Archive

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020 Leave a comment

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

Here at the end of 2020, the popularly-anointed Worst Year Ever (Not Inclusive of 1618 to 1648, 1914 to 1918, or 1939 to 1945), comes one of the year’s biggest and most anticipated Hollywood blockbuster movies. As befits a pandemic-altered socio-economic and pop-cultural reality, most of the viewers of Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her surprising triumphant 2017 Wonder Woman will watch it not in packed multiplex theatres (remember those? Memories may soon be all you have of them) on its (COVID-delayed) opening weekend, but through their choice of streaming video platforms in the possibly-strained comfort of their own homes. And these viewers will watch as in the climax of Wonder Woman 1984, a maniacal con-artist businessman wields the power and the public influence of the United States Presidency to promise to grant the deepest wish of every person in the world (while a extracting self-serving cost of his own) as the titular naturally physically and morally superior superheroine counter-broadcasts via her Lasso of Truth that, no, actually, better things aren’t possible and the world should unite and hold hands to renounce the things that they really want to improve their lives because the way things were was just fine, really, and that’s The Truth. And then everyone gets together and sings “Imagine” together. Okay, that last thing doesn’t happen in the movie, but only because it already did in real life and people didn’t much like it.

For those who need a “thumbs up, thumbs down” recommendation/non-recommendation from their film criticism… well, I can’t fathom what you’re doing here. But know that Wonder Woman 1984 is not the movie Wonder Woman was (maybe Wonder Woman itself wasn’t the movie Wonder Woman “was”, if we’re being brutally but cryptically honest), although Jenkins (who besides directing, also produces, co-wrote the story with Geoff Johns, and the screenplay with Johns and Dave Callaham) pulls out absolutely all the stops to up the ante on the textual level of spectacle and on the subtextual level of themes and ideas. Wonder Woman 1984 clocks in at 2.5 hours and is both entirely too long and filled to the brim with stuff for that whole running time. It boasts at least three or four delightfully, epically nonsensical action sequences, a core emotional subplot whose main conceit kicks the concept of consent under a couch never to be seen again, one inconsistent villain and one astoundingly over-the-top one, and so very many strange and mind-scrambling boomeranging ideas and political implications. Critical video essayist Jack Saint livetweeted during his viewing that Wonder Woman 1984 is “ideologically buck wild” and yeah, that about sums it up. Spoilers incoming.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a direct-ish sequel to the previous World War One-era film, albeit with nearly seven decades elapsed. The titular hero’s alter-ego Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) hasn’t aged a day in those intervening years and works as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but otherwise lives a solitary existence. As Jenkins depicts mostly wordlessly with veteran visual storytelling, Diana still mourns the first man she ever met and the last man she ever loved, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life to save many others at the climax of the 2017 film. She still steps out in her glittering red, blue, and gold battle armour to foil evildoers and protect the innocent, including in a stupendously corny early fight sequence (surely purposely so) set in a gaudily-coloured multi-level shopping mall (Stranger Things did it better and with moodier and more interesting cinematography, I can’t believe I’m able to say). The thieves she subdues in this scene were robbing the secret black-market antiquities trade running out of a jewelry storefront (be suspicious the next time you pass a Pandora, they might be storing Sumerian amulets in the stock room), and one mysterious artifact lands on the desk of Diana’s Smithsonian colleague Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig).

Barbara is a bespectacled, mousily-dressed, socially awkward academic whose initial attempts to befriend the glamourous and confident Diana are rebuffed but then reciprocated because of… pity? Loneliness and genuine desire for connection? No, probably just to keep an eye on the aforementioned “Dreamstone”, which Diana initially takes to be a chintzy fake but soon suspects to be more when it grants her deepest expressed desire: the return of Steve Trevor. Her long-dead boyfriend’s essence (I guess?) animates the body of some chiseled Georgetown yuppy (Kristoffer Polaha) but appears as Pine to her. It’s complicated and more than a little stupid, but it’s a threadbare excuse to retrieve Gadot and Pine’s chemistry from the first film. That spark between these performers (plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana introducing Steve to seven decades of technological and cultural development, and also Chris Pine rocks a fanny pack) is supposed to make us forget that Diana is having her way romantically and sexually with the possessed body of a man who explicitly has not consented to it. It won’t be the last time that something in Wonder Woman 1984 becomes problematic and troubling with a moment’s thought. But they fly through Fourth of July fireworks in an invisible jet and Hans Zimmer’s swelling score tells us it’s A Wondrous Moment, so don’t you just love them together? PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE WEIRD MIND RAPE.

The Dreamstone spin-off problems soon accelerate. Barbara casually wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and appeal, which makes her not only instantly more attractive to men but increasingly, superhumanly powerful and eventually into a cast member of the 2019 Cats movie (if Taylor Swift couldn’t resist, then it must be every woman’s most fervent wish, I think we can all agree). One male suitor is the aforementioned business grifter Maxwell Lord (a delirious cornpone Pedro Pascal), who pretends to be considering donating some of his purportedly vast wealth to the Smithsonian and then semi-seduces Barbara in order to obtain the Dreamstone and use it to make himself a human Dreamstone who can grant any one wish in exchange for whatever he wants from the wishmaker. He quickly employs this monkey’s paw wish-fulfilling technique to take his teetering con of an oil venture from an empty-shell corporate Potemkin village to a powerful multinational cornering global oil reserves, then to destabilize the Middle East and set the U.S. and the Soviet Union on a precipitous course to nuclear war, all to meet an insatiable need for more, more, more, and above all to impress his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez). He worries that Alistair sees him as a loser because his business had been failing, but he’s a little kid and you’re his dad, just buy him a Cabbage Patch Kid and he’ll worship you. No need to catalyze Armageddon here, Mando.

Wonder Woman and her bodysnatching boyfriend pursue Max Lord first to Egypt, where he restores a medieval caliphate in exchange for some security goons and a gigantic “Divine Wall” sprouts up around Cairo for some reason (I guess it’s Politically Applicable, but it’s just splashed on the wall willy-nilly by this point). There’s then a showpiece desert highway chase scene that, plot-wise, only exists so that Diana and Lord can exchange two lines of dialogue and she can realize that he’s now the Wishmaster. It does also demonstrate that Diana’s superpowers are ebbing away due to her cursed wish to bring Steve back, although whether they’re going specifically to Barbara/Cheetah or just away into the ether is not exactly clear. But most notably, the highway sequence includes a closing action beat of Wonder Woman saving a pair of local Arab children playing soccer in the road (by improbably lassoing and riding a bazooka shell to speed up). This presents in the text as a further instance of Diana’s moral instinct to safeguard rather than to destroy: the mall scene sees her using non-lethal force against the robbers and balletically saving numerous children in harm’s way, and she even instructs Steve not to use a gun on Max Lord’s security detail later on, as “it’s not their fault” they’re resisting them. But it’s hard not to register that the Israeli Gal Gadot infamously took to social media in 2014 to defend a bombing campaign in Gaza by her former comrades in the IDF that claimed the lives of some Palestinian kids playing soccer, among other casualties. Talk about wish fulfilment. If it’s not quite on the level of notorious HUAC snitch Elia Kazan artistically defending informing in On The Waterfront, it’s as close as we’re likely to get in the DC Extended Universe anyway.

I suppose the ideological buck wildness of Wonder Woman 1984 ought to be more fully addressed from here on in. To start with, a good deal of this movie, especially as regards Wiig’s character, is clearly conceived of from a third-wave feminist point of view, proceeding from the Jenkins’ first film. Most of Barbara’s arc is concerned with the terms of her femininity, both as she regards it and as others (especially men but also desirous high-status women like Diana) regard it. She’s awkward and insecure and ignored by everyone until the Dreamstone wish flips everything for her like she’s Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That, and she’s noticed by women and lusted after by men. Barbara revels in this newfound power, but the filmic text makes it clear that she takes it too far, especially when she practically kills a drunk who tries twice to assault her and then when she turns on Diana and wishes to Max Lord for total dominance over her friend-then-rival and everyone else, as well as for some cute cat ears (which shouldn’t work because she already made a wish and others who attempt a second wish with Lord can’t be granted it, but like I said, a bit inconsistent). I have no doubt that this is a critique of gender roles and power imbalances even within gendered femininity, as far as it goes, and the stark difference in the gaze of Jenkins’ camera when compared to that of DCEU alpha male (and co-producer of this movie) Zack Snyder gives this the space to actually function. Seriously but tangentially, if film studies educators want to use contemporary examples to teach the concept of the male gaze, simply juxtapose how Jenkins shoots Gadot in her Wonder Woman movies to how Snyder shoots her in Justice League. Jenkins thinks much more about clothes than what’s under them, to put it succinctly.

Barbara’s subplot carries the feminist weight in this film in the way that Diana’s negotiation with a patriarchal Edwardian world did in the first film, because in 1984 Diana is fully on her shit of defining herself through a man. In Wonder Woman, Diana’s romance with Steve was vitally important on an emotional level but most of all was key to her engagement with humanity and her choice to defend what’s good in it from war and imperialism and patriarchal chauvinism and whatever else you got, she’ll take it all on like machine gun bursts to her shield. That Diana is literally fine with hijacking another man’s body to spend time with Steve Trevor again is, perhaps, intentional in underlining how she’s sacrificing the powers that give her the moral high-ground to defend the spark of joy in human civilization from dark threats in order to satisfy her needs, but likely it’s less than that. When they face the hard reality that Steve will have to go away again so that she can save the world, it’s the clear emotional high point of Wonder Woman 1984, its closest equivalent to the transcendent No Man’s Land sequence in the 2017 film, especially when a recollection of his love of flight inspires her to develop a new ability to the strains of Zimmer’s shameless heart-tugging score.

Indeed, the hard choice that Diana makes between what she wants and what’s better for the world at large, between clinging to her deepest wish and renouncing it for the greater good, between self-interested individualism and the deferred advantages of collective action, is the central thematic idea of Wonder Woman 1984. Pascal’s Max Lord is a completely unsubtle commentary on Donald Trump’s wish-fulfillment fantasy-world of self-serving demagoguery and resulting concentration of wealth and power: he extols “the power of positive thinking” to a fellow power-broker at one point (Trump went to Norman Vincent Peale’s church in his youth and the preacher’s self-help dogma suffuses his thinking, rhetoric, and behaviour), and Jenkins has Pascal look straight into the camera while stood at a podium in front of the White House logo and say, “Why not more?” (although even this superhero movie villain is more human and sympathetic than the soon-to-be-ex-President; can you imagine Donald Trump renouncing his horrid ways to earn the love and respect of his coked-up asswipe of a son and heir? Ivanka, maybe.) Max Lord represents, as Trump does, the unrestrained desiring id of America-fronted global capitalism, the insatiable acquisitive and expansionary impulse that was ascendant in 1980s America and, in this comic-book fantasy as in our comic-book reality, directly leads to widespread catastrophic social collapse (the Dreamstone has done this before, Barbara discovers and shares with Diana; in one case, it is held by the last Roman emperor in 476, although when Diana states that it causes societies to collapse “without a trace as to why”, I feel like slipping her a copy of Gibbon).

Wonder Woman in her golden armour with her golden rope of Truth opposes this kingdom of lies, and exhorts the people of the world not to wish for improvement of personal conditions but to renounce the individualized selfishness encouraged and fed on by capitalist leeches like Lord for the greater good of shared prosperity. She’s a Bernie girl, in other words, or more likely an Elizabeth Warren stan. But it isn’t hard to understand Diana’s defence of a restored collectivist status quo as a centrist, back-to-normal impulse divorced from a recognition of the intractable problems of the modern world under American capitalist hegemony that Lord’s careless wish-granting (not wholly unlike Trump’s mean-spirited fabulist fancies) disrupted, although far from productively. Wonder Woman 1984 concludes on a perfect note for the incoming Joe Biden Administration, in other words. The vast, interconnected web of injustice and grievance and socioeconomic inequality will not be addressed or redressed (seriously, there’s a gobsmacking anti-Irish bigotry moment in one of the “wishes around the world” montages I could barely believe I was watching in 2020), but a feel-good note of unity will be struck even as America and the world sinks from fatal wounds to its hull that will not even be attempted to be mended. And the power of your morally-superior and supremely powerful SuperMommy will protect you from all the scary stuff in the world. So don’t you worry your little heads about it, and certainly do not even think about imagining or much less attempting to build anything better.

Have I become more witheringly cynical about the thematic messaging of the Wonder Woman franchise in the past three years, or has Wonder Woman‘s thematic message done so? It quietly pains me to write and think this way about Patty Jenkins’ work here on behalf of hegemonic American ideology when the muscular, empathetic humanism of the 2017 film left such a warm glow. The literate mind was ready to poke and prod at the 1984 in the film’s title for intertextual echoes of George Orwell’s seminal dystopia of authoritarianism, but if the Wonder Woman sequel reflects that novel at all, it’s through a mirror darkly. It’s a filmic text of flagging American exceptionalism, besieged from within more than from without but maintaining its goosestepping stride in propaganda spheres.

I haven’t yet mentioned that Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a flashback to Diana’s youth on the verdant Mediterranean Amazon paradise of Themyscira, when she competes as a child against grown women in an Olympics-style cross-country obstacle course and race but is pulled aside before the finish by her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) to be taught a lesson for taking a shortcut. It’s a visual parable of fairness, of not taking shortcuts to success in the way sold by fictional and real conmen like Max Lord and Donald Trump, the way celebrated as foundational to the American character; whatever lingering Protestant-ethic platitudes about hard work might yet be encountered in the wild, the proudest way to get ahead in the United States of America is and always has been to slip your hand into your neighbour’s pocket. This message gets muddled by the film’s climax, indeed very much due to the film’s end. Do Jenkins et. al. mean to advance a collectivist message in Diana’s final confrontation with Lord? I think they certainly do. But precisely because Wonder Woman 1984 invokes so many touchstones of our political moment and they prove far too complex, heavy, and potent for it, this movie fails as liberal political messaging and, not unrelatedly, largely fails as entertainment, too. A damn shame.

Categories: Comics, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Mank

December 7, 2020 Leave a comment

Mank (2020; Directed by David Fincher)

Let’s start with this so there’s no misunderstandings: Citizen Kane is a great movie. Perhaps the greatest movie. Not only is it a technical marvel with trailblazing cinematic language at least 20 years ahead of its time, it’s emotionally involving, thematically rich, and often pretty funny. Maybe this doesn’t need to be stated so plainly seeing as nearly eighty years of film history discourse and scholarship has repeatedly emphasized this point, but with our online hot-take culture often tipping into the blithely contrarian and with laudable efforts to expand and diversify the cinematic canon beyond white male auteurs occasionally scything at the tallest grasses with a wider and more indiscriminate sweep, the primacy of Orson Welles’ masterpiece atop at the pyramid of American filmmaking has sometimes been challenged. Certainly, I’ve read criticism from writers I respect who found that the movie left them cold, although I’m at pains to recall who they are at the moment. But for the purposes of this essay, please proceed with the shared assumption that Citizen Kane indubitably slaps.

Additionally, it apparently needs stating with authority that although film is a collaborative medium and many creative people contribute to the artistic success or failure of any given movie, the director is a very important player in any movie. Perhaps the most important. Again, our post-postmodern discourse often seeks to challenge grand epistemological paradigms like auteur theory (a Great Man-style critical framework which has raised Welles, especially in consideration of his later years, above almost all other filmmakers in the cinematic pantheon over the years) and there are welcome reasons to do so in terms of movie-making, but it would be absurd to watch a movie like Citizen Kane and minimize the contribution of the person calling the shots behind the camera and working with DoP Gregg Toland on the brilliant cinematography and giving one of the great performances of the Hollywood Golden Age in the lead and, yes, co-shaping the script with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Yes, the great film critic Pauline Kael revivified long-rumoured allegations in her 1971 long essay in The New Yorker “Raising Kane” (you can read the whole thing if you like, or just the Wikipedia article) that Mankiewicz was the true driving force behind the screenplay and that Welles stole much of the credit for Mankiewicz’s genius. But those assertions and the scholarship Kael based them on (she famously didn’t even interview Welles for “Raising Kane”) have been widely discredited since then with Welles’ documented screenplay contributions having come to light. Citizen Kane belongs to a lot of talented people, but it belongs to Orson Welles most firmly.

You don’t necessarily need to know all of this or have read the book-length “Raising Kane” in order to watch and understand David Fincher’s biographical drama of Mankiewicz, Mank. You don’t even need to have watched Citizen Kane for Mank to make sense, although you will certainly note and appreciate and think further about the visual and thematic echoes built into Fincher’s film if you have (also Citizen Kane rules, so go watch it). But Mank is founded on the core premise of Kael’s “Raising Kane” revisionism, that the swanning upstart Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke but barely in the film) maximized his credit for the script and minimized that of the titular veteran Hollywood writer, excoriating wit, and self-immolating alcoholic, played by Gary Oldman.

Fincher’s late father Jack, an underappreciated screenwriter in his own right, no doubt identified more than a kernel of his own struggles in the figure of Mank, and the Kaelian view of Kane‘s genesis forms the backbone of his script. Fincher fils was originally planning to make Mank at the end of the 1990s while Fincher père was still alive; he made Fight Club instead, which proved a mixed blessing for film and cultural history. In completing and releasing the film 17 years after his father’s death, Fincher adds another layer of meaning to its layered reflexivity: a transmuted tribute to his father through the complex figure of Mankiewicz in a reflection of how Kane was a literary-level critique of newspaper magnate and film producer William Randolph Hearst (played in Mank by Charles Dance) through its titular character Charles Foster Kane but also served as a larger critique of the American Dream and as an even larger critique of the hubris of creative power. Mank is, even more than that, yet another in the seemingly endless litany of Hollywood movies about Hollywood, but also challenges and problematizes the dream factory’s self-conceptions as well as the characterization of their ideological cultural project and inherent politics by their perceived opponents. Even in a cinematic calendar year which was not profoundly upended and greatly diminished by a worldwide pandemic, Mank (released to Netflix and a limited theatrical run, though they all are in 2020) would be a prime Oscar contender.

Mank unfolds in intercutting between two parallel temporal narrative lines about key junctures in Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life, mirroring the temporal jumps in the narrative of Citizen Kane. In 1940, as Mank recovers from a broken leg suffered in a car accident in a ranch-house in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California, he hashes out the screenplay that will become Citizen Kane, clashing and bonding with his English amanuensis Rita (Lily Collins) as she takes down his thoughts for the story and dealing with the persistent alcoholism that would claim his life a decade and a half later but that was also vitally entwined with his creative process. Mank is also beset by pressure to complete the work from Welles and his producer John Houseman (a key source for Kael’s claims about the script in “Raising Kane”, Houseman broke with his collaborator Welles over the credit controversy) as well as warnings from figures in his life like his movie executive brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) that Kane is too identifiably an artistic hit-job on the still-powerful Hearst and that Mank should be ready for blowback because of it.

In the other narrative thread, Mank’s time in Hollywood of the 1930s is explored: his in-house writer work for Paramount and MGM, his interactions with Studio Era legends like David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), his relationship with his long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), his entry into the social circle of the fabulously wealthy Hearst at the country estate of San Simeon (the model for Xanadu in Kane) as a kind of Depression-era iteration of Lear’s Fool and his friendship with Hearst’s paramour and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and most significantly his principled political struggles and eventual break with these Hollywood establishment figures over their funding, lobbying, and propaganda work on behalf of Republican candidate Frank Merriam in the 1934 California gubernatorial election against Democratic candidate, socialist activist, and muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (played in a brief rally speech cameo by Bill Nye).

Mank is a David Fincher film par excellence in terms of its visual, linguistic, and thematic density. Probably only Zodiac (still his masterpiece and my favourite film of his, for what it’s worth) is in the same realm of complexity, although that earlier serial killer drama is far more ambiguous than Mank. The two narrative threads cross and knot with each other time and again, creating ripples and echoes with the legendary film that lies past the finish line of this story, but it’s made highly evident that the movie considers that Mank’s guilt and resentment over Hearst and Mayer and Thalberg working and spending to defeat Sinclair in 1934 (at a terrible cost to at least one of his likewise guilt-ridden colleagues who aided in the effort) intensified his alcoholism, damaged his marriage, made him persona non grata in the studio system, and inspired him to go at Hearst and the whole rotten edifice of the American ruling elite in Citizen Kane (another echo, this time of Sinclair’s own anti-corruption work in novels like The Jungle and Oil!). If it wins nothing else on Oscar Night (whatever remotely-filmed version of that we end up getting in a few months), Mank seems almost a shoe-in for a screenplay statuette for the late Jack Fincher (who retains sole credit even though his son has admitted to changes having been made the original drafts, to make it less anti-Welles among other things). Dense and complex, highly engaged in the political and cultural currents of its time, full of thematic echoes and callbacks and memorable lines and sharp wit, with the added Hollywood catnip of a feel-good posthumous triumph for an underdog (for Jack Fincher out of text and for Herman Mankiewicz in it). If you’re going to make a movie about one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters, you’d best have a great screenplay, and Mank absolutely does.

This is not to say that the acting isn’t also excellent (Oldman is a problematic old-school thesp in many ways but he’s always great onscreen, and Seyfried has never been as striking as she is here) or that Fincher’s technical re-creation of the black-and-white filmmaking techniques of the 1930s and 1940s isn’t impeccable in his normal perfectionist way (Seyfried had to repeat one take 200 times, and Mank’s climactic drunken crashing of a San Simeon costume party took 100 tries). Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography aims for the chiaroscuro deep focus Toland achieved in Kane and that was so common in German Expressionism-influenced Hollywood film noir of that era, and even the sound design and editing revives the classic sonic feel of films of the time (an effect which has been alternately greeted as welcome and warm and criticized as “unbearable” in its analog mono-ness).

Mank is a beautiful and deep film but it’s also a very contrasting and maybe a not altogether great one. It has so much to say about Hollywood and American culture and society and politics that it’s inevitable that not all of it will land or sink in. It also takes great pains to relate and apply these ideas and undercurrents to the present moment, particularly in dealing with the collusion of persuasive visual media producers (like Hollywood studios then or cable news and Silicon Valley social media now) and big dark money to demonize and otherize political movements and candidates preaching socioeconomic equality, usually at the expense of the Democrats and to the benefit of the Republicans. One San Simeon soirée falls into a protracted discussion of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party takeover of Germany that feels a little too much like an on-point comparison to the rise of a more authoritarian Right in our era even as it does productively make the historically obvious but still often-missed point that even nominally liberal elites (even economically successful Jewish-Americans like Thalberg and Mayer who would be targets of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies) will side with conservatives and even hardcore authoritarians if it means keeping the Left at bay and preserving their own wealth and power from redistributive justice (“What’s a ‘concentration camp’?” asks the buffoonishly obsequious Mayer). Conservatives sell many fever-dream fantasies to their increasingly unruly rabble of suggestible supporters (they always think they can control them and they never can, in the 1930s or in 2020), but one of them is that Hollywood is a bastion of outright Marxism on the Left, which is laughable to anyone who knows even half a thing about corporatized Hollywood but receives a firmer artistic rebuke through the period frame of Mank.

The Merriam/Sinclair election subplot and wider political currents of the film feel relevant to the American moment, yes, but are ultimately subsumed to servicing Mank’s character arc and the movie’s larger themes. Not to go all Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones finale on you all here (nobody ever wanted that), but Mank is a movie about stories. Mankiewicz is a storyteller above all, and understands and frequently wields their power in his work for the studios, in his conversations with Hollywood suits and with Hearst and his circle at San Simeon, and in opposing the fake-newsreel short films that MGM produces to attack Sinclair using backlot sets and actors. It’s mentioned that Joseph Goebbels had Mankiewicz-penned flicks banned from Germany, and obvious anti-Semitism aside it can be understood that the Minister of Propaganda knew seductive stories when he saw them. Citizen Kane is likewise obsessed with stories: the larger story of Charles Foster Kane as cobbled together from the fragments of his life gleaned from the witnesses to it, the famous evocative vignette told by Kane’s right-hand man Bernstein about a girl in white with a parasol he glimpsed on a ferry that carries a part of the figurative weight of the movie’s intense longing and romantic dissatisfaction, Kane’s famous last word as a poetic microstory that romanticizes his idyllic childhood, the entire film as a story about Hearst as a story about America. Stories tell truths, but stories also lie. Both kinds of stories have effects and consequences, regardless of their honesty or dishonesty, their authenticity or inauthenticity.

What holds Mank back from absolute greatness, just maybe, is that it’s ultimately a lie. In minimizing Welles’s role and maximizing Mankiewicz’s role in raising Kane, it privileges one kind of story for another. It has reasons for doing so, and some of those reasons are obviously personal, in the case of both Finchers. Perhaps, as was pointed out by Dan O’Sullivan, the brilliance of the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles is simply too impossibly grandiose to be convincing or even conceivable, in his time or in our skeptical and propagandistic misinformation-strewn one (more likely the predicted character-assassination campaign against Welles from the Hearst press in revenge for Citizen Kane dug in more deeply and enduringly than we might like to imagine). Stories can be especially dangerous when we choose not to doubt them enough, and we should doubt such tales of meteoric ascents and prodigious brilliance, but likewise we should be skeptical of the underdog narrative privileged over it of an irascible alcoholic underappreciated genius robbed of his rightful place in history being artistically restored to it.

I could spend another 2500 words analyzing only the juxtaposing stories told at San Simeon in Mank‘s climactic 1930s sequence: first Mank’s wildly inebriated and fantastical but searingly personal drunken pitch for a modern screen retelling of Don Quixote with Hearst as the mad nobleman tilting at windmills, Davies as a beautiful but naive Dulcinea, and Mayer as a bowing, scraping courtier take on the peasant squire Sancho Panza, followed and upended by Hearst’s calm and assured telling to Mank of the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, in which the monkey in his fez and vest thinks himself as exerting true control over the man who is the performing animal’s master, that it is not the organ grinder but the monkey who calls the tune. But in this sequence and indeed in Mank as a whole, stories are weapons, blunt instruments of persuasion and power and subtler knives of manipulation and control. They are how we order our lives and identities and societies but they elude our direction and undermine our intent as well. We are wise to doubt their veracity but unwise to doubt their strength.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

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.