rumours, disinformation and perpetual scandal and outrage that has been the still-young presidency of Donald J. Trump, to lose track of specific details of note, for occurrences of interest to be buried in avalanches of drama and rhetoric. One such instance fired outrage machines for an extended news cycle and is already sinking from view, but deserves to be held up for a measure of visual analysis before we lose complete sight of it.

In late May, comedian, actress, television personality, and sometimes political commentator Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself on Instagram and Twitter holding up what was meant to appear to be the blood-soaked severed head of Donald Trump. Whatever satirical commentary Griffin and collaborating photographer Tyler Shields intended to make with the visual statement, the image sparked a firestorm of protest from online conservatives, Trump supporters, and liberals, too. Basically nobody liked it and most agreed that it crossed the line (wherever that line is considered to be located in the era of an admitted serial sexual-harasser President of the United States). Trump himself, as well as one of his idiot sons, even stoked the outrage on Twitter by claiming that the President’s 11-year-old son Barron saw the photo, thought it was real and believed that Daddy (who loves him nearly as much as he loves golf) was dead.

Griffin’s carefully-curated personal celebrity brand as an under-talented D-list semi-famous personality suffered definite consequences from the furour over the stunt, losing endorsements, appearances, and a high-profile New Year’s Eve CNN hosting gig due to the negative response to the photo. Rightly or wrongly, her image and career faces a serious setback for a decision that, whatever else might be said about it, was creative in nature. Stripping that creative decision of as much media hype and outrage culture baggage as we can, can we judge Griffin’s photo as an aesthetic image, as an artistic statement? If so, what can we learn from it?

My feeling in critiquing the image (above on the left) is that it leans into the tempting frisson of shock and partisan dark-wish-fulfillment when it might have endeavoured to foster more nuanced associations and implications. A productive point of comparison, and one which Griffin and Shields’ work falls well short of, might be to a superficially similar image by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (seen to the right in the superior of two versions the artist produced, from the Galleria Borghese in Rome). It’s not inconceivable that in composing the photo of Griffin holding up the head of “Trump” almost as a grotesque offering to the viewer, Tyler Shields had in his mind’s eye Caravaggio’s image of the Israelite boy king holding up the viscera-dripping head of the vanquished Philistine giant. Placed side by side, they might constitute a diptych of strange symmetry, Griffin gripping her foe’s skull with her right hand while David grips his foe’s skull with his left.

Homage-drenched referentiality aside, the weaknesses of Griffin and Shields’ image-making are laid bare by such a contrast. Three stark differences are immediately obvious: the colour of the bare background, the expression on the face of the figure holding the decapitated head, and the head of the hated, defeated enemy himself.

Caravaggio’s famed tenebrism, an extreme take on chiaroscuro shading which drastically contrasts light and dark and lends dramatic three-dimensional illusions to modeled forms, is on full display. A dark background contrasts with the central focus of light, David’s half-bare torso, muscles taut but skin boyishly soft. The shadows appear to be half-devouring his sword arm, like the penumbra of plague. Griffin, meanwhile, stands out harshly, glaring and almost unreal, against a white backdrop that is every bit a self-identifying trapping of a photographic studio. The red of her hair and the lapis lazuli blue of her outfit combine with the field of white to form the blatant American tricolour, couching her implied revolutionary violence in terms of patriotic defence of the republic. She might as well have a flag pin on her lapel.

And look at Griffin’s face, with its fixed mannequinesque impassiveness. What does she think or feel about what it’s implied she’s done to the leader of the free world, removing his head from his body, ending his life of lies and swindles and the bumbling tyranny of his rule? It’s hard to say that she’s telling us that she thinks or feels anything; her tightened neck, seemingly in mid-hard-swallow, is the most communicative feature of the weight of her act. She seems to be aiming for an expression of defiance (and some of that dwells in her blue eyes), but instead looks mildly aghast. Stunned. It is not a mask of righteous resistance, as it most likely ought to be.

Consider, alternately, David’s expression in the Caravaggio painting. He’s pensive, mournful, lamenting what he’s done. He’s remorseful about what’s happened to Goliath at his hand, and perhaps faintly ashamed at what his opponent’s fate has revealed about his own character. Goliath’s face, too, is rich in expression, evincing the slack-jawed, helpless final agony of his moment of death. But what is Griffin’s “Trump” but a paint-smeared dummy’s head with stage hair, communicating nothing of import and actually barely even resembling the President? Griffin might as well have defended herself from her detractors by claiming it wasn’t Trump after all. Were he not currently the most famous person in the world, would we even recognize that it was supposed to be him? Griffin might as well be holding a pineapple.

Is it absurd to compare an Old Master, an all-time great painter who constructs his images with painstaking skill and conscious, informed deliberation, to a modern provocateur photographer and second-rate comedienne, grasping at easy gasps? Caravaggio is lent a key edge by his aesthetic medium, which allows him complete freedom of creation and representation, while Shields can but capture what he places before his camera lens. This serves to explain, to some extent, the clumsy amateurishness of the “Trump head”, but not the gaping gulf of comparative empathy between the images.

This lack of empathy in the image of Griffin, I think, gets at the almost-uniform negative reaction to it. There’s a detached ugliness to it, an ironic lack of irony. Kathy Griffin, for all her political outspokenness, has no compelling visual relationship to Trump in this image. It’s flat as a postcard, with the grim self-righteousness of propaganda.

Caravaggio’s painting is less superficially shocking but more psychologically unsettling. This is not only because he includes the instrument of decapitation, the cold, groin-pointing phallic steel of David’s sword (how did Griffin remove “Trump”‘s head? Pruning shears?). More fundamentally, there is roiling emotion (often read as homoerotic tension) between David and Goliath. Art historical insight tells us that this emotion was, to a not-insignificant extent, internal to the artist: it has often been pointed out (by Simon Schama in his Power of Art BBC documentary on the painting, but by other scholars as well) that the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio near the end of his tumultuous life, on the run from the law for his part in a back-alley murder and thus fallen from his status as the golden boy of Italian Counter-Reformation painting; but the boy king David, with his sympathetic but disappointed ambivalence to his later self, is likely also a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.

This implied, emotionally complex self-criticism might be the key missing characteristic of the image of Kathy Griffin and “Trump”, and by extension American discourse both in favour and against the controversial President. The young David/Caravaggio offers the severed head of the older Goliath/Caravaggio as atonement for his sins, a brutal penance for his moral conduct falling short of the pious (but psychologically realistic) ideals represented in his religious art. Both Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump have benefitted from American privilege and plenty to rise beyond their merit. Some recognition of their spiritual kinship might have improved this image, as well as some measure of desired atonement for sin and moral shortcomings: Personal? Collective? National? Something would do. Anything that would make it mean much more, as art and as satire.

Film Review: Children of Men

Children of Men (2006; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Woe betide the work of art that is referred to as “prophetic”. The application of the term may be intended as an indicator of praise, an appreciation of a creator’s imaginative prescience in galvanizing in an aesthetic text certain social, political, or technological conditions that were either not present or present in less-developed or even embryonic form when the text was created. But there’s also a taint to prophecy, a Nostradamusian sense of interpretive vagueness and conspiratorial fervour that swamps rational evaluation. The term is also inherently theistic, a sop to faith and fate yoked to the runaway cart of predestination. To label art “prophetic” is to cage its meaning and implications in the merely predictive, in ephemeral daydreams (or daynightmares). Great art is not a crystal ball but a mirror; perhaps a murky one presenting the convincing illusion of half-glimpsed, magical depths, but always ultimately reflective. Art does not predict the future, it imagines it by extrapolating the present. Sometimes, it even creates it.

This is all being laid down as a preface to the unnerving, discomfiting realization that, a decade after its release, Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak, draining masterpiece Children of Men more closely resembles our current sociopolitical reality than even the film itself imagined. Chronologically halfway to its envisioned situation in 2027, our world’s apparent sliding conditions seem more than halfway to the ones Cuarón indelibly depicts in his film about a dystopian near-future of a sterile human race unable to produce offspring. This biological and psychological death sentence results in mass anxiety and despair, and leads to social and governmental collapse, destructive conflict, desperate rebellion, knee-jerk authoritarianism, and rampantly cruel xenophobic oppression.

Amidst the worldwide chaos, a greyscale Fortress Britain alone retains a functioning government, but only by becoming a police state that has banned all immigration and detains thousands of foreign refugees in nightmarish ghetto-camps marked by brutal reprisals and extreme deprivation. One can well imagine the onerous former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a far-right bootlick of Donald Trump whose scrubbed-up anti-immigrant sentiment was the petrol for the rusty runaway jalopy that is Brexit, taking in a late showing of the film and masturbating furiously to these scenes, perspiration and semen and a spilt Diet Coke pooling together around his feet. He would likely imagine himself to be one of the privileged wealthy few dwelling in London’s royal West End, which fences off the desperate rabble and allows the rich to maintain their charmed lifestyles while preserving exotic wildlife in Hyde Park and the world’s surviving cultural patrimony in Battersea Power Station, dubbed the Ark of the Arts.

Children of Men clings to a kernel of hope among the grimness and extreme inequality, a kernel that also drives its nearly relentless escape plot. Scruffy, cynical civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen at the fleeting peak of his brief leading-man window) is snatched up by the Fishes, the radical pro-immigrant activist cronies of his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who task him with obtaining transit papers for a young refugee woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). They intend to use these papers to smuggle her out of the country to a half-mythical international research group called the Human Project, because, miraculously, Kee is pregnant. Such a momentous development in a world where no child has been born for nearly two decades (the youngest human living, a media celebrity called Baby Diego, is reported dead in the film’s opening scenes, sparking mass mourning) becomes the target for competing agendas, and Theo must evade the fascistic authorities, the menacing terrorist Fishes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and a dreadlocked Charlie Hunnam play the primary figures in this group), and all manner of collateral dangers to safeguard this fragile ray of hope for humanity.

Owen, Moore, and the others give earnest and committed performances, with occasional tension-releasing humour provided by Michael Caine as a long-haired, pot-smoking, flatulent former political cartoonist with whom Theo and Kee hide out, as well as Scottish actor Peter Mullan as a sarcastic, self-serving refugee camp guard who aids them until he discovers Kee’s explosive secret. But Children of Men is auteur cinema par excellence, with Cuarón’s masterly control of the images before his camera directing a compelling motion tapestry of mood, emotion, and meaning. The astounding production design, by Jim Clay, Geoffrey Kirkland, and Jennifer Williams, is the fabric of this tapestry and takes much of the weight of imparting key information and feelings, but Cuarón’s use of his camera dominates the picture.

Analyses of Cuarón’s technical prowess often note how its display heightens and deepens the hermeneutics of the film. Its absorbing long takes, from the stunning, axis-shifting car attack sequence to Theo’s harrowing movements through the refugee prison camp at Bexhill, are not simple showboating but essential to the construction of Children of Men‘s hybrid tone of dystopian summonings and photojournalistic invocations of current-affairs traumas, with resonant reference points in art and cultural history (Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s La Pieta, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Banksy, George Orwell, and Pink Floyd are all visually referenced, overtly or otherwise). Meanwhile, the contrast of foreground and background images, animated by Cuarón’s roving, curious camera pulling away from the central protagonist-focused action to register side tableaux of indelible suffering, distills some fundamental truth about our tenuous post-capitalist social order, poised between self-involved consumerism and the tragic widespread oppression and engineered deprivation that puts the lie to that order’s airbrushed dreams (and, viewed from a more radical political point of view, provides the raw fuel for them).

Children of Men‘s sophisticated and memorable dialogue with this mixed inheritance of images and their ambivalent associations has only gained relevance and shades of meaning in our contemporary reality. Indeed, the scenes of turmoil from across a Europe whose economically-driven open-border policies have been challenged by the surging influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war can sometimes seem patterned after the immigrant concentration cages and ghettos in Children of Men. Xenophobic angst against the perceived foreign invader motivated the victorious Leave faction of the momentous Brexit referendum, inching the UK worryingly closer to the state of Cuarón dystopian imagination.

This is not to say, however, that Alfonso Cuarón “predicted” elements of our current sociopolitical reality in Children of Men. In 2006, this was a film documenting current conditions as much as it was a warning about potential future problems stemming from them, and it remains so in 2016. In this, Children of Men conforms to the tradition of dystopian science fiction, like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before it. But where those seminal examples of the genre located the genesis of the dystopian condition in the imposition of oppressive top-down controls by a powerful elite, in Children of Men such authoritarian strokes are reactions to a momentous shift in human reality that reorders the psychological basis of the existing sociopolitical order.

The mass impotence and infertility of the human race in Children of Men is a literal condition that allows access to any numbers of powerful metaphorical conclusions about the world that we have built for ourselves. But that mass impotence and infertility is also a metaphor for the impotence that normal citizens, especially the most deprived among them, feel in the face of post-capitalism’s dread inevitability and tantalizing built-in scarcity. The core anxiety in the future summoned by Cuarón in Children of Men is no less than the end of the future; its formless fear is not directed at the expected end of the human race and its rich civilizations, but at the dispelling of the comforting myth of progress, the extinguishing of that warm glow that rises inside of us when we tell ourselves that no matter the hardships before us, things will be better, one day. Like many of its images, burned into the viewer’s memory like rich graffiti on a bare wall, it is this resonant feeling that lingers on after Children of Men is over. But is a memorable film like this ever over? Or is it instead carried with us at all times, in any age, a mirror on ourselves that reminds us of the dangers of despair as well as the ambivalent value of the heady elixir of hope? Don’t call Children of Men prophetic. It’s far too great for that.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Get Out

Get Out (2017; Directed by Jordan Peele)

A surprise box office smash and undeniable film-of-the-moment, Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. Written and directed by debutant auteur Jordan Peele (one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele), it’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. Get Out works on its audience as a tense and troubling (though not often really frightening, in pure jump-scare horror terms) isolated imagined scenario but also subtly, incrementally imparts how tense and troubling (and often frightening) the experience of living as an African-American can be, in any scenario.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a few months, and with their relationship having reached the meeting-the-parents phase, she invites him to the family’s isolated country home for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents aren’t aware that he’s black, and, being white like their daughter, might not approve of him. Chris’ unease with the situation is fed by a phone chat with his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spins fanciful yarns about all the potential dangers lying in wait for a black man in a white person’s milieu (perhaps not so fanciful, given the chilling film-opening vignette of a black man being ambushed and kidnapped while strolling lost through an affluent suburb). That unease increases when a vehicular collision with a deer activates Chris’ childhood traumas, and builds to an eerie crescendo through their visit.

Despite an initially warm welcome to Casa Armitage, discomfort gradually consumes the observant Chris (he’s a photographer by profession, a highly conscious and symbolically-reflective choice by Peele). Awkward racial assumptions and behaviours both small and inadvertent as well as more major begin to add up. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) persistently calls Chris “My man”, points out his family connection to Jesse Owens’ showing-up of Hitler’s master-race posturing at the 1936 Olympics, and tells him he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could have (as Rose predicted he would with a precision that wrings out a laugh but may suggest something more). Rose’s vaguely-threatening med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more inappropriate, bragging of his jujitsu training and telling Chris that with his “genetic makeup” he could be a formidable MMA fighter. Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) doesn’t touch on anything racially-charged, but she does offer to hypnotize Chris in order to cure him of his smoking habit, and then does so on the night of his arrival, without his consent.

Outside of the Armitages themselves, Chris is also weirded out by their African-American servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who speak and behave in a very odd, old-fashioned (and, to Chris’ mind, non-black) manner. His paranoia waxing, a series of encounters at a garden party attended almost entirely by older, wealthy white people (friends of the dearly departed Grandpa Armitage, it’s claimed), who are inordinately interested in the colour of his skin and his physical attributes, finally drives Chris to insist on leaving. But it may be too late for him to extricate himself from a situation that will become far more sinister than a mere series of embarrassing social expressions of half-unconscious racial prejudice.

It’s impossible to properly discuss Peele’s ingenious embedding of the persisting fundamentals of African-American exploitation by the white supremacist order in his core horror concept without completely spoiling it. Consider yourself forewarned. But Get Out is so unsettling and challenging as it moves towards its expected twist because it deploys that twist’s active, leading clues alongside the hints of racism that Chris keenly feels throughout the awkward weekend retreat. Peele’s writing and direction and Kaluuya’s performance are all so keenly attuned to even the most minor of slights that this heightened attention disguised the film’s sleights (of hand). As Peele makes his audience, black but especially white, increasingly uncomfortable with a million pinpricks of racial prejudice, he also wratchets up the tension derived from the growing awareness that Chris may be in real danger of a worse fate than social mortification.

That fate, revealed following Peele’s exquisite depiction of the strained interpersonal interactions of those on both sides of the American racial divide, is a powerful punch of a metaphor for the enduring agony of African-Americans’ exploitation and marginalization by the nation’s generational white elites. As is revealed to a bound Chris by a television screen in an eeriely symmetrical wood-panelled basement den, the Armitages have maintained a secret family medical “process” for years known as Coagula, which allows privileged but aging whites to cheat death by transplanting their brains and therefore their consciousnesses into the captive host bodies of young black men (and occasionally women) chosen specifically for their physical prowess and robust health. The whole Armitage clan collaborates in these abductions: Rose acts as the attractive honeypot to lure them in, Missy hypnotizes them in order to control them with Jeremy ready to provide stiffer physical compulsion if required, and Dean swaps the white brain into the black body. The strange dinner party? A twisted form of auction, the attendees’ bizarre, racist assessments of Chris revealed to be simple, blunt probings of his potential as host-body merchandise.

Behind Get Out‘s body-horror-lite conceit lies a very clear message from Peele about African-Americans’ tragic history of corporeal oppression. Brought against their will to the Western Hemisphere to work for nothing to make white men piles of money, their bodies reduced to commodities no different than (and sometimes less valued than) livestock, furniture, or any other property, Africans in America were always defined above all in physical terms by their white masters, terrorizers, bosses, and superiors in privilege and wealth. Exploitation of the black body (once achieved in cotton fields, now carried on in high-gloss sporting arenas and low-wage jobs alike) has subsisted alongside its destruction: by the overseer’s whip, the lynch mob’s rope, the state trooper’s fire hoses and dogs, the city cop’s service weapon, by drugs, gun, and prison. For African-Americans, body horror is not a mere queasy, tittilating cinematic escape. It is a crushing daily reality, a discouraging way of life. Peele even has a zeitgeist-ready term for the space of dispiriting hopelessness this plight engenders: the sunken place, Missy’s name for the starfield-like empty space that Chris’ consciousness is banished to when she hypnotizes him. The concept of Coagula contains all of this and more, a disturbing genre-movie fantasy built out of a more disturbing real-world truth.

Get Out is flush with its own ideas and position-takings of race in America, but it isn’t difficult to notice that it’s a darkly inverted homage of sorts to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967 progressive Hollywood drama about an affluent young woman bringing her African-American boyfriend home to meet her liberal but still stubbornly bigoted parents. Whitford’s thick-rimmed black spectacles and white hair suggests that film’s patriarch Spencer Tracy, certainly. Williams, meanwhile, is the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, a link to White America’s cultural elite that makes her casting seem like another peeled-back layer of the larger joke (Whitford, a veteran of neoliberal television monolith The West Wing, and arthouse mainstay Keener seem to be similar chosen for more than merely their thespianic skills). The clean-cut creative-class Chris may contain something of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, a best-and-brightest, twice-as-good black professional, but Peele provides him with a crucial link back to African-American culture in the form of his outspoken best friend Rod, a TSA agent who plays amateur detective amusingly in the film’s last act-and-a-half.

Beyond these more superficial intertextual suggestions and self-aware subversions, Get Out repurposes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner most strongly in terms of the insights and sense of perspective that its scenario grants its audience, which in the case of the half-century-old film was presumed first and foremost to be white. More precisely, although Get Out presents a certain perspective on the African-American experience of racism, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it never allows a white audience to feel a surge of comforting, positive fellow-feeling about this opening of vision.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concludes with Spencer Tracy’s grizzled newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (known professionally for his progressive social concern) reluctantly acknowledging his inborn prejudice and giving his belated blessing to his daughter’s union with Poitier’s Prentice, recognizing with sad resignation that he may not have the time left in a waning life to banish his racial assumptions entirely. Made more poignant by the production reality that this was Tracy’s final role, one that he fought bravely to complete before dying (which he did, 17 days after filming wrapped, as it happened), Matt’s pained realization coupled with his magnanimous acceptance of his daughter’s choice in love made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not merely a major ideological focal point of liberal white attitudes towards anti-black racism, but a moving emotional expression of those attitudes as well.

But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also carries a legacy of helping to define white racial animus against blacks as a personal foible, a mere fault of social manners and behaviour to be overcome, or at least politely contained and then disavowed. This is how Get Out depicts such racism in its first half, often with nearly-transcendent insightfulness and a sharp satirical eye. But when the pivot comes, it comes hard, and shifts the film’s ideological axis firmly into the more “woke” symbolic space of emphasizing racism in America as structural, institutional, and as emanating powerful, inescapable social conditioning into the cultural spheres of whites and blacks alike. African-American professor Otis Madison, quoted by colleague Cedric Robinson, said that “the purpose of racism is to control the behaviour of white people, not Black people”. Though Madison added with a fatalistic turn that for African-Americans, “guns and tanks are sufficient”, Peele understands the awareness of racism as seeding not merely black-white interactions but discourse within each segregated community as well.

Chris is given a relatively happy ending, despite a stomach-churning tease of his potential arrest for the murder of the Armitages effected during his desperate escape. Although the flashing squad-car lights belong to TSA agent Rod and represent Chris’ rescue, they might just as easily (and, in an earlier, darker cut of the film, in fact did) belong to white police bringing the unjust arm of the law down across his chest, cruelly punishing him for achieving his own release from bondage and mind-slavery. But Chris’ escape, even alongside the reduction of Coagula, offers no comfort. Racism is greater and more terrible than one imagined scenario. Hate wins even in violent defeat, as Rose’s creepy smile as he strangles her in anger makes Chris realize, at the last.

Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in American and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. Before he gets out, Chris’ body was to have been the host for the mind of Jim Hudson (the always indispensible Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who admires Chris’ photographs (at least as they are painstakingly described to him by an assistant) and covets the younger man’s “eye”. Quite literally claiming not to “see colour”, Hudson doesn’t get to quite literally see through Chris’ eyes. I would argue that, despite Get Out‘s complex depiction of fraught social racism, we don’t get to really see through Chris’ eyes either. “We” in this case is white people watching the film, always already including myself, whatever dubious claims to laudable progressive attitudes I like to entertain and whose every crack and fissure of doubt this film mercilessly probes and enlarges.

Perhaps African-Americans watching the film can see through the protagonist’s eyes, and maybe Get Out is compelling, resonant, or painful for them in ways that white people, like myself, cannot ever really understand. Perhaps that assumption is another form of prejudice. Fundamentally, we cannot know what another (an other) sees, especially across the tremendous, fantastic wall that is the American racial divide. Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead. It’s a form of cold comfort, maybe, but recognizing and embracing that truth, and the truth of racism’s historical atrocities and contemporary conditions alike, does bring us closer to living with it, if never managing to overcome or contain it. Or to escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews