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Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Sorry to Bother You (2018; Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. I can try, and will try, to describe it and its delirious appeal, but I have no confidence that it won’t intractably frustrate this effort, or indeed that I wouldn’t want it to. No one can be told what Sorry to Bother You is; like The Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.

If you know little else about Sorry to Bother You beyond the boldly-coloured posters used to advertise it or promotional images of star Lakeith Stanfield’s deflated, head-bandaged visage, I might suggest that you keep it that way until you can see the film and see what this forthcoming fuss is about. For those for whom a bit more (but not too much more) information is required before committing to a film, I offer the subsequent description and thoughts.

Stanfield is Cassius Green (“cash is green”, get it? I admit that I didn’t until the movie explained the pun). He lives in a converted garage (complete with inconveniently-opening overhead door) in the Oakland home of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), to whom he owes several months of rent. He hopes his money woes will be at an end soon, however: he interviews for a telemarketing job at a company called Regalview, whose lower management is beset by such a mixture of both boundless cynicism and aspirational buy-ins to business-buzzword narratives that they are impressed by the hustle displayed amidst his shoddy dishonesty about his work history (his fabrications include both a plaque and a trophy from previous invented positions) and hire him on.

Cassius initially struggles with the awkward, dehumanizing intrusiveness of his cold-call work (Riley visualizes Cassius and his entire desk being dropped into the homes of the people he speaks to on the phone), although he forms an in-the-trenches bond with fellow cubicle-bound phone warriors, including his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), whose hiring at Regalview pre-dates his own, and Squeeze (Steve Yuen), a labour activist intending to organize the telemarketers into a union. Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) even joins up, as a supplement to her work as a contemporary artist of wearing spectacular message earrings, preparing for a splashy installation-and-performance show, and spinning one-word slogan signs on street corners.

But his professional fortunes begin to improve dramatically when an older colleague (Danny Glover) introduces him to the confident, sale-making wonders of the White Voice (David Cross provides the White Voice for Cassius, with Patton Oswalt and Lily James featured as the White Voices for other African-American characters projecting this sound of carefree success and privilege). Cassius is soon promoted to the lucrative upper-floor position of Power Caller, using his White Voice to sell products and opportunities to the ultra-rich for RegalView’s society-dominating client corporation WorryFree, a massive multinational with sunny advertising who give their workers free room, board, food, and clothing in exchange for a contract of lifelong servitude. Cassius’ Power Calling puts him at odds with his coworkers’ strike spearheaded by Squeeze, as he is escorted past their picket line by brutal riot-gear-equipped security contractors to ride a golden elevator up to the Power Caller digs.

This tension between his striking proletarian friends on one hand and the luxurious and seductive world of handsome salaries, tailored suits, fast cars, and indulgent parties (as well as the exploitative exchanges that pay for those things) on the other tugs at Cassius’ conscience and threatens his relationship with Detroit, who sympathizes with the organizing effort and whose art critiques the corporate economy and its deleterious effects. It is, of course, the central dilemma that American capitalism presents to every labourer: commit to the difficult collective campaign for labour rights despite the costs and the deprivations embraced by hostile bosses and authorities alike, or take a more selfish path to a solo rise, turning onto the gilded self-enriching highway of the sell-out with the full knowledge of being complicit in the processes of an iniquitous system. It’s a dilemma all the more fraught for African-Americans, who face White-Voice-like compromises to their identity and community in exchange for a share of majoritarian prosperity. But Cassius will be compelled to choose by a vision of future horror glimpsed during a party at the home of WorryFree’s inscrutable golden-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

This synopsis is a hopelessly inadequate soft-sell of Sorry to Bother You, which is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize as done above. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it. This absurdity is complete and all-encompassing, Riley suggests, and the society that embraces it and ensures its continuity with the cowboy gusto of the American public is profoundly, troublingly masochistic. The most popular television show in this funhouse version of the United States, after all, is called “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and asks its enraptured audience to watch as a willing participant is beaten up for its entertainment.

Riley’s film goes whole-hog on lampooning this delirious absurdism, and several scenes and moments are astoundingly funny: the subtext-becomes-text nature of the automated motivational pronouncements in the golden Power Caller elevator, Squeeze’s uncomfortably personal revelations shouted through a protest bullhorn, everything involving White Voices and the Equisapiens (just wait and see). Detroit’s performance art sequence breathes comic life into the low-hanging fruit of making a farce of the already-farcical realm of contemporary art and its political pretensions. And if the code-switching commentary of the White Voice wasn’t enough, Riley mocks the racist assumption on the part of Lift’s affluent Caucasian partygoers that Cassius can rap just because he’s African-American in a moment worthy of Spike Lee’s uncompromising sensibilities.

Spike Lee is a key talisman of influence for Boots Riley, just as Lee’s early ’90s creative peak of iconoclastic and confrontational films of the African-American experience is being recaptured and, in commercial and perhaps artistic ways, surpassed by films in the same vein in the recent African-American film renaissance (albeit served with far more crowd-capturing sugar than Lee’s signature works). 12 Years A SlaveSelma, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, and even Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman have collectively given firm and bold voice on screen to perspectives on the continuing struggles and joys of America’s most historically oppressed minority (who, of course, have also been its pop-cultural vanguard, particularly in the musical realm).

Sorry to Bother You fits into this encouraging wave of memorable African-American films, but also stands off entirely on its own. Boots Riley’s tumult of ideas in this film crashes down on the racial assumptions and white supremacy of the American labour economy, and the discomfiting subtext to all of WorryFree’s practices and initiatives is that American capitalists are incrementally reconstituting the broader terms of chattel slavery, still the most profitable and advantageous labour system in the country’s history from their point of view. But his spectacularly kooky Boccaccian vision of capitalist socioeconomics crosses and re-crosses the colour line, finding class and income oppression intermingling and cooperating with racial discrimination. Sorry to Bother You is a film of black experience, but more broadly and comprehensively it is a film of American experience, and thus a film whose anxieties and satirical targets are intelligible and even personally applicable to people across the globe within the seemingly-infinite reach of American capitalism. And it is an incredible film that must be seen to be believed.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 22 July

November 18, 2018 Leave a comment

22 July (2018; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The latest tense, clear-eyed, cinema verité-style current-affairs drama from English filmmaker Paul Greengrass treads with a mixture of technical confidence and intellectual hesitance onto the sensitive ground of one of the most shocking and heinous acts of violent political terrorism of our age. The director of painfully direct dramatizations of massacres from the Irish Troubles and the hijackings of cargo ships off the Horn of Africa and U.S. airliners on 9/11 (to say nothing of the two finest of the comparatively light and frothy Jason Bourne films), Greengrass now takes on the 2011 Norway attacks orchestrated by far-right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, which resulted in 77 deaths and exposed a dark, extremist underbelly in one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful nations.

Shooting in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew (but completely in English), Greengrass draws out the narratives of two main natives of the Scandinavian nation embroiled in the events as foils to the chillingly methodical mass murderer Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is the popular, politically idealistic son of a local politician from the northern archipelago of Svalbard. Viljar was in attendance at the summer camp retreat for members of the Workers’ Youth League (a sort of leadership club affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party, then in governmental power) on Utøya Island when it was attacked by Breivik, who targetted the children attendees as future leading lights of what considered the country’s “Marxist elite”. Viljar saw some of his best friends die and was himself badly wounded by multiple gunshots. 22 July follows the physical and psychological agony of his recovery and his preparation for an eventual in-court victim statement against Breivik and his beliefs, delivered before the killer’s watchful gaze. An inside view of Breivik’s legal defence is provided through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who does his civic duty as a solicitor in defending a man that he soon comes to view with contempt at some personal cost to him and his family.

22 July (the title is the date of the attacks, and would be recognized by any contemporary Norwegian as a 9/11-type shorthand for the traumatic event) therefore is more of a genre-crossing affair than is usual for Greengrass. The pained personal drama of Viljar’s struggles is set against the courtroom drama of Breivik’s trial and the plot twists of his defence: never denying that he carried out both the Utøya massacre and the bombing of a government building in Oslo that provided a distraction for his island assault, Breivik is declared mentally unfit to be tried by one examination and then mentally fit for another, deciding that escaping life imprisonment is better but then shifting gears and deciding that being declared insane would invalidate his political mission. The last two acts of 22 July build dramatically to Viljar’s testimony in a way that lends the impression that only he can effectively repudiate Breivik’s hate. But ultimately both his and Lippestad’s arcs are better understood as case studies in civic engagement and moral principle, as statements of democratic strength and solidity in the face of a terrible eruption of viciously fascistic weakness that seeks to destabilize that strength and solidity.

These stories spiral out of the riveting, unsettling opening-act depiction of the attacks themselves, and, truth be told, stand in uncomfortable disequilibrium with it. This first section of 22 July unfolds with masterfully crafted tension as an extended sequence of crescendoing dread and horror, as Breivik’s execution of his heinous plan is intercut with the reactions of government authorities and Viljar’s parents in Oslo and the children at Utøya, their joy at each other’s company at their safe and happy camp transitioning to shocking shaky-cam violence and death. This is Greengrass working at the peak of his powers with all the tools in his filmmaking kit, and it’s a stunning, galvanizing experience. But, as in Captain Phillips and United 93, it comes with a sense of disquiet and hesitation for a thoughtful viewer. How do we feel at being so effectively moved (manipulated, even) by the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller, language that serves to enthrall and frighten us, in the context of a real-life act of deadly terrorism that still is of such horrible proximity?

Greengrass appends Viljar’s hopeful story (as well as that of a friend of his from an immigrant family, whose positions in Norway are particular targetted by far-right campaigns of terror) as an antidote to Breivik’s hate. But his film sweats and strains through genres at which he is less prodigiously skilled to catch up to the powerful vision of contemporary terror constructed in the first act. A film ostensibly about an act of violent hate and oppression being defeated by hope and love and freedom gives the former too much potency early on for the latter to overcome when it gets its chance to counterattack.

One wonders if more could have been done by Anders Danielsen Lie, who gives the film’s sole fine performance as Breivik. Lie gives this extremist a mask of self-possession and confidence in his righteousness that shifts almost imperceptively into brittle, pompous isolation as an entire nation summons the fortitude to prove him wrong. But could not Breivik’s insufferable faux-medieval cosplaying as a proud paladin of the European master race, his pretentious manifesto, his clueless Nazi salutes in the courtroom have been further defused by rendering them as ridiculous as they truly are (the latest season of ITV’s detective drama Shetland achieved this in blunt but effective terms, with Douglas Henshall’s steely-eyed DI Jimmy Perez tearing down a Norwegian far-right agent’s suggestion that Breivik was a hero by exclaiming, “He lived with his mum!”)? The President of Norway’s and law enforcement’s deft disarming of his ludicrous demand to suspend all immigration to Norway lest his brothers in the Knights Templar unleash a second attack (of course, Breivik was always very alone) comes close to achieving this, and both Viljar’s testimonial diminishment of Breivik’s convictions and Lippestad’s unambiguous blowing off of further contact with his client after his conviction are mildly satisfying. But Greengrass is no satirist; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more self-serious working filmmaker than him, and the sharp, subtle knife of anti-fascist humour is not to be found in his toolkit.

As with all of Greengrass’ pictures, the highly-specified realism of 22 July does not preclude consideration of contemporary sociopolitical concerns but does tend to render them ancillary to the action. There is a strong case to be made, possibly one carrying the risk of folk-anti-hero valourization, that Anders Behring Breivik is one of the most evil people alive today; 22 July generally makes it. This is because of his mass-murderous choice of actions, of course, but is he not also evil because of his ideological beliefs and convictions? After all, men who believe essentially what Breivik believe, who share his broader anxieties and sociopolitical goals, have served (and still serve) in the White House of Donald J. Trump. That they haven’t adopted his methods, haven’t built bombs or fixed teenagers in the sight of a semi-automatic assault rifle and pulled the trigger, to get what they want is a matter of a confluence of factors to tangled and interdependent to easily unravel (22 July, like many considerations of violent terrorism, does not consider with any depth the self-amplifying feedback loop of sociology, ideology and psychology that warps dissatisfied men into sociopathic monsters). It does not absolve them of the consequences of the policies they pursue, which may, in the longer run, damage and extinguish the lives of many more people than Breivik personally slaughtered or traumatized.

22 July offers a glow of neoliberal hope to counter the authoritarian bigotry of Breivik and his hard-right fellow travellers. But as is so often the case right now, it leaves us wondering if this glow is quite enough. Norway’s is a social democracy with more emphasis on the social than Canada and certainly than the U.S., which has embraced its allied Prime Minister’s infamous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a society. The social safety net and general stability of the Scandinavian social democracies in general but Norway in particular (the offshore oil money certainly helps) serves as a frequent model for American and Canadian liberals arguing for similar policies in their own capital-captured countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s horrid act of terrorism suggested that whatever advantages this model carries, it is subject to the save cleavages of white supremacist prejudice that have afflicted the North American democracies through their history down to today. Paul Greengrass suggests in 22 July that to defeat such raging but marginal forces, a re-assertion of the principles of democratic principles (Norwegian or otherwise) in a new multicultural age are required. One hopes that he is correct at the same time as one doubts the depth of his consideration of these problems in this uneven but potent film, whose strengths lie in the visceral but rarely in the higher faculties.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.

Film Review: The Florida Project

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Florida Project (2017; Directed by Sean Baker)

A joyously tragic child’s-eye view of the precarity of American poverty, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project dances with giddy sadness back and forth across the line between peculiar indie movie and contemporary film classic. Following playful, innocent children, their thinly-stretched underemployed mothers, and a harried but fundamentally decent manager subsisting together on a rainbow-hued motel and retail strip on the poor margins of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Baker’s emotionally-expansive film is fundamentally about the broken promises of the American pursuit of happiness, a happiness made expensively manifest in the constructed simulacra of arrested childhood known as the Magic Kingdom. But The Florida Project is fantastically and sincerely attuned to a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the exciting playground of the world at the same time as it notes and quietly laments the shabby dishonesty with which the purportedly more serious and mature adult world fails to deliver on those promises of happiness.

Central to Baker’s generous vision is Moonee (the remarkable, naturalistically mercurial Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her tattooed, hair-dyed, rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pink-painted pay-by-the-week motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Free all day due to summer break from school, Moonee goes on wild excursions of play on the strip and its abandoned environs with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). It’s mostly joyful and innocent fun but sometimes tips over the edge into real trouble (Jancey is befriended when the other two are caught spitting on her guardian’s car and enlist her cooperation in cleaning it) and even danger, but it’s shot by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe as a kaleidoscopic and glorious adventure (they pass a gift shop whose front facade is a huge bearded wizard, for example), and always from the perspective of the children themselves. The Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, in a video essay arguing for the film’s importance in light of its Academy Award snubbing for a Best Picture nomination, likens its kid-level viewpoint (which often persists in low angles even when the kids are not onscreen) to the old Little Rascals short films.

But Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, introduces the dire consequences of poverty into this innocent wonderland with a faucet-drip of seriouness. Halley brings Moonee along with her as she discusses her recent dismissal from an exotic dancing job and hawks wholesale perfume at knockdown prices to tourists in a tonier resort’s parking lot. Moonee collects bread and other nourishment from a local church’s travelling food bank, and she and Scooty make daily stops at the back door of the diner at which the latter’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works to receive free servings of waffles. As these workarounds evaporate (Halley is chased from the resort by security, Ashley cuts out Halley and forbids contact between Moonee and Scooty after the kids set a fire in an abandoned housing lot), Halley turns to prostitution to make ends meet, thus threatening her custody of her daughter.

Baker (also serving as his own editor) depicts Halley’s downward descent without judgement or dramatic acknowledgement of how momentous it is in her life or in Moonee’s; it just happens, like life itself. The little girl is simply shown in a series of shots spending more and more time playing alone in the bath, until a strange, unseen man bursts into the bathroom and is shocked that a child is present (the camera never leaves Prince’s face, as she is alarmed and surprised). This sense of fairness and understanding towards poverty and its effects pervades The Florida Project, almost as a rebuke to a society (and to a public and entertainment discourse) that painfully does not share such a sense, and engages in broad, condescending caricatures and moral opprobrium of the poor on the occasions when it pretends to. This marginal, precarious America is not merely ignored and disavowed by the more respectable and comfortable classes, it is actively shamed and punished for its own marginalization by public discourse and political policymaking. The poor are even blamed for the foolish sins of the better-off: it is this disadvantaged class that was fingered for making Donald Trump president, while the comfortable, prejudiced white middle class of the suburbs and exurbs really turned out to put him in the White House.

Baker does not romanticize poverty, either. The Florida Project operates on a moment-by-moment realism, pregnant with weight and consequence and the ever-present possibility of collapse. It does not elide the truth that Halley’s problems are greatly exacerbated by her own decisions and personality, and are not simply pre-determined by political, social, and economic superstructures beyond her control or understanding. This is made awkwardly clear when she shows up at Ashley’s diner after the opening of the rift between them and torments her ex-friend as a belligerent customer, treatment which Ashley endures with an on-the-edge customer-service-professional stoicness that the more brazen Halley cannot so much as fake for a minute. Maintaining a paycheque and supporting her son is more important to Ashley than defending her own dignity in the face of abuse, while Halley will stand up for herself, right or (more likely) wrong, regardless of the cost. The scene demonstrates the difference between these two woman as well as part of the reason why the system will sooner catch up to Halley, but it’s also a dramatization of the agonizing, debasing choices necessary to survival at the bottom of the pyramid of late capitalism.

The miracle of The Florida Project is that it imparts the crushing devastation of this situation of poverty without ever sacrificing beauty and joy at the altar of realism. Zabe’s camera finds aesthetic poetry and leaping gorgeousness in this depressed strip of Florida, bursts of the visual sublime contrasting with hints of socioeconomic hopelessness like a magic-realist work that nonetheless never skimps on the reality. It finds determined goodness as well, in the quasi-reluctant efforts of the Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer Halley and his other tenants some measure of protection from the harsh world that seeks to make them account for their unforgivable lack of wealth: he chases away a likely pedophile as well as a disgruntled john of Halley’s, and looks the other way on any number of violations of rules, policies, and laws by longer-term hotel guests despite the insistence on enforcement expressed by the stingy motel owner (Karren Karagulian).

The magic realism becomes quite nearly explicit in The Florida Project‘s final scene, as Moonee and Jancey flee the agents of the state Department of Children and Families about to remove the former from Halley’s care all the way into Disney World itself. It’s a fulfillment of the desire for escape into a realm of wondrous, untouched innocence that they approximate with creative imagination (ie. when the girls “go on safari” earlier in the film, they look at a herd of cows) because the more elaborate capitalized simulacra is not affordable to them: although there’s no way that two children without a cent in their pockets could make it through the theme park gates with its USD$200-ish admission fees, we do not quibble for the sake of the metaphor.

The brief closing moment was clandestinely filmed on an iPhone without the resort’s knowledge or permission, much like the notorious indie psychological horror flick Escape from Tomorrow was. Like that unquestionably lesser film, The Florida Project conceives of the hermetic Disneyfied commodification of childhood happiness as a particularly American process, and one revealing of the damaged core of fractured promise at the heart of the nation. But where the clumsier Escape from Tomorrow, with its moody film-noir black-and-white cinematography and disturbing but half-baked surrealist weirdness, reflected personal and collective psychic wounds, The Florida Project emerges from its pastel-emblazoned vision of a forgotten America with its hope and goodness intact. There can be a tendency for art that interrogates the essential hypocrisy of corporate capitalism’s mantra of individual happiness to cede too much ground to the exploiters of joy, but Sean Baker hearteningly avoids surrendering that sunny glow to those who would bottle it, water it down, and sell it for profit. They do not own innocent happiness, The Florida Project says emphatically; children like Moonee do. How magnificent that possession is, and how terribly sad it is that we’ve collectively built a world that is too quick and eager to take it away.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marginalization, Abuse, and Female Agency in Alias Grace and Big Little Lies

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Although they are very different in tone, themes, and historical-geographical setting, Alias Grace and Big Little Lies both utilize the limited-series format of prestige television to explore women’s struggles in self-definition and establishing agency in contexts of subordination, marginalization, and abuse. Narratively constructed around murder mysteries in each case, both series employ shifting ambiguities of responsibility and motive not only to maintain suspense and audience involvement but also to suggest perilous truths about a woman’s position in demanding societies.

Although both shows are grounded in murder mysteries, neither is structured precisely as a classic whodunit. Alias Grace focuses on Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to 19th-Century Canada who becomes a household servant and is implicated in and imprisoned for the murder of the well-off bachelor (Paul Gross) who employs her, as well as his housekeeper/paramour (Anna Paquin). The facts of the murder itself are not much in question, nor is Grace’s intimate involvement in it, at least in some form. But the narrative casts proto-psychologist doctor Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) as its detective figure, teasing out through memory-probing conversations with Grace how exactly she contributed to the killings and why they happened.

Big Little Lies, meanwhile, casts a semi-satirical eye on the well-to-do social circles of the contemporary enclave of the Bay Area elite in Monterey, California. A suspicious death has occurred at a lavish charity event, drawing in five disparate but connected women, but the series keeps the identity of not only the killer but also the victim secret until its closing stages. The hanging question of the murder – gestured to in brief expressionistic flashes and foreshadowed in intercut side-narration commentary clips of police interviews with witnesses – provides the constant tease and frisson, but Big Little Lies is not about the mystery so much it concerns as the lives, desires, and choices of these five women and those around them.

If Alias Grace cuts more deeply and subtly than its counterpart, that may be because its behind-the-camera creative core is made up of women. Based on the novel by Canadian literary giant (and suddenly-hot property, following the Emmy-winning success of another adaptation of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale) Margaret Atwood (who cameos in one scene as a disapproving churchgoer), Alias Grace was adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley with Mary Harron directing. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, though based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, has a screenplay by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Public) and was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Beyond the fundamental biases of the male gaze, Big Little Lies does not always benefit from the blatant hammerstrokes of Kelley’s grandstanding writing style, as Todd VanDerWerff details in his review of the series for Vox.

Big Little Lies benefits greatly from a dynamite all-star cast almost uniformly working at the top of their collective game to elevate the material that has a tendency to be too on-the-nose and leans towards the sordid and soapy. Reese Witherspoon (Vallée’s star in Wild) headlines as Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who rarely stays at home, volunteering at the local community theatre (which is putting on a controversial production of the profane puppet musical Avenue Q), popping out for coffee with friends, and far too frequently becoming embroiled in rivalries and dramas around town (the performance only improves if you imagine Madeline as a grown version of Tracy Flick from Election).

Divorced from but constantly griping about her ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who has remarried neo-hippie yoga instructor Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the flinty Madeline creates tension with her decent-but-dull current husband Ed (Adam Scott) and her rebellious teenaged daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton). Her best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer married to a young, handsome jetsetting businessman, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); Celeste and Perry have twin boys, but also a volatile, sexually passionate, and troublingly violent relationship. Madeline and Celeste befriend a new single mother in town, Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has a young son and a traumatic history with his father.

Madeline and Jane soon become caught in a loop of conflict with driven corporate executive and mother Renata (Laura Dern, in one of her three superb 2017 roles) when Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is acused of being rough with Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George). Given further impetus by Madeline’s sense of self-righteousness (which is inflamed by the city’s attempt to censor Avenue Q), this conflict comes to a head alongside Celeste and Perry’s abusive situation at a school charity ball.

Big Little Lies remains compulsively watchable throughout, but soon enough it becomes clear that its most compelling and unsettling feature is its depiction of this abusive relationship. Vallée skillfully withholds and obscures the most damning evidence of Perry’s violent and angry nature in the early stages, peppering his harsher moments with passionate sex scenes, and emphasizing his attentive and playful fathering towards his boys (although his playtime alter-ego, “The Monster”, is a bit too on the nose, truthfully). There’s enough to give the audience even more pause than Celeste, but the effect in general is that her battered-woman denial about his abusiveness is nominally shared by us. A long, riveting, uncomfortable intervention by her marriage counsellor (HBO vet Robin Weigert) is necessary not only to dispel this denial and spark action on Celeste’s part, but to remove our doubts as to what this relationship really is as well.

Alias Grace, meanwhile, bombards its titular female protagonist with misfortunes and mistreatment of a greater magnitude. Grace’s mother dies on board ship during the passage to Canada from Ireland; her father abuses her verbally, physically, and sexually. Her first and best friend during her initial servant posting, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), is impregnated by the eldest son of her employer and dies after obtaining a secret abortion, a passing that haunts Grace far more literally than might have been guessed. She suffers the tongue-lashings of Paquin’s Nancy at her last serving position, and the weakness of her situation is exploited by the violent and lascivious James McDermott (Kerr Logan), her partner in the murders. She is then mistreated, abused, and raped in the women’s prison in Kingston after her conviction. Even the interviews with Dr. Jordan which serve as the narrative flashback device, ostensibly intended to aid her in obtaining a pardon, are construed as a violation of her memory akin to rape, a dimension given contour by Jordan’s frequent sexual fantasies involving her, which he transmutes into a sexual liaison with his landlady (Sarah Manninen).

Alias Grace is a nuanced, often poetic portrait of the thousand pinpricks of women’s marginalization. Deprived of power over her own fate and choices, Grace makes a series of limited decisions – predominantly small but then suddenly momentous – to diminish her sufferings, to channel herself towards survival and endurance. The women of Big Little Lies have inordinately greater liberty, wealth, and privilege, but are likewise cosseted by insecurity, social expectations, past trauma, and above all by the power of men, sometimes benevolent but more often not. Like Grace, they find a certain agency and satisfaction in hard-won female solidarity and in the extremes of reactive assertion. Unlike Grace, their story will continue, with a second season (not an uncontroversial one, either, especially to their competitors in the Emmy’s Limited Series category) to draw out the implications of that assertion and probe the boundaries of their claim to a greater agency.

Categories: Politics, Reviews, Television