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Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Up to My Ears in Miserable, Quote, Unquote ‘Art'”: The Monitor by Titus Andronicus, Ten Years On

April 16, 2020 Leave a comment

Rock and roll is dead. Musicians will continue to play classic songs of the genre, and even continue to form bands, craft songs and albums, chase the rock star dream. Heck, before a global pandemic made live concerts one stunning impossibility among many, they remained a hugely popular draw for income-starved rock groups. But gradually at first and then practically all at once, the rockists watched as their favoured musical genre and privileged subculture, so long held up as the bastian of artistic authenticity in the shallow midst of popular music’s frantic swirl of the pursuit of the new, vanished up the tightened sphincter of its own self-importance as that self-importance ceased to be backed up by vindicating mass appeal. Be it due to ephemeral changing trends or imperceptible shifts in culture or changes in digital music-making technology and delivery methods and mass media engagement, rock sunk back into the muck of subgenre fragmentation, all while new forms of pop and urban music dominated the mainstream charts and static radio, and the hyper-polished corporate monster of modern country music captured rock’s former bread-and-butter demographic of working-class conservative whites. The kids don’t care about rock music anymore. It’s been some time since they did, and there isn’t much to suggest that this might turn around anytime soon.

This was only slightly less true a decade ago in March of 2010, when a ragged New Jersey-formed indie-rock group named Titus Andronicus released their second album, The Monitor. It was at the tail-end of the indie wave of the 2000s, and the torch of authenticity and immediacy that indie-rock had kept burning as a rock subgenre hadn’t yet flickered out, despite many principals of the indie world slipping into the skins of major-label radio and touring juggernauts. The Monitor might have been the final flare-up of that guttering flame. It’s fiery, aggressive, righteously bombastic, slamming together punk’s confrontational energy and blunt directness with the reaching, operatic ambition of album-era classic rock; it’s so steeped in terms of authenticity and immediacy that it’s almost painful to look in the face at times, when it isn’t thumbing its nose at the very idea of living with any integrity in a debased, defaced, disgraced, and destroyed reality. This wasn’t rock’s last hurrah, and despite the album’s expansive ambition, the band would hardly have so swelled a sense of vitality to claim to have crafted the creative capstone of one of the most important cultural movements of the past century. But it was a creative opus steeped in history as much as in the present, in the continuity of helpless stasis and the eternality of boundless ennui. In terms of the album-centric conception of rock’s defining long-play masterpieces, it’s hard to think of another album since The Monitor that approaches the heights of achievement of the genre’s classics.

Flipping past the ghostly 19th-century photograph on the album cover, long-dead men in uniform leaning in momentary cool leisure as if posing for a historical-proxy band portrait, The Monitor‘s opening moments are indelibly striking. It’s an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address, one of the future President’s first published speeches and an early highlight in his remarkable career as a political orator. Read in voiceover by poet and teacher Okey Canfield Chenoweth, it’s a title-page epigram in aural form, a thesis statement for the glorious, rambling, epic journey to come:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe and Asia could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or set a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be it’s author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.

Lincoln referred to the United States of America as a nation that cannot be conquered from without but can destroy itself from within via its own internal contradictions. For Lincoln in 1838 as well as until his death, the most forceful and dangerous of those self-destructive contradictions was always slavery. Endemic compromises and half-measures to address the deep divisions between white and black, slave and slaveowner, free state and slave state, North and South would continue for over a decade after Lincoln uttered these words in Springfield, Illinois, until in the early days of his Presidency, the American Civil War would break out over the slavery issue’s political instransigence. Intractable semi-solutions and politically-engineered gridlock would do no longer in 1861; slavery would live on or it would die with suddenness, and either way this resolution of last resort would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Freedom not only ain’t free, it’s practically unaffordable.

The Monitor was the brainchild of Titus Andronicus singer, guitarist, and lyricist Patrick Stickles, the band’s primary figure and rock-poet cynical savant. It’s a record of his personal turmoil, doubts and grievances (the band’s debut album was entitled The Airing of Grievances, after a line in Seinfeld‘s iconic “Festivus” episode), as well as a stealth break-up album. But it was also inspired by Ken Burns’ seminal multi-hour PBS documentary The Civil War, which for all of its flaws and foibles (centering of neo-Confederate Lost Cause historical perspectives chief among them) remains the most powerful and widely-consumed history of America’s “Second Revolution”. As Ryan Leas details in his 10-year retrospective essay on the album for Stereogum a month ago, Stickles plucked the fascinating but utterly non-decisive sideline battle between two ironclads (half-submerged steel gunships, clumsy and dangerous proto-submarines) for both the album’s title (the USS Monitor was the Union ironclad warship that slugged it out with the Confederate USS Merrimack) and for the album’s core theme of being mired hopelessly in any number of intractable stalemates whose rare victories are entirely pyrrhic: in politics, in economics, in the culture war, in relationships, in psychological equilibrium, in extracting even a shred of meaning from human existence.

The Civil War is notoriously the war that never really ended; the battlefield conflicts over the preferred American system of social and economic inequality merely moved into the political and cultural spheres, where they endure, unresolved and unresolvable, to today, pre-determining divisive partisanship and crippling attempts at legislative problem-solving and social understanding. The fundamental polarity of this long American civil conflict, absolutely key to understanding the history of rock music, is evoked directly by Stickles in The Monitor‘s roiling centerpiece “Four Score and Seven” (again, a Lincoln quotation, from his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address), which segues from slow, quiet laments for shaken moral equilibrium to furious recriminations before settling into a seemingly endless wailed refrain: “It’s still us against them”, only chased by an anguished primal scream admission of “And they’re winning” and a final neutron-bomb explosion of a rock and roll instrumental coda.

The thing about this refrain and its dispiriting endcap is that in context of The Monitor as a whole, Stickles could have equally sung the line as “And we’re winning” and, whatever the absolutely literal implication of those words, it would have come across as no more or less triumphant or deflating (the album’s second song, the richly sarcastically-titled “Titus Andronicus Forever”, consists almost entirely of the related, repeated refrain, “The enemy is everywhere” over blasting power chords, while its second-to-last companion track “…And Ever” repeats the structure over rollicking ragtime piano). One imagines that Stickles, ever-cognizant of the looming legacy of rock history, could very well have recorded or performed differing versions of the song, the identity of the likely victors swapping each time in the lyric sheet in reflection of his attitudes and opinions of the metastatic moment, like John Lennon repeatedly flipping the script concerning violent rebellion against injustice in “Revolution”. The Monitor is a long-form tone poem about the negation of hope and the freedom of disillusionment, and it lands on either side of the line between optimism and despair multiple times within the space of the record, even in the space of a song or a single line.

It’s in the quasi-literary permanence of Stickles’ dominant pose as a relentlessly self-aware romantic fatalist that The Monitor overmasters the pretentions of finding thematic and emotional common ground between the deadliest war in American history and a mid-20s indie rocker’s navel-gazing crisis of meaning and conscience and belonging. Following the opening Lincoln quotation from Okey Canfield Chenoweth (identifed by Leas as Stickles’ high school teacher, although I couldn’t find that info anywhere else so we’ll have to take his word for it), the band launches into “A More Perfect Union” (a phrase from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, made current in 2008 as a title of an important campaign speech by the most self-constructedly Lincolnesque of Abraham Lincoln’s political heirs, Barack Obama), an unlikely punky rave-up shout-along anthem that self-consciously draws from a well of proletarian authenticity so popular in rock history as to now be shallow and dry: being from New Jersey. As if aware of the long, fraught tail of New Jersey experience being purposed as shorthand for poetically elevated suffering, Stickles fires directly at the state’s grandest artistic avatar’s most potent expression of struggle and wanderlust: “Tramps like us / Baby, we were born to die” comes the scraping cry from Stickles’s vocal cords, a parodic reference to Bruce Springsteen’s enormous shot-across-the-bow anthem “Born to Run”. The import is clear: whatever the Boss told you 35 years ago, now there’s nowhere left to run.

Structured in movements like a classical composition in the manner of all of The Monitor‘s longer songs (all but two of the ten tracks top five minutes, and five songs stretch past the magical 7-minute mark of notoriously-lengthy rock hits like “MacArthur Park” and “Hey Jude”), “A More Perfect Union” shifts through more apparently confessional lyrics in its middle section (Leas notes that Stickles had moved to the Boston area for a relationship that did not last, snapping into focus the rootless push-and-pull between his native New Jersey and “the lights of the Fenway” with a “cruel New England winter”). Then, like a supremely improbable blood-red sunrise, an uncannily familiar lead-guitar melody lines segues into an utterly rousing adapted-lyrics singalong of “Battle Cry of Freedom”, a popular and enduring Civil War ballad written to extoll Unionism but also adapted for Confederates, which then turns into another Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, with Stickles plucking the tune’s original lyrics about the martyred radical abolitionist John Brown alongside the “Glory, glory, hallelujah” chorus. It’s a stunning composition when pulled apart or just when listened to without digging further, with layers of musical history from modern times and the Civil War era combining with the personal psychological explorations of rock poetry.

The rest of The Monitor is not as singularly arresting as either “A More Perfect Union” or “Four Score and Seven” are as individual compositions, but the boozy, lurching rock-opera singalongs deepen the themes of trapped, cynical alienation with unlikely flashes of inspiration and redemption, all knit together by further voiced-over quotations from Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, and William Lloyd Garrison read by Chenoweth as well as the band’s indie-rock colleagues: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls, and Nolen Strals of Double Dagger. “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” closes with the most unlikely affirmational refrain imaginable: “You will always be a loser” (“and that’s okay”, growls Stickles as the scorching guitars begin to fade). The gauntlet is dropped on wordy, super-extended titles, a mainstay of indie-rock (think Sufjan Stevens) and fine art (think J.M.W. Turner) alike: “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem)” is the longest, and ties together the titular Shakespeare nod with more Civil War references and a head-spinning lyric that adapts a catchphrase from the old Scooby Doo cartoons into a moment of imagined accountability for explotative rich and powerful warmongers.

“A Pot in Which to Piss” commences with Ramone quoting Jefferson Davis about accepting the crowd’s plaudits during his inagural address as President of the Confederate States of America while having premonitions of “thorns and troubles innumerable” in the coming armed struggle with the North, and personalizes those thorns and troubles with images of bullying, abuse, and sore criticism. This is the song most illustrative of Stickles’ deceptively elegant balancing of smothering pessimism (“Nothing means anything anymore / Everything is less than zero”; “You’ve never been a virgin, kid / You were fucked from the start”) and bruised but unbowed determined resistance (“There’s a white flag / In my pocket / Never to be unfurled”). This forever-contradictory dichotomy is summarized succinctly in the song’s (maybe the album’s) most incredible line (in an album full of incredible lines) of ambiguous implication: “I’m at the end my rope / I feel like swinging”, exasperated, anguished finality culminating in death, liberty, or some macabre and philosophically broad combination of both.

“Theme from Cheers” demolishes the sitcom-derived romanticization of alcoholism, a raise-your-glass drinking song about the depressing, regretful loop of raising your glass to drink. “To Old Friends and New” is the album’s most sustainedly pretty and moving moment, a classic-rock, lighters-aloft piano ballad duet with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak that is (mostly) sincere and heartfelt about keeping it together through hard times, if often subversively so, in Stickles’ standard mode (“We can build a nice life together / If we don’t kill each other first”; “The reasons for living are seldom and few”). “It’s all right / the way that you live” is this song’s grand singalong finale, and it feels for all the world like a secular benediction, the understanding and sympathetic utterance of a wise holy man. It’s little wonder that The Monitor inspires such devotion and deep identification from its appreciative fans, a powerful investment that Stickles has struggled to live up to with further Titus Andronicus albums over the past decade (which have admittedly produced a certified banger or two).

The Monitor arrives at the promised destination of its core historical touchstone with the 14-minute closing epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, the name of the naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in 1862. The historical battle took place over two days, and it feels like the song named after it stretches on for that long as well. Titus Andronicus is hardly everyone’s cup of tea musically speaking, their punk-ish aesthetic clashing with standard assessments of aesthetic beauty in quite purposeful ways, and grinding through loud, dirty guitars, deep-thud drums, and Stickles’ favouring of tonsil-shredding wails and growls over more standardly pleasing pop singing over the extended periods of time that their longer songs take up can be a chore for the uninitiated or the disinclined. Add in a 2-minute (absolutely epic) bagpipe solo and you’re unquestionably going to turn some people off. But if you can get through it, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is every bit the grandiose conclusion that an album of The Monitor‘s massive but never overwhelming ambition deserves. Stickles’ words, sung with exquisite self-loathing, are a panoply of struggles against depression and sadness and moral judgement and defeat and cultural indoctrination and crippling, fatalistic irony. They also return with raw emotional devastation to the Boston heartbreak that partly inspired the album and came up obliquely in “A More Perfect Union”, which is now the impetus for a pained litany of self-recriminations and predictions of substance-abuse coping mechanisms spat out as the narrator retreats to New Jersey in shame.

The confessions in the middle of “The Battle of Hampton Roads” are rockism in its purest distillation, grounded in the beknighted assurance that only with a guitar and a raw, vulnerable, imperfect voice can the deepest and most authentic truths of the artist’s soul be communicated with the directness and power that they demand. In the same way, The Monitor is perhaps the last true rockist masterpiece, a loose concept record full of Big Ideas and penetrating themes connected across personal experience and cultural consciousness and political history, animated by ambitious, well-crafted, powerful music. It is, to quote Stickles in “Four Score and Seven”, “miserable quote, unquote ‘Art'”, which he self-deprecatingly claims that he “struggle(s) and… stammer(s)” out of himself until he’s “up to my ears” in it. Of course, rockism is, and always was, arrogant, entitled nonsense, no matter how fervently your younger self believed it was true (and mine certainly did). Rock music does not and never did hold a monopoly on authenticity or artistic truth, and the implication that it did is myopic and small-minded (and quite possibly racist and/or sexist to boot). Rock and roll did not die when its claims to ultimate authority were undermined by vanishing market share, and fundamentally equating commercial popularity with artistic importance (however occasionally the two overlap) is a fool’s errand as well.

But The Monitor both embodies and overcomes these pitfalls and genre cliches. This essay on its meaning and importance from the retrospective distance of a decade makes it sound hopelessly portentous, but the truth is this record is a ball, a goddamned party. Its full-throated singalongs can be subversive and self-deprecating, but that renders them all the more cathartic. The skill and precision of the songs’ construction and the hairpin turns of collective musicianship that allow for their execution is impressive but also bone-deep irresistible in indefinable ways, as only fine music can really be (its great indie-rock contemporary work from that year, The National’s High Violet, functions in a similar way if not more so, with its more inscrutable lyrics and downbeat tone). It’s immediate and persuasive art, above all, not at all dry or intellectualized, even if it is intellectual. And now, perhaps even more so than in 2010, The Monitor communicates something fundamental about America, about Americans, and about all people: destruction and danger comes not from without, to be deterred with walls and travel bans, but from within. Patrick Stickles embraces his unseen enemy in the final stanza of the album, calling it “my darling” and begging it, “Please don’t ever leave”. For all of its darkness and rage and cynicism, The Monitor is about self-care and improvement, about looking the demons that haunt us in the face and admitting that we let them in and can’t count on anyone else to drive them out, so we best do it ourselves or else learn to live with them. This is applicable to personal psychology as much as to politics, culture and society: live forever, or die by suicide. There is fatalism to The Monitor, but in the end, there’s hope and solidarity to be found in relentless defeat, and that’s what shines through.

Television Review: The English Game

April 13, 2020 Leave a comment

The English Game (Netflix; 2020 – Present)

On his YouTube channel Renegade Cut, video essayist Leon Thomas refers to English television writer and House of Lords peer Julian Fellowes’ hit historical drama Downton Abbey as “aristo-trash”, a dramatic subgenre that includes Netflix’s popular prestige series on the British Royal Family under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. Media products such as these series are critiqued by Thomas as providing rose-tinted, humanizing portraits of super-rich privileged elites such as the Windsors of The Crown and the Crawleys of Downton Abbey “for the purposes of capitalist apologetics and propaganda”. They also invariably include idealized friendly, respectful, and even loving relations between the rich and the poor, even while emphasizing the common humanity of members of the irreparably separated classes on either side of the still-widening divide of socioeconomic inequality by exploring their personal struggles in a tonal manner that suggest their broad similarity and shared humanity.

Furthermore, they present the radical politics of change and redistribution of wealth and privilege as an immature trifle of youth to be outgrown and left behind, when they aren’t depicting such politics and their frequent accompanying behaviours of protest and confrontation as outright violent and dangerous. The rare elements of progressive change that slip through this tight net are consistently attributed to the magnanimous generosity of enlightened philosopher-king individuals, exemplars of the elites at their best charitably giving to the less-fortunate of society. The sum affect of this presentation of class relations serves to re-entrench tradition power structures as positive and benevolent, their exploitations, oppressions, and inequalities elided or explained away or more often entirely absent. For an Old Tory like Lord Fellowes, a cultural text like Downton Abbey buttresses the wealthy upper-class elite to which he belongs and whose interests he seeks to shield and safeguard from progressive threats.

The English Game is a new series for Netflix co-created by Fellowes (with Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton), who also co-writes all six episodes. Set in Britain in 1879-1880, the series focuses on a key, semi-fictionalized turning point in the history of association football (a.k.a. soccer), when the sport that would one day become the world’s most popular pivoted from an amateur leisure pastime of overgrown boarding-school gentlemen to an athletic communal religion of the working class featuring paid professional players bought and sold by wealthy, ambitious, competitive club owners. The English Game (its title referring to the nationalistic nickname for football but also punning on the social and economic negotiations of the class structure) shares Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of rich and poor experience, and its dramatic and emotional stakes are not uninvolving or unpersuasive. But make no mistake, this is aristo-trash par excellence, full of soft-focus illuminations of upper-crust benevolence and upright, honourable working folks living vicariously through the glories of the local footie club.

In 1879, football had been an organized sport with rules of governance for just over 30 years, and somewhat wider-scale agreement on those rules was much more recent (the sport now widely known as rugby only split off into its own codes of play in 1871, for example). The Football League (the world’s first) would not be founded until 1888, and so the only real national footballing competition at the time was the FA (Football Association) Cup, which had been dominated since its beginnings in 1872 by the amateur private school teams whose players had agreed upon its rules and largely populated the positions of control in the FA. These figures kept the game strictly amateur, professionalism being seen as common and vulgar and grounds for expulsion from cup competition, as well as of course threatening their clubbish dominance of the fledgling sport. But a growing number of football clubs from the Midlands, the North, and Scotland were springing up and challenging the old boys of the game down south, these teams often run by mill owners or other businessmen who began to secretly pay the best players from other such clubs to join their own squads. From some of these clubs also emerged new tactics based on quick passing and speed, rather than the rugby-adjacent packed rushes and rough physicality of the well-fed and well-rested school alumni teams. The game was changing. Would its wealthy and privileged gatekeepers change with it, or be left behind?

At least this is how The English Game presents the conflict in the sport in this period; more knowledgable historians of the game may quibble with specifics, and it feels like the on-field tactical shift in particular is likely oversimplified (on more than one occasion, large-scale tactical innovations are made in quick conversations at halftime), but in broad strokes, it’s probably relatively accurate to what was happening in football at the time (also, the balls they use look really, really hard). At any rate, this is fertile ground for the kind of highly-skewed class relations drama that Fellowes favours, and he mostly doesn’t waste it. His central contrasting figures and dual protagonists come from each side of the class divide in Victorian society and in Victorian football. There’s Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), aristocratic heir to a wealthy, lordly financier father (Anthony Andrews) who disapproves of his scion’s childish footballing obsession, husband to Alma (Charlotte Hope) and hopeful father-to-be, FA principal, captain of perennial FA Cup contenders Old Etonians, and perhaps the first nationally-known star player in the sport. Aligned against Kinnaird (but ultimately coming to a position of mutual respect and admiration with him) is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a diminuitive but highly talented Scot who moves to Northern mill-town team Darwen FC from Partick Thistle in Glasgow along with his on-field running mate and best friend Jimmy Love (James Harkness); both are paid under the table to play while working a cover job at the textile mill (the real Suter was a stonemason) of Darwen FC owner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson). Suter struggles to balance his on-field ambitions with his quick-hardening fondness for and loyalty to the town, as well as his developing feelings for local woman Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh) and his concerns about the well-being of his family back in Glasgow, who fear the violent rages of his alcoholic father (Michael Nardone).

Although Fellowes works here with co-creators and co-writers (Thomas points out in his video essay that Fellowes has a solo writing credit on all but three Downton Abbey episodes, whose credits he shares, as well as the capstone movie, making the work a rare-enough example of a single authorial voice in filmed media), The English Game has all the hallmarks of the aristo-trash style. Everybody, rich and poor, has humanizing issues and personal struggles (at least partly for the purpose of equalization and erasure of socioeconomic difference), and these form the numerous subplots unwinding behind the core progression of the FA Cup tournament towards the inevitable meeting between Kinnaird’s and Suter’s clubs in the final. Arthur deals with his father’s disapproval of his sporting focus and tries to prove his mettle to the old man as a capitalist, all while tiptoeing his way to a stronger marriage with Alma (who suffers a traumatic miscarriage and transmutes her loss into meddling in the affairs of a lower-class mother who has to give up her child for adoption).

Kinnaird also serves as the focal point for Fellowes’ aristo-trash pro-elite propaganda, witnessing and sympathizing with the strike actions and protest marches of Darwen’s mill workers, which include Suter’s teammates. He thus becomes a benevolent champion for working-class rights in politics, society, economics, and football, a personification of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idealized “Tory men with Whig measures”. This predilection sets him at odds with his more arrogant, power-playing Old Etonian teammates in the FA, namely the show’s chief villain Francis Marindin (Daniel Ings; no relation to the former Liverpool and current Southampton forward of the same name), who is eager to expel their competition from the North from the cup for hooliganism, professionalism, or whatever else suits his purposes.

The English Game includes a subplot about wage cuts for factory workers and labour unrest, and Fellowes approaches it exactly as his aristo-trash leanings would lead one to suspect he would. As Kinnaird watches and Suter resists an attempt by the ringleaders to leverage his on-field notoriety to the strike’s benefit with mild calls for unity and understanding, incendiary speeches about workers’ rights lead to a torch-wielding mob that marches threateningly on the house of the head of the cotton guild, Colonel Jackson (Richard McCabe). Vandalism and a perceived threat to the lives of Jackson and his family ensue, and after Darwen FC keeper and aspiring capitalist Ted Stokes (Joncie Elmore) slips into the house to warn the colonel and his family, police mistakenly arrest him and cruelly shoot his dog dead. Only Arthur Kinnaird’s compassionate interceding in the trial and accompanying pledge to finance Stokes’ proposed football-shirt manufacturing concern saves an innocent (indeed, heroic) man from unfair incarceration. Labour agitation, Fellowes is saying, is nothing but trouble, and only by protecting the owners of the means of production as Stokes does can any improvement in one’s standing be achieved, through the kind generosity of those owners.

The ultimate thesis of The English Game is even more grimly platitudinal in its cynical upholding of traditional, uneven class relations as transmuted through capitalism. Kinnaird and Suter combine forces in a pivotal meeting with Marindin and the FA leadership to get Blackburn (the club Suter has moved to from eliminated Darwen in order to have a shot at winning the FA Cup) reinstated to the competition following a hooliganish riot caused by an injury to Love in an exhibition match between the club and rival Darwen. This stated reason is only a sideline concern for Marindin, who is really seeking to root out illegal professionalism and expose Suter as a paid mercernary. As Kinnaird predicts the spread of football worldwide with ludicrous geographical accuracy (“Then we’ll grow corrupt and shiftless, and the Brazilians will eat us alive!”), Suter repeats a point that he has made locally in Darwen and Blackburn numerous times up to that point. The British working class needs football, and feeds ravenously off the weekly exploits of their heroes on the pitch to get them through the dull, dehumanizing drudgery of their grinding manual labour jobs and poverty-stricken existence. To deny them that in order to preserve the upper echelons of the competitive game as a private leisure retreat for the ultra-rich patriarchal class is not only churlish and snobbish and unfair, but even undemocratic and above all fruitless when arrayed against the inevitable advance of the sport’s progress.

This is presented as a proclamation of inspiring egalatarian hope, but it’s really dark as hell. The English Game understands football’s role in the United Kingdom as the ultimate opiate of the masses, the regular diversionary valve of emotional and aspirational investment that keeps the country’s poor docile and contented with their squalid lot and occupies the energies that might otherwise have been expended in the dogged pursuit of radical social, political and economic change. The proletariat doesn’t need reform, and certainly doesn’t need messy, costly revolution, to improve their conditions when they’ve got the Merseyside Derby. The English Game sets passionate commoners against arrogant rich men, with enlightened mediators in between, with the future of football and indeed of the nation at stake. But its insidious subtext is that in pivoting to professionalism and a related growth in popularity, the sport also became one of the most powerful mechanisms of social control for the British elite class. That this elite needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realization of not only the inevitability of this change but also of the benefits to their position, their power, and their profits that would come with it is as revealing a glimpse into their mindset as Lord Fellowes could have provided.

Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the behind-the-scenes newspaper work and decision-making dilemmas behind The Washington Post‘s publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a robust narrative about the patriotic duty of the free press to hold the powerful to account, despite social, political, and legal inconvenience and aggressive, cover-up-minded pushback from those powerful players. Its applicability to America’s contemporary situation is not lost on Spielberg and certainly is not lost on screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, but this contextual association is left to the audience to make for themselves.

Spielberg begins The Post by entering the tropical jungle meat-grinder of the Vietnam War in 1966, following State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he embeds with a U.S. military unit hit hard by a nighttime Viet Cong ambush. This crucial scene-setting establishes the stakes for what Ellsberg will later decide to do: young Americans are dying in a war in Southeast Asia, but why? Ellsberg’s boss, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, a go-to choice for Presidents but an eerie match for JFK and LBJ’s key cabinet member), seeks his subordinate’s first-hand assessment as support for his own private view that America’s involvement in Vietnam is not likely to lead to success and that the situation is indeed deteriorating. But Ellsberg becomes disillusioned when McNamara publically emphasizes that the situation is improving, contrary not only to behind-closed-door discourse but also to an exhaustive report compiled at the behest of the data-minded McNamara that detailed the flawed decision-making that deepened American commitments in Indochina despite ample evidence that what they were doing was not working, even as successive administrations dishonestly told the American public that matters were getting better and victory was possible (McNamara felt rather guilty about this later in his life, as Errol Morris demonstrated). Ellsberg therefore sneaks out and copies the report from the offices of contractor Rand Corporation, his intentions initially unclear but easily graspable.

Flash ahead to 1971. It’s the eve of The Washington Post going public on the stock exchange in order to raise more funds to expand its journalistic work, an effort which consumes the attention of the paper’s publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who is also a personal friend of McNamara’s. Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, a post-millenial Spielberg fave) is dealing with his reporter being shut out of covering the wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter, but suspects something much bigger is afoot at the New York Times, whose star Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan hasn’t had anything published in months. It soon becomes clear that Sheehan and a Times team has had Ellsberg’s copy of the Pentagon Papers for some time and the paper of record soon begins publishing front-page stories about the government misleading the American public about the war. As the Nixon Administration gets a federal judge to order the Times to halt publishing stories based on these top-secret documents for national security reasons, Bradlee’s newsroom receives copies of the Papers as well, from a random hippie-looking walk-in and through a connection between reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Ellsberg himself.

The core dramatic dilemma of The Post places the weight of great choice on the shoulders of a member of the elite, Graham herself. Pressed on one side by Bradlee’s lofty insistence on journalistic integrity and press freedom and on the other by more practical concerns of sinking the public offering (Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford are two male executive advisors warning her on this front) and indeed possibly even going to prison, Graham must decide whether to publish the Papers or not. Hannah and Singer and Spielberg see in Graham a figure defined by her gender and the glass-ceiling expectations of her time. When her father, who owned the Post, died, he left it not to her but to her husband, and it only came to her upon his suicide; she is keenly aware that she is not seen as equal to the many men who run her realm, and Streep allows that knowledge to play across her surface layer of WASP-ish self-possession. Spielberg also blocks out a contrasting pair of scenes to emphasize her inadvertent role as a figure of sort-of-feminism in the midst of patriarchal power structures: at the stock exchange on the day she takes the Post public, Streep passes up a staircase through a crowd of female secretaries and then through a set of doors to a smoky room full of powerful men, and then when leaving the Supreme Court after the lawyers for the Post and the Times argued for their right to publish the Pentagon Papers, she passes through a crowd of female onlookers, this time down a staircase but with an added measure of self-possession and confidence.

There’s a lot to like about The Post, with its crackling, overlapping dialogue, steady and smooth direction from one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen (who has his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams on board to help), and superb cast of character actors. Spielberg applies his cast like a painter layers brushstrokes, with actors capable of lead-character depth appearing in a scene or two or three to nail down a certain character’s role in the proceedings. Jesse Plemons descends with withering practical realism as the paper’s lead legal counsel, Michael Stuhlbarg is the New York Times‘ brash publisher Abe Rosenthal, Alison Brie floats through as Graham’s daughter, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife manages the crowd of harried reporters that descend on her home with platters of sandwiches and her daughter’s lemonade, and those reporters are played by the capable likes of Carrie Coon, Odenkirk, and David Cross (Spielberg seems to purposely pose the latter two together in frame in the paper’s newsroom as a brief Mr. Show reunion). Rhys plays Ellsberg as a careful and principled whistleblower in a manner that should prove familiar to observers of contemporary examples like Daniel J. Jones of The Report or Chelsea Manning or especially Edward Snowden. The latter two whistleblowers’ respective fates of imprisonment and exile were avoided by Ellsberg only because of the Watergate scandal which truly made the Washington Post‘s name as a top-notch investigative newspaper, and the burglary which set it off is The Post‘s final scene, demonstrating the Nixon regime’s deepening illegality and paranoid distrust for political and legal norms as well as the vital importance of Graham and Bradlee shepherding their paper through the Pentagon Papers crisis so that it might soon bring down a criminal President.

Of course, at this moment the United States has an even more shamelessly criminal Republican President with an openly antagonistic relationship to the American press (the “fake news” as he likes to call it, when he isn’t calling reporters out-and-out traitors) that makes Nixon’s rhetoric about the media seem mild in comparison. It cannot be said that the U.S. media, the Washington Post (no longer owned by the Graham family since they sold it to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013) very much included, has not covered the shady corruption and voluminous misbehaviour of Donald J. Trump, although its coverage was also complicit in his unfortunate rise: Fox News’ breathlessly hagiographic Dear Leader angle on him, obviously, but also NBC launching Trump to rehabilitory stardom with The Apprentice and softening his image during the campaign with Jimmy Fallon’s hair-ruffling on The Tonight Show and a retrospectively mortifying hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, CNN’s pillar-to-post live broadcast of his frothing-at-the-mouth campaign rallies and persistent employment of his dishonest surrogates as both-sides pundits, and print, television, and online media’s disastrous obsession with the gussied-up nothing story of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that is one of many factors that presaged Trump’s 2016 election victory.

As excellent as The Post is as a film celebrating the inspiring courage of American journalism (and since this is Spielberg, there is of course a scene of climactic positive triumph, complete with swelling John Williams score), a creeping knowledge of the future of the press relationship with disingenuous and criminal government actions lessens its current impact. While Hollywood made a movie like The Post glorifying the historical bravery of a paper whose chest-beating motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, American democracy may very well be dying in the full light of day, and not without the collusion, alternately advertent and inadvertent, of the vaunted free press. Sure, it’s “just” a movie, but it has also proven to be not nearly enough.

It’s interesting, given the current American milieu with which it is extratextually contrasted, that The Post explores the tension between journalistic freedom and the free market imperatives of bottom-line capitalism (especially where those imperatives overlap with the backslapping chuminess of the self-preservationist elite) the way it does. In the Trump era, we see a democratic crisis that has advanced to a troubling place largely due to journalism’s weakness in holding the powerful to account in the face of the drive for profit in a shifting, unstable industry, just as the powerful decide not to check a dangerously reactionary but superficially business-friendly leader in order to keep the tap open and the wealth flowing into their tanks. Like Nixon, Trump fights with the press and tries to limit and discredit their exposure of his malfeasance, but he also knows how to manipulate it and exploit its weak points to get what he wants from it (having a readymade state media in Fox News doesn’t hurt; American history might have turned out very differently if Rupert Murdoch’s tacky cable-TV reincarnation of Der Stürmer was around in the 1970s to spread pro-Nixon propaganda 24-7). The Post is (highly adapted) history, but as a rallying cry for current power-challenging press integrity, it’s unfortunately a nostalgic fantasy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #9

December 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Tell Me Who I Am (2019; Directed by Ed Perkins)

Ed Perkins’ Tell Me Who I Am is a compelling documentary portrait of a complex and conflicted shared trauma that is hard to shake. But it’s also hard to share between the twin brothers who experienced it. Marcus and Alex Lewis, now both in their 50s, were inseparable as young adults, but not only because of the usual closeness of twin brothers. Alex lost his memory in a motorcycle accident at age 18, and relied on Marcus to fill in what he was missing regarding his prior life. But Marcus was not being entirely truthful with Alex, leaving out painful and life-altering details of a history of abuse in their strange faded-aristocratic rural English household, with an odd but vivacious mother and a distant, haunted father.

At the core of this unpredictable and deeply thought-provoking film is the nature of psychological trauma: how it is inflicted, how it is manifested, how it is protected against, how its wounds can be patched up, healed, and moved beyond. Twins though they are, Alex and Marcus have different ways of dealing with their shared trauma, and each has a difficult time understanding how the other needs to cope with it. Central to the jagged rocks on which they find themselves stranded is Marcus’ choice to hide the truth from Alex, an act of uncertain moral provenance that he claims was meant to protect Alex but it is soon clear was intended chiefly to protect himself. Tell Me Who I Am‘s climactic summit of the Lewis twins is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema this year even though it is among the simplest: two men sitting at a table together, talking about their feelings. It’s because those feelings are complex and raw and are tied up in love and resentment and protectiveness and fragility that makes the negotiation of them so fraught but also so necessary.

Ours is a world that still inculcates the idea in men that emotion is weak and feminine, and that their feelings must be beaten down and hidden lest they put them at risk or show them to be less than they are. These emotions, denied and insidiously sublimated, can often manifest themselves in ugliness and toxicity in the domestic and public spheres, and those manifestations are what make these men less than they are, not the emotions themselves. Ed Perkins’ nimble and empathetic documentary tells a fascinating, surprising, and wrenching story before staging a session of emotional reckoning that exposes painful feelings to a soothing flood of truthful light. The Lewis twins find the shrapnel wounds of their past dissolving in this flood, but never quite entirely gone.

Hail Satan? (2019; Directed by Penny Lane)

The question mark at the end of the title of Penny Lane’s documentary is vital. Not only does it turn what might have been misconstrued as a blasphemous pronouncement into a searching interrogative statement, it also cuts to the heart of what the organization that is the subject of her film stands for. The Satanic Temple is a now-global “church” and political advocacy group that employs the name and iconography of Satan, the diabolic embodiment of evil in the Christian religion, as a sort of metaphorical champion for minority rights and adversarial challenges to the mainstream societal consensus, which in America tends to be Christian-centric. The Satanists that emerge from Hail Satan? are focused on inclusivity, compassion, autonomy, respect, humility, and human fallibility. They’ll even expel chapter leaders whose words and actions don’t conform to their values and standards, as they do to an outspoken performance artist and activist chapter head in Detroit who calls for armed insurrection and the executing of President Trump. This film about them is a fascinating and often funny meditation on the state of freedom of expression in contemporary America.

The Satanic Temple (a.k.a. TST), it needs to be said, is a distinct, newer, and more politically and socially conscious and active organization than the Church of Satan, which got some popular attention not long after its founding in 1966 by horns-wearing reactionary weirdo Anton Szandor LaVey. The Satanic Temple’s website has a helpful chart notating the differences, if you would like to consult it for your own edification. Suffice it to say that the Satanic Temple’s adherents do not commit blood sacrifices to their goat-headed Dark Lord, they do not eat babies, and they do not deface holy Christian altars. Well, sometimes they do that last thing, but usually as profane, inverted symbolic commentaries on the metaphorical cannibalism and patriarchal normativity at the core of Catholic mass. They have little to no connection to the so-called “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 1990s, although TST’s co-founder and public frontman Julien Greaves (not his real name) speaks about this moral panic wave as a latter-day equivalent of the Salem witch trials (TST’s world headquarters are located in Salem), a collective trauma in the shared history of the “faith” that stands as proof in their eyes of the prejudice of conservative Americans and their “Christian privilege”.

It’s as an adversary to the Christian theocraticization of America that the Satanic Temple has found its attention-catching and growth-spurring media profile. Much of Lane’s film focuses on efforts to protest the erection of monuments bearing the Ten Commandments on the grounds of state houses in Oklahoma and Arkansas by building and trying to get permission to erect a life-sized monument of the occult idol Baphomet on the state house grounds as well, arguing that constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion should allow pluralistic expressions of any faith, and if it is suddenly allowing an expression of Christian faith on the legislature’s premises then it’s discrimination not to allow an expression of theirs as well. They have also protested prayer invocations before city council meetings in Phoenix, Arizona (leading to the removal of these theistic exercises, lest their paean to Satan be spoken before a meeting), and hit back at extreme-Christian hatemonger Fred Phelps’ Wetsboro Baptist Church with a crude protest at his mother’s grave. They meet with concerted and admonishing responses from Christian conservatives (who are usually crestfallen to discover TST members do not actually literally believe in Satan), including thousands of Boston-area Catholics marching against a planned black mass at Harvard University (which was cancelled and moved just off campus).

As one of the co-founders of TST points out (he is unidentified and his face is obscured while being interviewed), it takes tremendous gumption on the part of the Archdiocese of Boston to label their black mass immoral and offensive to Catholics when that governing body of the city’s churches participated in an ugly betrayal of a cover-up of endemic child sexual abuse by its clergy for decades. Another TST member, who became an ostracized loner as a child because his friends’ mothers forbade them from playing Dungeons & Dragons with him because they thought the game was a gateway to devil-worship (it all seems so ridiculous now), keenly observes that the Satanic panic was little more than projection on the part of Christian conservatives, whose own church institutions were corrupt, exploitative, and concealed deeper and darker secrets than any pack of demonic-cosplaying misfits could have ever dreamed of. So it is with the nation’s theocratic elected personages, who are at the spear’s tip of the American Right’s gallop towards open, unchecked authoritarianism. What a strange and unforeseen turn of events that sees the conservative churches as the vanguard of tyranny in America, while self-identified Satanists are among the most vocal minority defenders of freedom of expression and constitutional separation of church and state. The devil-worshippers, it turns out, are the good guys. Who’d have thunk it?

Categories: Film, Politics, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: The Report

December 9, 2019 Leave a comment

The Report (2019; Directed by Scott Z. Burns)

A sober, no-nonsense political message film of laser-focused outrage, The Report plucks out one of the most heinous instances of moral and legal degradation perpetuated by the post-9/11 national security apparatus of the United States of America (and there were more than a few) and goes hard at it with even-keel righteous anger and quietly thunderous factual force. Casting as its protagonist Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), staffer for California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) who was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee for much of the Obama Administration, The Report details an attempt to craft and release a comprehensive and damning committee report on the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogration techniques” employed on high-value Islamist terrorists captured by the U.S. Known by their shorthand of EITs, these “enhanced interrogation techniques” amounted to little more than torture thinly cloaked in Orwellian euphemism, which despite being illegal under U.S. and international law were sanctioned for use on detainees by the highest levels of the CIA and the White House.

Jones, who took a hard turn towards national security issues when 9/11 went down just days after he started graduate school, leads an Intelligence Committee investigation precipitated by the suspicious destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005. This investigation lasts a decade, only seeing light just prior to the end of Obama’s Presidency in 2015, when the final (heavily-redacted) report’s exhaustive and well-documented portrait of the CIA’s employment of torture (and its attempts to cover up both the fact of its use on detainees and the inescapable truth that it did little good in providing useful intelligence) provided the impetus for an amendment co-sponsored by Feinstein and Senator John McCain (for all of his many faults as a legislator, leader, and ideologue, his own experience of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese set him implacably against the practice for life) banning the practices, which were already largely struck down by an executive order issued by Obama days into his Presidency. Jones’ team is whittled down to himself and basically one other staffer by the end, as firm resistance from the Agency, lack of cooperation from the Department of Justice (who were also investigation CIA conduct, although no charges were forthcoming), and political forces of partisanship and public messaging take their toll. But Jones persisted, and the progressive-minded The Report sees in his persistence a low-key, obsessive, impressive, quiet behind-the-scenes heroic patriotism.

The Report was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent screenwriter/producer collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, who is one of the film’s producers. The duo also made the vastly inferior exposé of global elite financial malfeasances The Laundromat, and it’s interesting to compare the way that the recently-released Soderbergh-directed The Laundromat dilutes its political message with flat attempts at humour and self-conscious deconstructionist conceits while the less-seasoned Burns nails the grounded and direct infotainment punch of Soderbergh’s politicized masterpiece Traffic. The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film (the CIA might argue it is extremely fictionalized, but then it’s always been an important part of their institutional function to spread damaging misinformation), but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject.

Perhaps some viewers will find The Report to be a cold and unsympathetic experience because of this. Indeed, although the still-unlikely movie star Driver plays Jones as relentlessly, carefully moral and professional and therefore all the more capable of directing excoriating indignation at those who lapse in those capacities, Burns’ script barely gives him time for a personality or a life outside of his consuming labour. “Don’t you ever sleep?” the security guard who scans Jones in and out of the office asks, to which Jones replies, “It gets in the way of work.” The Report treats this line as a thesis statement in its approach to its protagonist. There’s a brief early mention of a relationship ending early in the process of compiling the report due to his constant long hours, and a less serious and information-rich movie may have peppered at least the first act or so with scenes of a worried and disapproving girlfriend (they’d cast Elizabeth Olsen or someone equivalent in the role) telling Jones that he’s getting in too deep, to be replaced in the latter acts by concerned phone calls from Mom. As it is, Burns has colleagues notice Jones’ obsession in passing, with subtle alarm (“How long have you been here?” asks one fellow staffer when Jones smothers her first thing in the morning with new discoveries in the CIA documents as she enters their windowless basement office; he admits to having been there for a few hours).

One element of dramatic license that The Report does indulge in with relish is the employment of exquisitely hateable villains. No, not the career CIA bureaucrats played by the likes of Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and Ted Levine, who stonewall Jones and Feinstein and even engage in framing and character assassination in order to prevent the truth of not only the Agency’s use of torture but its awareness of its wrongness and its doubts about its effectiveness from coming to light. The Report‘s villains are CIA contractors and psychologists James Elmer Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who sell the CIA on their program of EITs (based on the military’s SERE program) despite a complete lack of experience in interrogation, a weak knowledge of intelligence gathering, and a dearth of firm criteria in determining whether or not their cruel, violent and sometimes deadly approach is working at all. The Report understands Mitchell and Jessen to be hucksters and charlatans but no less sinister and dangerous because of that (if anything, they are more so). Motivated by the fearful paranoid vengefulness of post-9/11 America and of course by greed, Burns leaves the duo at film’s end toasting each other with martinis on their private jet, having made millions from their work while being indemnified from prosecution by the CIA. If this final touch is slightly too on-the-nose (“Gentlemen: To evil!”), the outrage whipped up by this image of the guilty escaping justice and indeed enriching themselves from literal torture of other human beings carries an undeniable force.

The Report is full of such righteous force, and Driver (as well as the steely Bening as Feinstein, who is a far more complicated and compromised political figure than is acknowledged here) proves an ideal tool for delivering its persuasive blows. Jones’ fixed outrage is contrasted with the semi-smooth, half-exasperated attempts at political spin and pre-emptive management of potential damaging elements of the report by Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). McDonough presents the perspective of the man who dubbed himself (with a catastrophically naïfish folly that only seems greater and more terribly misguided in the Age of Trump) the first post-partisan President, who strove to erase the history (and future) of torture from the national security ledger but not to hold anyone who was responsible for it criminally accountable in any way, in much the same manner as he declined to pursue any credible accusations of war crimes against the George W. Bush White House or its national security command structure. Because partisanship = bad. If only the Republican Party ever deigned to agree.

In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. The Report may have only minor surprises in store for political junkies (I learned more than I knew about the role of contractors in the program, as well as the CIA’s internal awareness of its issues and efforts to keep a lid on them), but for the lower-information viewer to whom the showily shocking photos of detainee abuse from Abu Ghraib prison and vague recognition of the term “waterboarding” (which Burns depicts in agonizing detail, along with other EITs like walling, stress positions, rectal rehydration, and sleep deprivation) constitute the entirety of their awareness of the U.S. torture program, it may well prove an eye-opener. That’s not unimportant, but movies like The Report, however good they are, cannot do all the work of winning justice for heinous moral and legal crimes that the politically powerful refuse to do.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

November 30, 2019 Leave a comment

Jojo Rabbit (2019; Directed by Taika Waititi)

I’m almost sorry to say that Jojo Rabbit is probably Taika Waititi’s weakest film. It’s not as visually ambitious or tonally inventive as Thor: Ragnarok, it doesn’t immerse itself in a strong, familiarly unfamiliar sense of place and in the eccentric characters who inhabit it like Eagle vs. Shark or Boy, it’s not as funny as What We Do in the Shadows, and it doesn’t manage to mix humour and loss with quite the unforeseen grace of Hunt for the Wilderpeople (for my money, his best movie when taken whole). It isn’t a step back for New Zealand’s quintessentially quirky and self-effacing auteur. Nor is it a miss, or a bad film by any means, containing as it does fine moments both comedic and dramatic as well as a heartening if slightly soft central message of unlooked-for timeliness. But it’s not quite so sure of itself as those others films were, not as firmly set on solid ground, whatever leaps of fancy or inspired lunacy or wrenching sadness they engaged in. Taika Waititi took a chance with Jojo Rabbit, and it didn’t entirely pay off.

There were reasons to suspect that it might not pay off, but plenty of reasons to suspect that it might, too. Jojo Rabbit is adapted from New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, which I haven’t read but to hear Waititi discuss it in interviews is a very heavy and serious and sad novel about a boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Vienna during World War II who discovers that his mother has been concealing a Jewish girl in their home. Waititi is not a heavy or serious filmmaker, although he is one of the best currently working at summoning up sadness, albeit amidst offbeat humour and weirdly sincere irony. So when his mother suggested that he adapt Caging Skies for the screen, Waititi had little choice but to approach the material by making it his own. This process of adaptation meant a lot of things, but most notably it included adding a brazen and potentially offensive conceit: the boy protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend, and that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Imaginary Friend Hitler is played as a preening buffoon by Waititi himself, a piece of casting apparently made at the insistence of producing studio Fox Searchlight, whose keen marketing push included a Downfall Hitler reaction meme semi-trailer in which the late Bruno Ganz’s bunkered Führer becomes apoplectic at the idea of being played by a self-proclaimed “Polynesian Jew”.

10-year-old Jojo has a pep-talk-giving Führer as an imaginary friend because he is a committed, thoroughly indoctrinated little Nazi. Waititi drives home this point in a twofold fashion in the movie’s opening scenes. The opening title sequence wittily intercuts archival clips of Nazi propaganda marches and processions with madly, desperately devoted German citizens throwing salutes and falling into fangirl and fanboy histrionics, scored by the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Nazimania and Beatlemania, he cheekily though superficially suggests, are two manifestations of the same culturally-hysteric mass-media phenomenon. Then, before establishing Jojo’s home life which will take up most of the rest of the film, Waititi sends the boy off to a Hitler Youth training weekend, where Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant/possible homosexual lover Finkel (Alfie Allen), and barking party-line zealot Fraülein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) drill dozens of German children in warfare techniques (the film takes place late in the war, when the conflict was turning against the Axis and the command would press every able-bodied German into service in desperation). The instructors also deepen the Youth’s ideologically Aryan brainwashing with book-burnings and a completely ludicrous but disturbingly dehumanizing flood of anti-semitic tropes and fantasies (we’ll come back to those).

Jojo talks a big Nazi game of loyalty to the fatherland and hatred of the inhuman Jews, but is humiliated by his inability to kill a rabbit in one desensitizing camp exercise (thus earning the titular nickname) and is then sent home wounded after Imaginary Friend Hitler pumps him up into trying to redeem himself by recklessly charging into a hand grenade training session. As Jojo recuperates and disseminates propagandistic literature for the demoted, desk-bound Klenzendorf, we get a view into his relationship with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who has never been better and has a strong shot at a Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her performance here). With an enlisted husband on the Italian Front and a daughter who recently died of influenza, Jojo is all that Rosie has left. She is troubled by and opposed to his childishly-adopted fascist beliefs, but she loves and wants to protect her boy as much as she loves and wants to protect the liberties that the Third Reich has taken away. Their scenes together layer in a complex array of emotions and ideas, as Rosie tries to preserve her autonomy and individuality and joi de vivre while also preserving some sense of childhood innocence and wonder for her sweet but deluded boy, his head driven forward towards the harsh realities of adulthood in an ugly time before his heart or his body are remotely prepared for it.

It soon becomes apparent that Rosie is out all day and dangerously active in resistance to the fascist regime, but her resistance has come home, not only through her clever but careful attempts to re-educate her son but through her principled and even more dangerous decision to conceal in her walls a Jewish classmate of her dead daughter’s named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo discovers Elsa, but despite his supposed Nazi principles and loyalty to the Reich, he doesn’t turn her in, as it would equally mean turning in his mother and even himself as well. Challenged in this course by Imaginary Friend Hitler and threatened by a comic yet ominous visit by the Gestapo (Stephen Merchant squeezes a movie’s worth of comingled mirth and menace into a single-scene cameo as the lead secret service agent), Jojo nonetheless befriends Elsa. But since this is a Taika Waititi script, their relationship is idiosyncratic indeed: Elsa feeds Jojo outlandishly false “facts” about Jews for his anti-semitic picture book, and Jojo writes and reads Elsa faux letters from her Resistance boyfriend Nathan, an act half-sweet, half-selfish and prickish, redolent of a schoolboy crush and of an immature jealousy of a distant, heroic rival. They will need each other all the more as the war comes to the home front in more than one devastating way.

Jojo Rabbit arrived into wide theatrical release with strong early Oscar buzz. A foray into the traditionally fertile Academy-appealing territory of World War II and Nazism by a generally critically-appreciated filmmaker also coming into his commercial own, Jojo Rabbit solidified its contender status by capturing the frequent Best Picture bellwether People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to the world. Perhaps anticipating yet another Holocaust-themed arthouse picture sweeping to Academy glory, film critics have delivered a mixed verdict, however, often raising the spectre of Roberto Benigni’s now-maligned Life is Beautiful, an Oscar-winner and TIFF People’s Choice Award recipient that clumsily mixed comedy and poignancy in a Nazi concentration camp, to deride Waititi’s approach by association with a movie now generally considerable insensitive and possessed of insufficiently gravitas to tackle the subject it took on (at least they didn’t analogize it to Jerry Lewis’ disastrous, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown in Auschwitz). Jojo Rabbit has also grossed only modestly at the box office, hardly transcending the arthouse circuit into the larger sleeper hit status it would have required to make an Oscar impact, as something like (the incomparably worse) Green Book did. One shouldn’t count it out entirely (the Academy is still populated by many elderly Jewish-American Hollywood vets and this stuff is like candy to them), but it hasn’t caught on as Fox Searchlight no doubt hoped it would.

Why not? It’s not bad, and even fairly good. Waititi has hardly forgotten how to be funny in his usual deadpan absurdist manner, and Jojo Rabbit‘s poignancy is generally exquisitely balanced with that absurdity. It’s an attractive-looking movie: cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (who lensed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) gives a vivid but dillapidated realistic lustre to Waititi’s often droll geometric compositions, helped along considerably by the old-world locations (Jojo Rabbit was shot in Prague, though not set anywhere specific in the Nazi Reichlands; its interiors were shot in a historic studio used by Joseph Goebbels for Nazi propaganda films, an irony not lost on Waititi) and by the information-rich production design, by Waititi’s countryman (and veteran of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film adaptations) Ra Vincent. Its most tragic and heartbreaking moment is shot, edited, directed, scored, and performed with elegant poeticism before Waititi pulls the rug out from under the audience masterfully and wrenchingly; it’s an unforgettable scene, the wounded soul of the film, and when viewers moved by Jojo Rabbit argue for the its power and importance, they will be thinking of this sequence. The movie’s dominant theme is one of love and respect triumphing over cynical weaponized hate, specifically over the fascistic ethnonationalism of the Nazis, and it’s not a message that lacks relevance in our contemporary world, given the disturbing comeback of far-right fascist ideas and even specifically revived Nazi iconography under the irresponsible accidental collaboration of neoliberal complacency and self-serving conservative indulging of racism. Jojo Rabbit drives this point home, with the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence being the note-perfect needle drop that closes the film.

But is that message enough? Can love alone triumph over hate, especially when hate carries such an attractive and politically advantageous incentive to the powerful and non-powerful alike? To quote an episode of Clone High (the work of Lord & Miller, American crafters of expert idiosyncratic comedy who have risen to higher levels in Hollywood as Waititi has), love is just an abstract concept, it can’t knock down stuff. The critical response to Jojo Rabbit has suggested that this message is naive and insufficient to the political and social challenges of the moment, a feel-good panacaea that distracts from the more difficult work of countering far-right ideology and the fascist tendencies creeping into the conservative political parties of Western democracies (and some of the centrist and centre-left ones, too). This reaction short-sells Jojo Rabbit; it’s about “love” manifested as respecting and protecting the vulnerable of society in its emotional case-study fashion, the foundation underscoring the democratic socialist ideology that is the surest social and political counterattack to fascism’s absolutist power (spare me the snide 4chan riposte that “Nazi” just stands for “National Socialism”; you may be so dishonest or dumb to believe that point matters, but I’m not).

It’s easy enough to critique the movie’s prominent “anti-hate satire” tagline as aggressive marketing-department underlining of ideas that Jojo Rabbit fails to back up, but the description is not inaccurate. Satires comedically critique unjust social and/or political structures and worldviews while holding an opposing, sometimes unspoken structure and/or worldview as a desirable alternative. Waititi doesn’t have Johansson’s Rosie read out Bernie Sanders’ election platform or anything, but it’s clear enough that the desirable alternative to fascism’s destructive, paranoid white nationalism is a social structure in which communities care for each other with a political order that supports that core tenet (Waititi is a supporter and friend of New Zealand’s current centre-left Labour Party Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern). But if this is solid ground from which Jojo Rabbit launches its satirical attacks on the Nazis and their beliefs and practices, what aspects of fascism are being attacked here, and do those attacks succeed?

First and foremost, the anti-semitism of the Third Reich comes under direct fire of Waititi’s smothering ridicule. Like prior giant of Hollywood anti-Nazi satire Mel Brooks, Waititi is himself (half-)Jewish, although it’s not an aspect of his identity that has asserted itself much in his work up to this point; his indigeneity and Maori identity has loomed larger, reflective of his previous films’ themes of fatherhood (his father is a Maori artist) as opposed to Jojo Rabbit‘s themes of motherhood (his mother is of Jewish heritage). Brooks’ comedy frequently emphasized its creator’s Jewishness, to say the least, and of course one of his best-known and loved films, The Producers, satirized Nazis, or rather what he called the shoddy theatricality of their propagandistic image-making (watch Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on the subject, if you would; it’s indispensible to the discussion that follows). But he always stayed away from addressing the Holocaust directly, even criticizing Benigni’s Life is Beautiful for deciding not to do so, and did not venture into lampooning the saturatingly ugly anti-semitic propaganda that sought to justify and motivate Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Indeed, it could be debated whether or not Brooks’ old-fashioned Borscht Belt comedic use of Jewish stereotypes didn’t do more to perpetuate them to a wider modern audience than to neutralize their dangerous power.

Taika Waititi doesn’t dare to depict the Holocaust directly in this largely gentle-spirited movie, although Elsa does recount to Jojo a story of watching her parents being put on a train to what was almost certainly a death camp, a fate lying beneath the peril of her discovery that is the film’s central tension and relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the deeper horrors behind the war and the propaganda of the regime. But in much the same way that his generational comedy contemporary Sacha Baron Cohen controversially did in Borat, Waititi goes right at anti-semitic tropes by reproducing comically exagerrated versions of them at the Hitler Youth camp and in Jojo’s conversations with Elsa and with others and in his juvenile picture-book. The amplification renders these tropes hilarious and laughable, and by extension renders the political ideology founded on them likewise hilarious and laughable. I think it works and is pitched with the right tone to make it clear that anti-semitism is a joke and could not be believed by a rational and empathetic person (even if, or maybe because, the film’s child protagonist’s head is full of it). But there’s room for disagreement on that point, too, one has to acknowledge, albeit far less than in the comparatively more raucous deployment of such outlandish stereotypes in Borat.

What’s more unprecedented and therefore more unsettling, problematic, and worthy of debate in Jojo Rabbit‘s anti-Nazi satire is that unlike a lot of prior farcical takes on fascism, it places Nazis in their own social, political, and historical context and does not forcefully turn them into cartoonish villains. I think one of the reasons that it’s fair to label Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire as well as why it is being criticized as perhaps being a bit soft is that it doesn’t really have a personified villain, a representative character standing in for the inhumanity and unleashed horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, like Ralph Fiennes’ casually monstrous Amon Göth in Schindler’s List or the more charming and smooth Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds or even Belloq and Toht in the blockbuster potboiler Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Merchant’s Gestapo agent Deertz represents a clear threat for a single scene, but he’s ultimately characterized as a mid-level bureaucratic functionary doing his job, even if that job is morally terrible (not that the banality of evil isn’t terrible and chilling in its own way). Captain Klenzendorf might have served as a bad man backed up by the authority of a bad system, but he is far from a party-line fanatic (Allen and Wilson play such fanatics, but as pure comic caricatures) and even proves moral and protective of the vulnerable where he can. He protects both Elsa and Jojo from harmful reprisals when turning them over would have been less dangerous for himself, even acting as a surrogate father to Jojo in a proscribed way. This reflects not only the frequently non-ideological nature of the German military during the Nazi era (they fought for their country in most cases, not for the fantasy narratives of the fascist fanatics who ran it) but also his own personal awareness of the plight of the marginalized as a closeted gay man who could be sent to the death camps should his secret be revealed (although when Americans and Soviets assault Jojo’s town at the film’s climax and there is little left to lose, Klenzendorf embraces homosexual flamboyance in the form of a flashy red-feathered battle uniform of his own design). Even Waititi’s Imaginary Friend Hitler, with his absurd, side-splitting Kiwi/Germanic-accented English speech proclaiming things like how he plans to eat unicorn for dinner, is more silly than evil, only tipping into angry confrontation with Jojo’s vacillating and displays of empathy near the end. He’s a fantasy manifestation of Jojo’s dedication to Nazi ideas, with the concomitant childish frivolity and insecurity that implies.

Without an easy villainous character to focus the audience’s natural resentment for history’s greatest monsters onscreen, Jojo Rabbit is instead making a subtler, more amorphous satirical point about a society turned to mass-murderous madness and evil while also simultaneously continuing largely as normal. Waititi, Mălaimare, and Vincent craft a Germany (or maybe an Austria like in the novel, it isn’t clear and doesn’t specifically matter) quietly heaving under the crushing weight of Hitler’s war effort, with propaganda posters on walls, Jojo and his Hitler Youth compadres dressed up in cardboard costumes as toothpaste tubes and robots collecting donations of scrap metal for the Führer, and a gallows erected in the town square from which the bodies of resisters hang as a warning (‘What did they do?” Jojo asks his mother, who answers, “What they could.”). The understanding and even empathy that is the ideal launching point for Waititi’s satire extends to ordinary citizens under the yoke of the Reich, who were not foaming-at-the-mouth zealots for the master race but largely powerless people who either found the risk of standing up to Nazism too great or else they didn’t, and often paid for that choice with their lives (many did at least broadly agree with what Hitler and his command structure were doing, too, which Waititi would not deny and gestures at as well). This framing excuses absolutely nothing of what the Third Reich did, to their own people as much as to Europe’s Jews and Slavs and Roma and homosexuals and their battlefield enemies and civilians of their opponents. But it does seek to somewhat realistically depict what German society was like under Hitler’s regime.

This might not have been an approach that would have been anticipated from a Taika Waititi film satirizing Nazis, and might go some distance in serving to explain critical divisions and the commercial ambivalence of wider audiences towards Jojo Rabbit. It’s one of Waititi’s braver choices here, to tackle fascism on its own historical turf. Previous satires that have targetted Nazism have been couched in conceits that separate the text of their satires from the historical reality to a great extent. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the best-known and best-regarded comedic reply to Hitler and fascism in the time of its ascendancy, featured a parody of Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of anti-semitic Nazi Germany called Tomainia, and parodies of Benito Mussolini, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. Monty Python’s hilarious “North Minehead By-election” sketch transposed the Nazi leadership (John Cleese as “Mr. Hilter”, simmering in rage at his diminished lot and giving over-the-top speeches from the balcony of a boarding house; Michael Palin as a grinning, Beat-speaking “Bimmler” who has trouble keeping up their cover: “Was not head of Gestapo at all! I make joke!”; Graham Chapman as the absurd aristocratic “Ron Vibbentrop”, “in Somerset being born”) to sleepy suburban West Country England, where their attempts to begin a political coup in Britain by winning a Parliamentary seat on the “National Bocialist” ticket are met with indifference and befuddlement from locals who “don’t like the sound of these here ‘boncentration bamps'”. And of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers was about a stage musical about Nazis, Springtime for Hitler, which took the unpalatable offensiveness of Nazism as assumed and indeed integral to the film’s premise and plot and mocked the tacky overwrought cornball performativity of its propaganda more than the content of its political ideology or the genocidal consequences of that ideology. Jojo Rabbit fits in with these satires in some ways, but diverges notably from them in showing Nazism to be ridiculous (but also dangerous) in the historical locus of its own greatest power and influence.

Lindsay Ellis notes in her video essay on The Producers and other anti-Nazi satires that despite the impression that it is a light and superficial genre, comedy can actually effectively tackle serious subjects and unjust and oppressive political and social systems. Indeed, she arguesa that comedies often manage to critique injustice and hate better and more sustainably than dramas do, citing the example of the overtly anti-Nazi American History X as a film that aestheticizes fascist iconography even while denouncing it and as such has been co-opted by latter-day alt-right fascists as a text that romanticizes Nazism and its attendant images and lifestyle. Ellis observes that The Producers is not claimed by modern Nazis in that way, and it’s similarly unlikely that Jojo Rabbit will be either, a statement to the satirical power of both texts as undermining fascist ideas by laughing at them. German fascism is shown to have been thoroughly ludicrous by Taika Waititi’s film, a paper-thin childish fantasy of hate and exclusionary inclusion that took over an industrialized European nation, claimed millions of lives in the process, and continues to poison and disfigure our current political order and discourse. But it also furtively acknowledges the social and psychological appeal of fascism to the young and impressionable, a lesson worth heeding when formulating approaches to defusing our contemporary hard-right time-bomb. Does Jojo Rabbit entirely succeed in balancing satire with political thoughtfulness, not to mention with emotional integrity and sociological sympathy for the impossible choices of ordinary people in the grip of an oppressive authoritarian regime? Not entirely and not always, but at the end of the effort of thinking and writing about it, I find myself wanting to do little but praise Taika Waititi for the brave yet implausible effort to get this funny, nuanced, often powerful, but not wholly effective film over the line. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t work as it ought to, but perhaps it couldn’t realistically be expected to, given the surprising ambition of its project. It did what it could, and even if that’s not always enough, it’s certainly something.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Parasite

November 24, 2019 1 comment

Parasite (2019; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has made films about the socioeconomic disparities of capitalism before. Snowpiercer, obviously, with its horizontally-inclined train-car metaphor for the pyramid of wealth and privilege, but monster movie The Host and the unpredictable meat-production polemic Okja likewise respectively critiqued capitalism’s controlled chaos and institutional incompetence and its marketing-obscured reduction of animals (and people, too) to pure products of consumption. But with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining.

Parasite is a story of two families (although one of its later-act twists slots in a third, but we will say no more about that). The Kims are barely-employed, scratching together barely enough money to make ends meet in their semi-basement apartment. They watch drunks piss on their rubbish bins through their ground-level window, wander the apartment with smartphones held to the ceiling in hopes of latching onto free wifi from a neighbour, and flick away insect infestations, allowing the smoke of fumigation crews to drift through the open window while they’re home in hopes of gaining free extermination services. The Kims are poor.

This begins to change, however, but only through the chance magnanimity of Min (Park Seo-joon), a friend of the family’s young-adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). Min is a student at university (which neither Kim child can afford to attend) and has been tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the high-school-age daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English while also carrying on a secret relationship with her. Min is going abroad to study, but fears another horny young male university student tutor taking his place and his underaged girlfriend. Ki-woo has good knowledge of English, having taken several university entrance exams, and Min feels that he can trust his friend not to take advantage of her while earning good money from the Parks.

Ki-woo isn’t a university student as such English tutors in Korea are evidently expected to be (there are numerous details in Parasite that proceed from cultural assumptions of South Korean society that may not be immediately intelligible to foreign audiences, but it doesn’t detract from the film overall). But his talented, art-school-aspiring sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges official-looking college documents for him and he gives a fake name – Kevin – to the young mother of the Park clan (Cho Yeo-jeong), whom Min labels as “a bit simple” and sure enough hires Ki-woo/Kevin practically on the spot. Ki-woo does not live up to Min’s lofty expectations of his conduct, as he soon becomes Da-hye’s new secret boyfriend.

From there, the Kims inveigle themselves one by one onto the Parks’ payroll and into their luxury modern home, designed and dwelled in but vacated a few years before by a renowned architect. Ki-jeong wins a spot as art therapist to the Park’s excitable, unfocused son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon); patriarch Ki-taek (played by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) becomes the family’s new chauffeur after Ki-jeong frames their current driver for sexual deviance; and matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) takes over as live-in housekeeper after displacing the prior long-tenured one Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) with a fiendish plot involving a peaches allergy, a packet of hot sauce, and a hospital waiting-room selfie. This final link in the employment chain proves to have dire consequences for the Kims (who keep their family relation secret from their employers) and the Parks, however, when the former housekeeper turns out to have been hiding a secret beneath the house.

These events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo absorbs the cluttered, grimy detail of the Kims’ flat and takes full advantage of the sleek reflective modernism of the Park home. The latter in particular becomes a progressively more familiar and thus unsettling setting: the doorway to the basement, source of the conflict and horror that consumes both families in the film’s latter half, is a black portal set in the middle of a tastefully-illuminated feature wall of decorative objects, into which characters vanish and out of which characters emerge without a hint of warning.

Parasite sees the horizontal orientation of Snowpiercer‘s forceful metaphor for the socioeconomic hierarchy turned back vertical. In contrast to the poor Kims’ lowly basement premises, the wealthy Parks’ mansion is on a geographic height, requiring literal physical ascension (as well as figurative economic/professional ascension) in order to reach it: the Kims approach it by moving up a hill, then taking stairs at the property gate and again after ingress at the front door. The secret that the previous housekeeper concealed in a hidden bunker below the storehouse basement requires a descent to reach, and the violent chaos of the film’s last half stems from what comes out of that subterranean realm. When returning to their semi-basement home in a torrential rainpour after spending a dangerous and fateful night trapped in the Park house, the father Kim and his children descend long inclined roads, metal staircases, and a long set of stone steps down which flooding rainwater cascades. In Parasite, the socioeconomic ladder is given literal form.

But Bong’s conception of class and privilege is far knottier and more fraught than this direct vertical visual arrangement suggests. The Kims are amazed at the gullibility of their rich marks and the ease with which they are able to gain access to salaries from the Parks and to the plenty of their home. But Parasite does not play out entirely like a gleeful, cathartic revenge fantasy of swindling the 1%, although Bong indulges that sentiment in moments. Ki-woo especially is consumed with doubt, not at the immorality of deceiving the Parks but of his own suitability and fitness in their world of wealth and ease. He worries that he does not fit in there, manifested not as nervousness that the ruse he kicked off will be exposed but as a deeper anxiety of social belonging.

Parasite also unfolds not in the direction of violent overthrow of the privilege of the rich, but of desperate, primal conflict between those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale for whatever wage labour income and other discarded scraps those on the higher end are willing to part with. Even while disingenuously acting as the titular parasites on the wealth of the Parks to survive (the film’s Korean title is 기생충 or Gisaengchung, which translates to English most directly as “parasitic worm”) the Kims and others relying on the wealthy family’s largess do not resent them, but pay them compliments (they’re all very “nice”) and even forms of ritual homage to the father of the family, IT company CEO Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). When violence does climactically turn against the rich, it’s not predemitated or revolutionary in nature, but a sudden snap decision to bring about terrible, swift accountability rather than allow another unscathed escape from the wanton destruction that capitalism’s imperatives wreak upon the poor while sparing (and more often even benefiting) the wealthy.

But Parasite‘s greatness deepens and broadens and becomes more challenging and audacious when its subtext moves beyond class critique and into something more political. It’s hard to miss how Bong seeds his dialogue with casual but insistent references to North Korea: the bunker beneath the Park house was built by the august architect due to North Korean nuclear fears, Moon-gwang impresses with her imitation of North Korean state media broadcasters, and Kim Ki-taek tells Mr. Park that he knows all the roads in Korea south of the 38th Parallel that roughly separates the peninsula’s two very divergent states.

A probing critic may posit that the film’s title refers as much to the wealthy Parks as to the deprived Kims; capitalism presupposes a reciprocal but entirely unequal parasitic relationship on the part of both the haves and the have-nots. But by consistently, knowingly inserting the backwards communist North, with its starving, poverty-stricken population and authoritarian, wealth-hording government elite, into this story set in the prosperous capitalist South, Bong Joon-ho may be provocatively adding another (inverted) layer to his rewarding cinematic critique of vertically-aligned wealth distribution in his native Korea.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

October 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Taxi Driver (1976; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Joker (2019; Directed by Todd Phillips)

The antihero is curious and fraught element of any narrative text that includes it. The antihero is not, properly speaking, the “hero” of his or her (but it’s mostly his, if we’re being honest) story, because the antihero’s moral arc bends too far from justice for any claim to the classic white-hat heroism that traditionally, virtuously opposed black-hat villainy. But they aren’t the villain either, as their protagonist status subjectively preconditions identification with and contextualized understanding of their choices and actions, the prerequisites to empathy and, it often follows, to symbolic heroism in the eyes of the audience. Indeed, the elements of an antihero character that sunder them from traditional heroic ideals are often constructed as being in some way necessary, as if they are compelled to bend moral codes and engage in questionable actions in order to best the real bad guys.

Even with antihero figures understood in context as purposeful critiques of (very predominantly masculine) tropes of heroism, we can find the “anti” prefix eroding away, sometimes gradually, sometimes almost instantaneously. “Antihero”, after all, contains the word “hero”, and the term itself makes it highly difficult to miss it, to emphasize the prefix as it should be. My younger self, marinating in the half-fetid juices of literary academia, might have inserted a dash or slash into the term, a hybrid literary theory invention like “anti/hero” intending to make the contradictions inherent in the trope clear and compelling, or, as is ever in vogue in lit theory, less clear and therefore more compelling.

The antihero cannot exist without social and political context, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff considered a year ago in her superb essay for Vox on the trope in television (where it was ascendant only a decade ago, and remains common today) in the age of #MeToo, with its promise of accountability and/or punishment for real-life male “antiheroes” whose immoral behaviour belies the abiding assumed rectitude of their positions of prominence. Context can place antiheroes in their appropriate compartment and thus preserve the intentions and thematic thrust of their creation, and it can free and engorge them as well, transforming them from textually-limited characters embodying certain themes, psychological implications, and political ideas into great and terrible symbols vibrating with larger import and dangerous meaning.

In the way that he somehow embodies both of these oft-contradicting conceptions, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, the angry, awkward, vengefully violent loner protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, is surely one of the towering antihero figures in the Hollywood pantheon. The character and the film are impossible to separate from their historical and sociopolitical context: 1970s America, where accelerating social decay, energy crises, rising urban crime, post-Vietnam doubt in national greatness, and the rootless uncertainty of the economy, employment, and even interpersonal relations (across racial lines, of course, but also across gender lines, in the wake of second-wave feminism) leading to a profound sense of malaise that Jimmy Carter, elected President as a fresh, folksily frank outside voice in contrast to the post-Watergate den of festering corruption the same year Taxi Driver came out, dared to point out to his lasting detriment. Taxi Driver is the official movie of the mid-to-late-’70s crisis of confidence.

Travis Bickle feels a sort of formless dissatisfaction and inability to relate to the world he finds himself living in, or even to express it, as DeNiro demonstrates with eloquent non-eloquence when he struggles to explain to cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) what exactly it is that is troubling him. Although he only briefly mentions having been a Marine in his first dialogue scene taking the taxi driver job, he is understood as a Vietnam veteran, and elements of the character’s appearance (the military-fatigue-style jacket he always wears, the mohawk hairdo he dons for the film’s climax) are derived from soldiers in that war. He never speaks of wartime trauma, but his disconnection can be read as a PTSD symptom. At the same time as he seems psychologically and emotionally caged, he moves freely through the dilapidated urban geography of New York and observes it with penetrating voyeuristic intensity, often from the driver’s seat of his taxi cab, a conveyence conferring both liberty and diminishing anonymity, a vehicle through which he seeks out social contact while also detaching himself from it to an extent.

Travis is not specifically political in his disenfranchisement, and his circling of presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose vague uplifting populism is redolent of politically non-specific neoliberal hopes from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, does not reflect an ideological affinity (not that Palantine, not identified in partisan terms but surely a Democrat in the mode of fuzzily positive imagined politicians across decades of Hollywood product, has much of an ideology to speak of). His only firmly-held and expressed sociopolitical belief is an overwhelming, proto-fascist aversion to “scum”, criminal or immoral elements of New York City’s vast urban underworld that act as convenient targets for his confused, directionless resentment by virtue of their placement permanently beneath even him, an isolated white working man, in the hierarchy of social and economic value. When his resentments and isolation grow to a fever pitch, it’s hardly surprising that this “scum” is the target for his “righteous” outpouring of violence (Alan Moore drew from this element of Bickle for the truly psychopathic Rorschach in Watchmen, a work also highly influenced by the atmosphere of urban decay in the film).

Travis Bickle is a bundle of implications and resonant qualities, many of them personal and specific to the creative forces behind his genesis. Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew Bickle from Jean-Paul Sartre novels and John Ford’s The Searchers and the diaries of George Wallace’s putative assassin Arthur Bremer, but also liberally from his own experiences as a solitary, disconnected, underemployed insomniac in New York City who haunted porno theatres and became unhealthily obsessed with guns. Martin Scorsese, for his part, infused this character study with his observant perspective, his aesthetic fascination with the dark, macho realm of his proletarian corner of his home city but forever apart from it, the good, sickly boy who loved movies enough to choose them over the priesthood but drew deep inspiration from the earthy (and sometimes illegal) swirl of Italian-American life that he grew up observing.

The precipitous gun obsession that afflicted his main character and screenwriter also touched the director, if Hollywood urban legend is to be believed: facing pressure from the MPAA ratings board to re-edit Bickle’s climactic brothel massacre in order to avoid a X rating for his movie, Scorsese is reputed to have stayed up all night prior to the editing deadline brandishing a firearm, to shoot himself or the studio executive mandating the changes if things didn’t work out (it is not clear which, and probably was never going to be either). In comparison to Scorsese and Schrader, DeNiro’s immersion in Travis Bickle’s mindset was less psychologically scarring; production anecdotes emphasized the focused professionalism of his prep work, driving a NYC taxi around the city and studying the Midwest accents of American soldiers while filming a Bernardo Bertolucci film in Italy.

Travis Bickle’s general status as an awkward and peevish loner who wants what he cannot have and seeks to assert some measure of control over a world that ignores or rejects him is only sharpened to a fine and deadly point via the whetstone his fraught interactions with women. Bickle displays stalking behaviour with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty Palantine campaign worker, watching her from his cab both before and after he insistently bullies her (and partly intrigues her with his sense of mystery) into a date. On this date, he clumsily buys her a Kris Kristofferson record that she already owns because she talked about it, then even more clumsily takes her out to a Swedish pornographic movie. Mortified, she walks out, ends the date, and rebuffs him later on a phone call that Scorsese’s subjective camera finds too painful to linger on, panning to an empty corridor instead. Bickle bursts into the Palantine campaign headquarters later, confronting her in anger and insulting her. He is, in a word, a creep, a personification of toxic masculinity.

In a turn that makes Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle a more fraught and problematic text in regards to these themes, this pattern is repeated in the movie’s final act when Travis comes across a pre-teen prostitute named Iris (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, who starred in Disney’s Freaky Friday remake in the same year, which is quite the line on the old resume). Although there is no romantic or sexual angle to his interest (he in fact pays a fee to her handlers in order to speak with her, turning aside her insistence on providing her services to talk her out of continuing to whore herself out), their interactions follow the Betsy model: she turns aside his attempts to save her in a follow-up breakfast “date”, and he talks down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a perceived male rival much as how he ran down Betsy’s fellow campaign worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle’s response to Iris being unreceptive to his advances (protective and non-sexual though they are) runs towards a psychotic ultraviolent massacre this time around (ironically, Scorsese came to feel that the MPAA-mandated edits to the film’s colour grading made the shootout sequence more shocking).

Although Travis Bickle’s toxic behaviour in regards to women eventually turns to murder, to targetted extermination of some of the “scum” he complained about in his narrated journal entries and to Palantine, Taxi Driver controversially rewards him for his actions and considers worthy of admiration and praise in a denouement that concludes with even Betsy treating him civilly and even appreciatively during a cab ride. This 11th-hour rehabilitation of the violent loner antihero Bickle into a genuine hero (grateful letter from Iris’ parents and all) has to be considered problematic and even dangerous even without the intervention of history, which saw the Travis Bickle character in general and his actions towards Jodie Foster’s character in particular provide inspiration for the delusional fantasies that led to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

With much of Bickle’s character originally drawn from the ravings of a would-be political assassin, this was a case of life imitating art imitating life. The pattern followed by men like Bremer and Bickle and Hinckley – two of them real, one of them more than real – would be followed by numerous future murderous examples of what Amy Nicholson, in a Rolling Stone interview with Schrader upon the release of his film First Reformed last year, refers to as “destructive young men” who “aren’t sure where to put their energies”. Martin Scorsese is not responsible for the choices and actions of destructive young men who saw in a cinematic moment like Travis Bickle’s firearm-toting “you talkin’ to me?” delusional role-playing not a warning about mental and social disequilibrium but instead an enticing power fantasy, but it’s hard to deny that Taxi Driver‘s legacy includes a roadmap to lasting infamy that represents an attractive alternative to heroism for too many troubled individuals.

Taxi Driver‘s fraught legacy brings us directly to Joker, a film that intends to revisit and recontextualize Scorsese’s ur-text of modern American dangerous loner cinema for a time whose seething resentments and socioeconomic inequality it understands as reflecting those of the 1970s. But Joker regurgitates more than recontextualizes Taxi Driver (as well as Scorsese’s 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy), intending to cast the DC Comics evil clown supervillain and nemesis of Batman as a Travis Bickle for our own troubled and superhero-obsessed times but instead recombining the ingredients of its influences and cultural contexts into an inedible stew.

Joker is the almost unremittingly sad and disturbing tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a skinny and socially-awkward clown-for-hire in a crumbling, tense Gotham City who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles with poverty, isolation, dark thoughts, and an embarrassing psychosomatic nervous tic causing him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times (dissolving into pained laughter, he hands strangers a card explaining this condition). An aspiring stand-up comedian who doesn’t grasp what is actually funny (even his mother recognizes this), Arthur idolizes late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro channeling Jay Leno), but loses his position with the clown agency after dropping a gun during a performance at a children’s hospital. Riding despondently home on the graffiti-plastered subway, Arthur gets a taste of his true, antisocial calling when he kills three arrogant Wall Street bros who mock him by singing “Send in the Clowns” (like, literally half of it) and beat him up, unintentionally becoming the avatar of a clown-masked popular uprising against the city’s rich, represented by plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who publically derides the city’s poor and may or may not secretly be Arthur’s father.

As Jeet Heer pointed out regarding the film in one of his trademarked Twitter essay threads, Joker is variously Oedipally focused, yearning to pay tribute to father figures (Scorsese, DeNiro, Thomas Wayne, and, more subtextually, prior Joker actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) while also seeking to kill and replace them. Joker casts a period-unspecific (but most likely early 1980s) Gotham City as a mirror image of Taxi Driver‘s decrepit, bankruptcy-approaching New York. It casts Arthur Fleck as a more unstable Travis Bickle in clown paint, roleplaying scenarios with his gun in his apartment and following a female neighbour with whom he has a brief elevator interaction to her downtown job (and proceeding to imagine an entire subsequent relationship with her that, in a fairly predictable late-film twist, is revealed never to have happened). This woman, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), even repeats DeNiro-as-Bickle’s iconic finger-gun miming of a gunshot to the head to Arthur in reference to the crappiness of their apartment building.

But Joker is a bit like the many destructive young men who see their own frustrated struggles in those of movie loners like Travis Bickle but are not spurred on to productive self-reflection and improvement on the basis of those big-screen cautionary examples. Joker, which Scorsese was set to produce at one point before backing away from the project, pays relentless tribute to the formalist elements of his work (this may be why he backed away): Phoenix’s performance owes plenty to DeNiro and other actors of that generation, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography injects lurid bursts of colour into the social realist drabness of Gotham’s urban environments as Michael Chapman’s camera lens did in Taxi Driver. There’s even a memorable shot of half-cleverness that Scorsese may have appreciated: a furious, darkened, just-fired Arthur repeatedly kicking a dumpster in a refuse-choked alley with a ferris wheel looming in the deep-focus background like a symbolic anticipation of his circus-derived awakening into trangressive mean-clown ultraviolence.

That Joker constructs Arthur’s final transformation into the comic-book supervillain as a glorified awakening, a subversive species of empowerment after a life of diminishment and disempowerment, is its most brazen and oddly its most boring misinterpretation of Taxi Driver. There was much chatter throughout the discourse in advance of Joker‘s release that it was likely to be irresponsible or even reactionary incel propaganda that would wind up getting people killed; after all, the last movie featuring the Joker was rumoured (inaccurately) to have sparked a mass shooting, and it was overall nuanced and ambiguous in its treatment of this agent of chaos, which did not prevent the character from becoming a symbol of alt-right defiance to whatever established order is imagined to be worth resisting (usually one involving people who aren’t conservative white males, but I digress). Joker isn’t anything like that, making Arthur both more precipitously violent than Travis Bickle and denying him anything like the redemptive conclusion of Taxi Driver (like Taxi Driver, however, Joker‘s final scene has been interpreted as leaving the door open to some if not all of the film’s events having been paranoid delusions existing entirely in the disturbed, unreliable protagonist’s head; like Taxi Driver, that is probably not the filmmakers’ intent, although it is more uncertain in Joker‘s case due to the film’s relative artistic clumsiness).

In advance of the release of Joker, director and co-writer Todd Phillips stated in one interview after another that due to the limiting sensitivities of easily-offended, politically-correct “woke culture”, he has found it impossible to continue making comedies like his big hits The Hangover movies without being “cancelled” (ie. criticized sometimes on the internet). Because of this, he has found it necessary to make a serious movie like Joker instead. Phillips’ contextualizing of Joker in this way has only lead to more progressive criticism of him and his movie in the cultural discourse (even from his own cast members, namely Marc Maron, who is in a single scene as Murray Franklin’s producer), even before people started to see the movie and discovered that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver place this complaint in the mouth of his lead character in the movie’s climactic thesis-statement speech during the scene of Arthur’s appearance in full Joker costume on Murray Franklin’s show after his atrocious open-mic stand-up set was shown on the program.

If this argument wasn’t bullshit enough entirely on its own, Joker itself renders it even more so. It’s entirely disingenuous for Phillips to claim that contemporary culture around comedy has forced him to make a serious movie instead, because Joker is not a serious movie (whatever the Venice International Film Festival may think). It’s not serious about the state of politics and society, it’s not serious about income inequality, it’s not serious about mental illness, it’s not serious about child abuse, it’s not serious about morality. It’s not serious about the titular focus of its character study, who, despite plenty of award-grasping Difficult and Serious Acting from its star Phoenix, it treats with clumsy, confusing, irresponsible inconsistency (Jenny Nicholson sharply breaks down why the film’s treatment of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the madness of Joker never makes internal sense in a recent vlog on the movie; she also points out superficial intertextual references to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, during a gala screening of which Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne in the film). It’s not even serious about the often very unserious comic-book superhero form/genre which it purportedly subverts and/or deconstructs.

As he slides into the Joker persona near the film’s end, Arthur Fleck says that while he once thought that his life was a tragedy, he has now realized it is a comedy (this line is visually anticipated in his first appearance in the film, painfully using his fingers to force his mouth into the respective rictus-mask frown and smile symbolizing theatrical drama and comedy). Todd Phillips ought to have heeded his own screenplay; his film is a comedy (though not a particularly funny one) that thinks itself a tragedy. Arthur Fleck is twice the antihero Travis Bickle was, but the movie focusing on him (indeed, told from his perspective, like Taxi Driver is told from Bickle’s) and intending to provide a compelling and even problematically empathetic portrait of his anguish and descent into violent madness is less than half the film Taxi Driver was, despite sharing so many (purposeful) similarities.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews