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Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

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.

Film Review: Ocean’s 8

April 20, 2020 Leave a comment

Ocean’s 8 (2018; Directed by Gary Ross)

Steven Soderbergh’s 2001-2007 Ocean’s Trilogy doesn’t get the movie geek attention and passion that so many other franchises (which are more speculative/escapist and less basically realist than Ocean’s is) receive, but I’ll be damned if his three entertaining, charming heist films headlined by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon aren’t one of the most consistently strong (if basically shallow) blockbuster trilogies in modern Hollywood. It’s hard to point to considerable flaws or lag-points in any of the movies (Don Cheadle’s ludicrously bad Cockney accent notwithstanding), and of course all three were commercially successful, with Soderbergh’s well-known on-budget production practices and the all-star cast not taking their usual large fees helping the case.

If there aren’t legions of highly engaged fans still furiously debating the relative quality of specific Ocean’s movies and even specific characters or scenes or moments as is the case with the legendarily (infamously?) engaged fanbase of Star Wars, maybe that’s not such a failing or disadvantage of the intellectual property. No doubt films this enjoyable and well-made have their dedicated fans, but if there are fanatical partisans out there declaiming to the internet that a character choice in Ocean’s Thirteen ruined their childhood, we’re not really hearing from them (such a fan would have to be far too old for that specific complaint or even for the internet, mind you, considering that the Soderbergh trilogy rebooted a casual 1960 Rat Pack heist movie in the first place).

If that was ever going to happen, it would have with Ocean’s 8, a franchise reboot released eleven years after Soderbergh put a bow on his trilogy with Ocean’s Thirteen. Directed by Hollywood veteran Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and co-written by Ross and Olivia Milch, Ocean’s 8 takes an increasingly favoured approach vector to rebooting a Hollywood franchise whose core conceit comes across as both proscribedly progressive and cynically courting “controversy”: the all-female remake of a property previously defined by its dominance by male characters. After the trumped-up and frequently misogynist online mouth-frothing over the all-female-headlined (and fairly innocuous and middling) 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, not to mention similarly toxic discourse surrounding the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy with its female lead or the first female Doctor Who or the barest rumoured possibility of James Bond no longer being played by a white man, Ocean’s 8 might have become another unlikely culture-war battleground by dint of the gender of its core octet of heist-spinning characters. Outside of sparking some mild (and maybe ultimately productive) discussion about how the film’s so-so critical reception revealed a lack of diversity in major-publication film criticism, that didn’t happen. There’s certainly nothing remotely radical or even really progressive about Ocean’s 8‘s watered-down, barely-there pop-feminism (where “feminism” consists merely of a bare passing grade in the Bechdel Test), and maybe that’s a factor. But more likely even the most rabid reactionary anti-feminists online couldn’t be arsed to get their danders up over a female take-over of a franchise known for deploying expertly cool and witty but essentially disposable and forgettable genre entertainment.

That exact species of entertainment is deployed with professional aplomb in Ocean’s 8. Its titular protagonist is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), long-incarcerated sister of George Clooney’s initial-trilogy lead Danny Ocean, who is established as being (quite probably but maybe not definitely) dead. Released from prison after giving an emotionally convincing but entirely insincere performance of contrition for her past crimes, Debbie immediately begins prepping for an audacious heist that she used her copious free time while locked up to plan in intricate detail. Debbie intends to steal a valuable and highly-protected $150 million diamond necklace by contriving a rare public appearance for it at New York City’s glitterati social event of the year, the Met Gala at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to the usual heist motivations of winning uncommon wealth and feeling the sheer thrill of pulling it off, Debbie has a further impetus: revenge on her ex-lover and ex-criminal conspirator Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), an arrogantly assured art dealer whose betrayal of her in a past plot landed her in the clink.

Debbie’s primary heist-team ally Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett, in the equivalent of the Brad Pitt role from the prior movies) is not too thrilled with her partner’s perceived emotional involvement in the job in anticipation of it leading to complications, and not just because of the low-key subtextual same-sex frisson between the two of them (Blanchett, with that glint in her eye that she always seems to get in silly big-budget studio films, leans into it more perceptibly than Bullock does). The rest of the team, assembled one at a time in classic heist-movie style (although not entirely predictably), is made up entirely of women, mostly but not uniformly motivated by money. There’s an expert jewel assessor (Mindy Kaling), a street-hustling pickpocket (a mouthy Awkwafina), a prodigious computer hacker (Rihanna, decked out in dreadlocks and rastafarian hat in nearly-full racial stereotype mode), and an expert conwoman and fence (procurer and seller of stolen goods) who is also a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson, who is almost always better than she is here). The one possible exception to the score-driven majority is fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter gamely fighting an Irish accent to a draw), who is looking to burnish her diminshed reputation by dressing a Met Gala superstar attendee while simultaneously staving off the revenue authorities probing her tax evasion with the proceeds of the theft.

The eighth woman is an intended unwitting mule for the jewels who doesn’t entirely play along as hoped: superstar actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), guest of honour at the Met Gala and one-night wearer of the valuable Cartier necklace Ocean’s team intends to pilfer. The whole cast is having a grand time acting in this movie, one of the most discernable and heartening holdovers from the light and fun Ocean’s Eleven to Thirteen, which felt above all like glamourous, exclusive parties that we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of. But Hathaway lets rip with a breathily overblown comic sendup of her movie-star public image that is clearly the source of great glee to her, and therefore can’t help but be so for the audience as well. I’ve long enjoyed Hathaway and found her to be an especially adept comic actress as she is here, but she also gets no shortage of grief for being a perceived try-hard achiever who can never quite connect on a deeper level, which is one of several pervasive reductive tropes imposed upon female actors (even those who have won Oscars for their acting). Ask on-again, off-again America’s Sweetheart Sandra Bullock about that, although co-stars Blanchett, Bonham-Carter, and Paulson have all managed to carve out accomplished and varied careers outside of the classic sexist screen archetypes, to an extent.

Ocean’s 8 has several built-in, barely-more-than-superficial subtexts about the nature of female experiences that are discernable if never substantial enough to detract from or to deepen the slick blockbuster entertainment package of the movie. Unlike Steve McQueen’s Widows, which smartly, artistically utilized heist-movie genre conventions to explore not only women’s complex and fraught positions of autonomy from and subjugation to patriarchal power but the interconnected nature of American politics and social inequality as well, Ocean’s 8 is focused on flashy high fashion and the convention of the vengeful woman scorned as more than a little cynical sops to narrative themes that Hollywood has long used to sell its products to female audiences.

Supporting team members do represent a superficially diverse set of racial identities (South Asian, East Asian, Afro-Carribean, Fake Irish) as well as of oft-elided socioeconomic roles for women (the invisible professional, the socially marginal and legally precarious, the tech wizard, the aging creative in a youth-focused industry, the frustrated and underestimated homemaker). But just being representatives of these identities or roles, while far from amounting to nothing, doesn’t rise to the level of using those base roles and identities to dissect and interrogate the implied meanings and interpolations of occupying such positions in society and culture. Representation alone is not political or social critique. You can say that mainstream genre entertainment like Ocean’s 8 isn’t the place to do that, but Widows, working in the same precise genre although with a weightier tone, certainly was, and even otherwise flawed superhero workouts like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel managed to do some of that as well, to say nothing of Mad Max: Fury Road, both a white-knuckle action thrill ride and a muscular feminist teardown of patriarchy.

Ocean’s 8 director/co-writer Gary Ross is a stalwart Hollywood vet of mostly straight-ahead uncomplicated craft-artistry, like a slightly more poetic and comedically-inclined Ron Howard (which is not an insult but also isn’t not an insult). He helmed the initial installment of one of the highest-grossing female-fronted franchises in movie history, after all. At the risk of being reductive, though, he’s still a dude. One wonders if a female director might have been able to be more nimble in seeding the film’s themes with women’s issues while preserving the slick and clever Ocean’s package audiences have come to expect and which Ross otherwise delivers, albeit with less of the flair and none of the left-field surprises Soderbergh did. Maybe a female director did that, in fact: specifically Lorene Scafaria with Hustlers, a grittier, Scorsese-influenced take on the woman-perpetrated criminal heist formula that Ocean’s 8 relied upon but that outstripped it in critical notice while approaching its profitability.

Ocean’s 8 isn’t invested in depicting women’s struggles or wider considerations of politics, though, outside of the reliable heist-movie trope of the identifiable protagonists stealing from the impossibly cossetted and out-of-touch wealthy elite (which is well-worn enough at this point to be rendered mostly harmless and without redistributionist political portent). Perhaps this is why its gender-flipping reboot of a popular franchise didn’t raise as many hackles as Ghostbusters‘ did. At the end of the day, the Ocean’s movies are a lark and don’t mean anything, so does it matter what gender the fiendish robber heroes are? Not much, and certainly not enough to have any sort of wider-reaching implications worth discussing, let alone contentiously arguing about.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“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.

Television Review: His Dark Materials

April 10, 2020 Leave a comment

His Dark Materials: Series 1 (BBC/HBO; 2019 – Present)

For those not familiar with the best-selling fantasy novel trilogy by Philip Pullman upon which BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials series is based, consider the following (mildly spoiler-y) summation. Imagine C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy books, but they’re only nominally written for children (or even young adults, necessarily). Instead of a mysterious and a little whimsical portal inside a wardrobe leading to a single medieval-ish fantasy world, imagine numerous portals leading to a literally infinite number of alternate universes conceived on the basis of multiverse theory, each one either slightly different or wildly divergent from the next. Instead of a clutch of virtuous English children meeting an umimpeachably heroic talking lion, imagine a resourceful and special young girl befriending a full-sized talking polar bear wearing metal armour. And instead of a barely-veiled Christian allegory, imagine a rich scientific/cosmological metaphor for a totalizing atheistic belief system. His Dark Materials is a reasonably involving narrative full of complex world-building, science-fiction touches, and resonant themes about morality, liberty, and theocratic oppression.

If that sounds to you like it’s pretty awesome, I’m here to tell you that… yeah, it’s all right. I read the book series something like a decade ago (it was published about a decade before that, from 1995 to 2000) and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but retained its forceful non-deistic anti-creation mythos much more than any of its character’s arcs and emotional journeys, let alone Pullman’s febrile but unremarkable prose. Pullman is a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, among whose most august alumni is the legendary author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Pullman very clearly conceives of himself and his literary output, His Dark Materials in particular, as being a comprehensive agnostic rebuttal to the seminal and beloved mid-century fantasy works of fellow Oxford dons Tolkien and Lewis, their involving stories based in mythology with themes ultimately reinforcing their authors’ Christian worldviews.

Pullman has flat-out said in public that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, and was labelled “the most dangerous author in Britain” by conservative writer Peter Hitchens. His Dark Materials (its title is taken from Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in that context the phrase has clear creationist implications) is utterly and completely not subtle about this primary goal, sometimes to its larger storytelling detriment. The primary antagonistic power-structure aligned against Pullman’s protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in the trilogy is the Magisterium, a nearly all-powerful theocratic world government with its own globally-reaching armed police force that imposes total orthodox of belief and practice. It’s essentially as if the medieval Catholic Church was never splintered by the Protestant Reformation (or even the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for that matter) and retained complete moral and spiritual authority over the Christian faith while extending that authority over all secular institutions and the entirety of world society as well.

If turning the Catholic Church into the evil Empire from Star Wars wasn’t enough, the plot of the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, initially published as Northern Lights in the UK but released as The Golden Compass in America, revolves around the Magisterium secretly abducting children in order to literally take away their souls (manifested in Lyra’s world as constant animal-spirit companions called daemons) in a deluded attempt to squash out the imagined source of sin. Pullman’s metaphor for his perception of organized Christian religion’s quashing of individual freedom of expression and of scientific inquiry is crystal-clear, and this plot strand and its thematic underpinnings perhaps unintentionally evoke the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal while it’s at it. Hell, by the third book, Pullman is literally unmasking “God” as a con artist and killing him off in diminished ignonimy. He’s not hiding what this stuff is about in any way, inside the text or out of it.

To put it mildly, His Dark Materials has proven a tiny bit controversial with religious conservatives. The Catholic Herald‘s Leonie Caldecott called it “a Luciferian enterprise”, a work of art “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry (Potter)“, its far more popular modern fantasy contemporary that has attracted laughably old-fashioned religious objections for promoting witchcraft, as if we’re living in the 1660s (although we’ve got the plague for it, after all). Caldecott was perhaps inadvertently making Pullman’s point for him (he asked his publishers to include her quotes in his next book), but she recognized the core feature of His Dark Materials: it’s extremely potent propaganda against religion aimed squarely at impressionable young readers. No doubt she’s worried that her side is falling irrevocably behind in the war of ideas, if it hasn’t already done so. Catholicism, once the (often literal) gold standard in self-justifying artistic propaganda, can’t boast any works of equivalently effective polemic in the half-century since cantakerous old C.S. Lewis gave up the ghost. A generalized smothering disdain for contemporary culture as well as a dogmatic adherence to outdated modes of thought and expression will tend to have that effect, one might find.

At any rate, nervousness about the intellectual property’s anti-religious intent was one of the contributing factors to the failure of the only previous attempt to adapt His Dark Materials to a visual medium. New Line Cinema, swelling with profits and prestige and confidence following the world-beating success of The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy, swooped down on the film rights to Pullman’s books and poured $180 million into The Golden Compass, the first of what it hoped would be a trilogy of films that might approximate that great prior genre success. Unfortunately, approximating Rings was too thoroughly the mantra for The Golden Compass for it to ever work on its own terms. New Line hired a director of decent, middling-cost movies who was unproven with a budget and thus a cinematic canvas of such magnitude, but unlike with Peter Jackson, the bet did not pay off so spectacularly well this time: Chris Weitz’s biggest prior success was American Pie (co-directed with his brother Paul), and in The Golden Compass he cannot make the epically-scoped visual storytelling (sweeping landscape shots galore!) feel anything but inert and lifeless (his next film was a Twilight sequel, so those qualities were right at home with that material). Weitz himself even agreed with this assessment before the fact, actually resigning as director during pre-production, citing the enormous technical challenges that he didn’t feel up to (he did come back on board to finish the film, of course; I wonder if he regretted it).

Also, New Line insisted on casting recognizable Rings wizard actors, against Weitz’s wishes: Ian McKellen voiced Lyra’s armored bear buddy Iorek Byrnison in post-production, and Christopher Lee was shoehorned into a cameo as a menacing Magisterium big-wig. To top it off and come back to the initial point, New Line was also in nervous sweats over the material’s core of atheism hamstringing its vital Stateside grossing potential in the face of anticipated well-organized and well-funded conservative Christian protests in God’s Country. Therefore, in The Golden Compass, the Magisterium is clearly an all-encompassing villainous institutional force dedicated to intellectual dogmatism and authoritarian abuse of power, but just isn’t very specifically church-y. This dilution troubled Pullman and annoyed fans of the book (it’s hard to fathom how the content of the later books would have been handled with such an approach), and did not placate right-wing church groups like the Catholic League, which boycotted the film anyway. Other similar changes watering down elements of the novel and making them more palatable to mass audiences added to the problems, and although the film earned $372 million worldwide in box office receipts, it was considered a disapointment and its two planned sequels were not made. Disney’s contemporaneous Rings-piggybacking Chronicles of Narnia film was also pretty flat, but at least it made boatloads (or evangelical church-funded busloads, anyway) of money at the box office. New Line Cinema, barely a decade after changing Hollywood with The Lord of the Rings movies, was done in by The Golden Compass and was folded into corporate overlord Warner Bros. Pictures.

Belatedly, this brings us to the television adaption of His Dark Materials, a co-production of BBC and HBO which aired its eight-episode first season over the last weeks of 2019. Like the failed film trilogy attempt that preceded it, His Dark Materials comes to screens bearing the baggage of the genre and medium success of an influential precursor, namely HBO’s dark-fantasy (“hot fantasy… that fucks”) cultural juggernaut Game of Thrones, which ended its massively popular eight-season run by smearing lukewarm feces all over its own legacy a few months before His Dark Materials debuted on the same network (as well as on the Beeb). Unlike The Golden Compass movie, however, His Dark Materials is accorded the running time, the storytelling space, and the general creative freedom to produce a relatively faithful and more importantly relatively good adaptation of the novels that it’s based on, while at the same time being allowed to be fundamentally itself without shoehorning in dragons or bare breasts or Kit Harrington’s slack lips just because the studio suits wanted themselves another We$tero$. If anything, the series’ arrival in what might prove to be the COVID-19-enforced tail end of the Peak TV Era works to its advantage in a way that New Line’s all-eggs-in-the-basket approach to investment worked to the movie’s detriment. There’s less pressure on His Dark Materials as one ambitious, handsomely-budgeted long-form television narrative among very many to be anything greater than it is.

His Dark Materials manages to be what it is but not really all that much more. It’s miles better than The Golden Compass movie, but still somewhat basic, finally. Written by UK television veteran Jack Thorne with episodes directed by the likes of Otto Bathurst (Criminal Justice, Peaky Blinders) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, the already-infamous Cats), the first season of the series adapts the entirety of the plot of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass encompassing the adventures through England and the polar regions of the North of its pre-teen heroine Lyra, played capably by Logan standout Daphne Keen. An apparent orphan raised at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College in a steampunk-ish world different than ours in many ways (airships are used for transport rather than airplanes, for example, the Hindenburg disaster never having happened, most likely), Lyra yearns to join her adventuring “uncle” Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a polar explorer and scientific researcher with a heretical interest in a mysterious, elemental substance called Dust with connections to daemons, trans-dimensional portals, and, the Magisterium believes, to sin. Also interested in Dust and its significance from a rather different angle is Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a beautiful and elegant woman working for the Magisterium who whisks Lyra away from Oxford to be her “assistant” in her London penthouse.

At the same time, Lyra is deeply concerned about a rash of child disappearances linked to a shadowy cadre known only as the Gobblers. Many children of the Gyptians, a riverboat-bound culture of nomadic Roma-like travellers, have vanished, and Lyra’s fellow college orphan and best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is snatched up as well, which Coulter does not seem nearly so concerned about as Lyra thinks she should be. Eventually, Lyra will accompany the Gyptians in the frozen North in search of their missing children and Roger, armed with a truth-telling alethiometer (the titular golden compass) that only she can preternaturally read, where she will encounter Iorek (Joe Tandberg) and his fellow panserbjørne, a rogueish balloon-piloting aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (an oddly-cast Lin-Manuel Miranda), and discover what Coulter and Asriel are up to near the top of the world.

The first book in the series is more episodic than the others (like a lot of child-aimed fantasy books, including Tolkien’s The Hobbit and initial Rings novel The Fellowship of the Ring), but that works better in a television series than a film, given the medium’s structural division into episodes. His Dark Materials also plans for the future of its own storytelling more effectively; while Lyra’s co-protagonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) is not introduced until the trilogy’s second book The Subtle Knife, he begins appearing halfway through the show’s first season, pursued by the surveillance of trans-world-crossing Magisterium agent Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). Speaking of the Magisterium, they are much more clearly a monolithic Christian-esque religious institution here than in the compromised movie, and Pullman’s core themes about faith and science, belief and doubt, control and freedom, and innocence and experience (Pullman was profoundly inspired by the illustrations of William Blake, proving that he hardly seeks to discount all faith-inspired artistic influence) receive clear and solid treatment by Thorne’s scripts. The battles, namely Iorek’s bear-to-bear tilt with usurping king Iofur (Peter Serafinowicz) and the Gyptians’ assault on the remote facility where the missing children are held and experimented on, scale down their magnitude when compared with the more epic but more lifeless installments in the movie; mostly they are seen from Lyra’s child-level perspective, thus focusing on their narrative significance rather than on their spectacle.

As strong as Keen is as Lyra, Ruth Wilson’s more-than-a-little skewed performance as Coulter is the centerpiece of the show. Wilson, with her unique, richly-curved, leering and cruel mouth, first gained notice in the Idris Elba-headlined BBC detective series Luther as a twisted trickster-figure sociopathic murderer, and she brings that disturbed energy to Coulter. Anne-Marie Duff also stands out in a deeply-felt turn as Lyra’s Gyptian surrogate mother figure Ma Costa, and of course reliable players like an all-business McAvoy and HBO vet Clarke Peters as Master of Jordan College do solid work. Miranda as Scoresby is a choice, for sure, and one of the season’s lag points is the episode in a northern town featuring his largely pointless tavern fight and Iorek resolving the problem of his stolen armour a bit too perfunctorily. The series also spends the requisite amount of time depicting the relationship and connection between people and their animal daemons because it’s vital to the plot’s climax, but also uses Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) as a frequent expository substitute for an internal monologue, thus depriving him (and all the daemons, really) of a personality. Daemons are also almost always absent in crowd scenes, a likely compromise to the CG effects budget that nonetheless detracts from the established internal reality of the world.

There’s a general perfunctory character to the drama in His Dark Materials the television series that should be noted, but I’m not entirely sure that character isn’t one shared by the literary source material. As discussed, Pullman has a very specific set of ideas and goals that he means to share and accomplish with these works, and although the drama and the characters are not exactly secondary to those ideas and goals, they are very intentionally and obviously conduits for his themes and message, to the frequent detriment of their emotional impact. His Dark Materials is a good but not yet great television series, and even if the pieces are nicely in place for adaptations of the two subsequent books in Pullman’s trilogy, there isn’t a whole to suggest that the adaptation will go to any special places in the journey to come.