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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.

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.

TV Quickshots #38

August 1, 2019 Leave a comment

Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video; 2019-Present)

Adapted from the 1990 fantasy/comic novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens is a good-natured farce about Armageddon. The final battle between good and evil prophesized in Revelations is but a few days away, but neither prissy angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) or swaggering demon Crowley (David Tennant) is quite ready for the world to end just yet. Both of them have been on Earth for thousands of years; since the Garden of Eden, actually, when Crowley took on serpent form to tempt Adam and Eve with the apple of knowledge and Aziraphale took pity on them when they were banished for eating from the forbidden fruit, gifting them with his flaming sword to protect them in the wilderness (as the angel and demon watch from the garden’s ramparts, Adam uses it against a predatory lion, with a suggestive and darkly funny damp squelching sound on the soundtrack as Adam swings the weapon at the beast).

In all of that time, they’ve become fond not only of the place, its many pleasures, and its flawed inhabitants, but of each other as well (this surface-level buddy comedy element takes on same-sex romance undertones that are barely subtextual and were intentionally seeded by Sheen’s performance at the very least). Their preference to keep living there soon grows into an intentional plan to defy their bureaucratic overseers respectively in Heaven (a lighty and airy floor of a gleaming modern office building) and in Hell (a dank, claustrophobic basement warren, seemingly under the same building) and prevent the apocalypse by any means necessary.

The agent of this apocalypse is Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), the Antichrist. Intended to be placed by the dark powers with the power-adjacent family of the American ambassador to the UK (Nick Offerman) and groomed for eventual cosmic battle on the Fields of Meggido in the Holy Land, this Antichrist is mixed up as a newborn baby by a bumbling coven of satanic nuns (the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, who take no vows of silence). This comic mixup leads to the Spawn of Satan being unwittingly raised as an otherwise normal boy in rural England, so that when Armageddon looms and his world-changing powers begin to emerge, nobody in Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else knows who or where he is.

Other characters cluster towards the apocalypse like moths to a flame. Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) comes from a long line of witches, one of which wrote the only accurate book of prophecy ever published, which gives her descendant a clear, if sometimes confounding and unpredictable, roadmap of what is to come; the prophecies are always correct, but that’s often only evident after they have come to pass, as it happens. In Adam’s town, she meets Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), an unemployed computer engineer with terrible luck around computers who has taken a job as a witchfinder in desperation; his superior is the loopy and quackish Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean), who has never himself found a witch and mostly tosses ugly slut-shaming at his landlady and neighbour Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), who is also a medium and a part-time courtesan. And what would the apocalypse be without the Four Horsemen: Pollution (Lourdes Faberes; Pestilence retired a century back, muttering about penicillin), War (Mireille Enos), Famine (Yusuf Gatewood), and Death (Brian Cox).

Good Omens has been in production hell (har har) for something like 20 years, and finally landing as a streaming-service miniseries in the Peak TV era is likely a better fate for it than being produced as a truncated and compromised movie. If anything, Gaiman (who writes all six episodes) fleshes out and extends the story and the world of Good Omens, even if his tone and timing is a bit too deliberate for his late writing partner’s impeccable left-field comedic comets (though they shared the authorial credit, both agreed that Pratchett did most of the actual word-to-paper writing of Good Omens, and it shows; the book is a comic Pratchett novel with some Gaiman-esque mythology repurposings). Terry Gilliam was once attached to the property back when it was supposedly destined for the big screen (and back when anybody actually wanted to see a Terry Gilliam movie), and some elements of this final product carry a certain influence from his work (Hell, in particular, is a shabby bureaucratic dystopia reminiscent of Brazil).

Things hum along nicely enough and with strongly good-natured humour, at least until the big special-effects climax at an English military base with the arrival of Satan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a bit of a flubbed finish (though the novel’s climax is too subversively anticlimactic to have done either), but it’s a nice ride up to that point, especially when the show is in the hands of Sheen and Tennant, both of whom are flawlessly cast and have a great and unique comic and emotional chemistry. One flashback to their common historical intrigues features the series’ funniest and most memorable moment, as Crowley hot-foots down the aisle of a church (consecreated ground, it burns) to aid Aziraphale during a book deal with Nazis gone awry.

The series’ flippant view of Christian eschatology angered some bible-thumping zealots (who petitioned the wrong streaming service to pull the show, with hilarious and fitting cluelessness), but really it’s a humane and humanistic vision that Good Omens embraces, supporting humans making decisions in their own flawed and shambolic free will by making the will of Heaven and of Hell even more foolish. Good Omens is not quite great, but it’s a lot of fun and gets its source material more right than a truncated cinematic take (whose ceiling would have been a box-office disappointment that became a cult favourite anyway) would have done.

 

What We Do in the Shadows (FX; 2019-Present)

Speaking of getting source material more right than otherwise: check out the What We Do in the Shadows TV series, would you? The series was produced and Americanized for FX by Jemaine Clement, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the side-splitting 2014 vampire mockumentary of the same name with the ever-ascending king of New Zealand comedy, Taika Waititi (who directs three of the first season’s ten episodes, with Clement helming three more and their co-star in the film Jackie Van Beek directing two). This makes the show not a sequel or remake but a continuation, a doodle in the same font as the original film (whose characters, along with several surprise big names, cameo in a vampire council scene in the later stages of the season). It strikes the same tone as the film, straddling fantastical absurdism, dark humour, and observational realism and holding it all together with note-perfect deadpan hilarity.

What We Do in the Shadows the film focused on a quartet of vampire housemates in suburban Wellington, New Zealand, balancing mundane quotidian problems (doing the dishes, laying down newspaper to keep the rugs clean when sucking the blood of victims, etc.) with supernatural concerns about eternal life, burning up in sunlight, and beefing with werewolves and beastly arch-nemeses. What We Do in the Shadows the TV show assembles five housemates in a Neo-Gothic pile in Staten Island, New York: Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), a murderous former Central Asian warlord mostly clueless about the modern world; vampire couple Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), the former a bit bored in their centuries-old marriage and seeking the reincarnation of her oft-decapitated lover (now returned as a disappointingly milquetoast parking lot attendant named Jeff, played by Jake McDorman), the latter an arrogant sex freak who has made porno flicks for a century and trims explicit topiary sculptures in the yard; “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who feeds on the energy of others by being painfully, stultifyingly boring; and Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor’s devoted but guilt-ridden Hispanic-Catholic familiar, labouring in demeaning circumstances on the dim and unlikely promise of one day being turned into a vampire.

The hijinks of these vampires are spread over 10 episodes and thus allow for more variation and difference than in the movie: the vampires aim to conquer the continent by first infiltrating the Staten Island Council, they tussle with a pack of werewolves, and mortifyingly botch a vampire orgy. There is also a greater number of peripheral characters to visit and revisit: Colin has a rivalry and then partnership with an “emotional vampire” named Evie (Vanessa Bayer), Booksmart‘s Beanie Feldstein appears as a LARPer virgin whom Nadja turns into a vampire in pity, and lanky body-suit-acting specialist Doug Jones is The Baron, an ancient and powerful Nosferatu-esque vampire from the Old World who goes out on the town to party with his vampire hosts (all while wearing a New Jersey Devils hat to blend in, a diabolically on-point detail) in the season’s funniest and best episode.

Both the sitcom format and the more minimal creative involvement of Waititi means that the series is more pure comedy than the film, which in the auteur’s trademarked style incorporated irruptions of longing sadness, especially in Waititi’s own romantic dandy character, Viago. That said, the show is very funny; practically everything Novak (who shone as dim-witted jihadi Waj in the brilliant satire Four Lions) says is hilarious just by virtue of the slow, naifish way he delivers his lines (although Berry, combining the sex-crazed machismo of Clement and Jonathan Brugh’s vampires from the film, becomes tiresome), and its running jokes (like how the vampires turn into bats by saying “Bat!”) never stop being amusing. And if it lacks a bit of the film’s heart, a twist involving Guillermo at season’s end promises to give it an added bite of tension and intrigue in its expected second season.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

The Nuanced Dualistic Masculinity of Letterkenny

One of my recent favourite creators of soft-academic video essays on pop culture and entertainment is Jonathan McIntosh, whose Pop Culture Detective channel on YouTube features detailed, compelling, and well-argued video dissertations on the political, ideological, and psychological implications of tropes common to film, video games, and television. McIntosh is particularly insightful on the subject of masculinity and its depictions – toxic, troubled, insidious, and otherwise – in entertainment. His excellent dual video essays on the “adorkable” misogyny and the complicity of geek masculinity of the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory are a video-essay lecture opus that deconstructs the often ugly sexual and gender politics of the most popular comedy on American television. Watch these intelligent and devastating 41 minutes and you’ll never want to watch a minute of The Big Bang Theory ever again (if you ever did in the first place).

McIntosh’s Big Bang Theory analysis put me in mind of another (much, much funnier) television sitcom that models both traditional and modern masculinity in complicated, nuanced, and often contradictory ways. The popular Canadian streaming hit Letterkenny, set as it is in a small Canadian town (based on co-creator and star Jared Keeso’s rural hometown of Listowel, Ontario) and peopled by farmers, hockey players, emo/goth meth-heads (known as the Skids), First Nations, and other sundry local oddballs, might be expected to be grounded in traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and gender politics, which is to say the patriarchal, privileged, misogynistic discriminatory arrogance of the contemporary political North American Right. This sort of stereotypical conservative masculinity is unfortunately very familiar and sadly resilient, as personified in its current exploded avatar Donald J. Trump, and recently and vividly played out in disheartening political theatre south of the border with the sexual assault allegations which very nearly derailed the nomination of conservative movement stalwart Brett Kavanaugh (of “I like beer!” infamy) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The country certainly has no monopoly on the hallmarks of this traditional toxic masculinity: tendencies towards racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, dishonesty, or bullying, to say nothing of discomfort with women or people of colour in positions of power, insensitivity to differing cultural or ideological identities or perspectives, or distrust of open displays of male emotional sensitivity and preference for assertive and often violent shows of strength to resolve conflicts. The city can lay claim to the same flaws in the masculine character, and it would be urban liberal snobbery of the purest strain to assume that these dirtbag qualities are only possessed by rural men (perhaps together we can envision a glorious future wherein the country and the city join forces against their implacable mutual enemy: the suburbs). If the hicks that are the centre of Letterkenny – Keeso’s Wayne, Nathan Dales’ Daryl, K. Trevor Wilson’s Squirrely Dan, and Michelle Mylett’s Katy, Wayne’s sister – are carefully defined as non-judgemental and tolerant of other races, persuasions, and creeds, the main duo of hockey players, Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr), do conform to the worst stereotypes of dim-witted, vain, womanizing male athletes, to the consternation of some who might hope for those stereotypes to be at least modestly moved beyond.

If Letterkenny is often at pains to establish its ag-hall protagonists as politically correct and mildly woke (or at least not openly bigoted), then its dominant masculine comedic discourse of heavily colloquial and homosocial chatting, joking, and chop-busting frequently runs towards the crude, and thus towards homophobic comments and negative suggestions of feminine qualities. Both of these less-enlightened turns are present among the first clutch of jokes in the series’ very first scene, even, and it’s hard to guarantee that none of Letterkenny‘s numerous involved dialogic digressions don’t also veer occasionally in such directions. Local pastor Glenn (played by series co-creator, co-writer, and director Jacob Tierney) is likewise a way-over-the-top flaming homosexual stereotype, and the First Nations characters from a nearby reservations led by queenpin Tanis (Kaniehtiio Horn) can veer close to the offensive as well. A brief survey of media articles on Letterkenny, in truth, turns up thinkpieces from right-leaning publications like The National Post and The Federalist. The show’s alignment can be tough to pin down, but it has certainly been embraced by certain conservative circles.

But masculinity is not chiefly concerned with political alignment, nor necessarily with prejudice or the lack thereof. It is above all about how men act, speak, and present themselves, how they interact with women, with other men, and how they think and feel about themselves. In these matters, Letterkenny can also be difficult to pin down, if for no more reason than its prioritizing of its jokes, with plot developments and even consistent characterization often left aside in favour of the big laugh. Still, even before Katy’s more consistent presence in the hicks’ jawing sessions after the first season shifts their nature to less mannish tones, Wayne, Daryl, and Dan only occasionally venture into the sort of lurid discussion of sexual matters or conquests that one might expect in the company of young men (extended simulations of orgasmic porn star exclamations aside), and when they do, Wayne (and indeed the other two as well) expresses care and discomfort (“It’s impolite to kiss and tell”), and the discussion is closer to sex ed than random horny chatter. It’s weirdly open and respectful, and even more weirdly sweet. Even in the locker room of Reilly and Jonesy’s hockey team, the expected “locker room talk” is conspicuously minimal: volumetric sex-related trash-talker Shoresy (voiced by Keeso) is a despised antagonist, and after Katy breaks it off with Reilly and Jonesy, their main encounter with the hockey-adjacent girls known colloquially as “puck bunnies” involves scaring one such woman off (with Katy’s invaluable aid) in order to improve their team’s on-ice focus.

In relationships, there is a similar respectfulness. Katy is characterized as sexually active, but make a negative comment about it and you have her formidable brother to answer to. Daryl is awkward and naifish towards the opposite sex, and when he does get a girlfriend at the end of Season Five (Kim Cloutier’s Anik), it’s practically in a soft-focus fantasy sequence, as she appears out of the blue to confess her love for him despite barely interacting with him previously. The Skids are understood to be basically asexual, with the exception of a brief and unsuccessful relationship between Katy and lead Skid Stewart (Tyler Johnston) early in the series that is forgotten about quickly afterwards (Sarah Gadon recurs as a more enigmatic sort-of love interest to Stewart). Wayne’s love interests include the bookish homebody Rosie (Clark Backo) and Tanis, who becomes pregnant by him in a season-ending cliffhanger and then discusses her choice to have an abortion matter-of-factly, with his level-headed understanding and even agreement.

Indeed, Letterkenny‘s protagonist Wayne is a key focal point in the show’s nuanced and difficult-to-pigeonhole vision of masculinity. We’ve discussed his respectfulness of both men and women (at least those judged deserving of this respect; those who aren’t, we’ll get to) and his absence of prejudice and indeed sensitivity to suggestions of bigotry. But in Keeso’s often near-monotone performance and even in the actor’s wardrobe, we see that Wayne is emotionally reticent and undemonstrative of his feelings, a Clint Eastwood-like strong, silent type (who, like most of the characters in this talky sitcom, is rarely silent). In his lack of emotional display and in his shirts, he is quite literally buttoned-up, an embodiment of traditional masculinity’s imperative to men to hide their feelings in all circumstances. Contemporary psychology tells us that this sort of emotional bottling is unhealthy to both the mental well-being of men and to their relationships with those around them, but it doesn’t seem to do Wayne much damage. When he does become unbuttoned emotionally, it’s played for laughs, as when he grows so heated while discussing Katy’s loss to Stewart in Letterkenny’s prestigious Adult Spelling Bee that he hilarious tears his trademarked button-up shirt open.

Any consideration of the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny would be terribly remiss if it didn’t address one of the show’s consistent features: its numerous fight scenes, which with their stylish slow motion and rock-music accompaniment constitute a fairly textbook audio-visual glorification of violence. Wayne begins the series as a legendary tough-guy scrapper whose ex-girlfriend (Kalinka Petrie, later more fully characterized as the team-poisoning puck bunny) had made him foreswear punch-ups. Through the first season, he defeats a series of challengers to his crown of Letterkenny’s fight king, and begins a recurring theme of providing fistfulls of comeuppance to various jerks, rez gangs, snobbish city slickers, Quebeckers, tiki-torch-carrying alt-right racists, and, of course, the ultimate source of insidious evil in this fallen world: degens from upcountry.

Taking recourse to physical violence to solve disputes is toxic masculinity at its most brutish and blunt. It’s also depicted patriarchally as a men’s-only activity; Katy and other women mostly stand aside during the regular donnybrooks. But as Letterkenny continues through its current run of six seasons and five holiday-themed specials (so far), fighting becomes, if only through comic inversion, a perverse way of building community. The people who scrap with Wayne and his friends – Reilly and Jonesy, the musclebound Tyson (Jay Bertin) and Joint Boy (Joel Gagne), Tanis’ rez crew, even the Quebecois “hiques” – later become his allies and friends, often called upon or calling upon him when it comes time to vanquish the marauding orcish hordes of the Letterkenny universe, those hated degens from upcountry. Fighting, comically romanticized and glorified as it is on Letterkenny, is not a destructive social force, but one that brings people together.

It’s worth keeping in mind, of course, that Letterkenny is a comedy first and foremost, and as mentioned focuses on the laughs well before giving any care or consideration to consistent characterizations, themes, or ideas. Its comedic nature also renders it especially slippery as a text about masculinity; it can be difficult to pinpoint when exactly Letterkenny is lampooning the harsher elements of traditional masculinity and when it is celebrating them. There is a species of nuanced dualism to the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny, a concerted effort to retain traditional markers of masculinity and integrate them with positive elements of more modern and progressive ideas of what it means to be a man.

One of the first season’s highlights is the second episode, “Super Soft Birthday”, in which Wayne and Katy throw an annual birthday party for Daryl that, as the name implies, revels in “soft”, childish, even feminized elements: pink balloons and streamers, a bouncy castle, a pony with a braided mane, tiaras and feather boas, cupcakes and cotton candy, and colourful and sweet alcoholic drinks. Letterkenny at once ironically contrasts this super-softness with the stereotypical hardness of rural masculinity (Wayne does fight Joint Boy when the latter crashes the party, after all), but it also unironically enjoys this super-softness, because it’s just fun, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The super-soft birthday is Letterkennian masculinity in a nutshell. Letterkenny is comfortable with a more fluid and open conception of masculinity at the same time as it locates a certain old-fashioned value in traditional masculine definitions, which it also feels free to rib gently. It’s a nimble and nuanced dance that is always buoyed by humour and good nature, and despite its cruder and less sensitive moments, it’s a dance of the masculine that gets Letterkenny through.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television

“The Terror” and the Consuming Horrors of British Imperialism

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Terror (AMC; 2018)

There’s a moment in the graphically baroque climax of AMC’s compelling Arctic survival horror/drama The Terror that gives in to temptation and drags the burgeoning anthology series’ grinding subtext about the costs of ravenous British imperialism into full-throated text with amplified bravado. Fair warning, though, that to discuss this moment (and indeed the entirety of the series, which the strong-stomached viewer is sure to devour regardless) involves venturing into spoilers.

Engineering a fateful confrontation with the avenging polar-bear-esque monster that has been hunting down and consuming the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Arctic for months, sociopathic mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) takes leave of the shackles of respectable Victorian reason, order, and hierarchy. He addresses the spirits of the windy wastes, renouncing the anchoring mainstays of the Empire that spanned a third of the world but whose best technology and ingenuity proved no match for the inhospitable cold and difficulty of the North. “Our empire is not the only empire,” Hickey monologues as the beast known as tuunbaq lumbers towards his band of terrified expedition survivors. But his attempt to appropriate the role of indigenous shaman to the creature fails in a spectacularly gory fashion, even as tuunbaq succumbs to its sustained unhealthy diet of diseased British sailors. This predatory emissary of the hostile native environment that the imperial subalterns seek to conquer consumes them, but that consumption likewise poisons and destroys that emissary.

The visceral explosion of this climax is a sweeping thesis statement of a series of themes and ideas about imperialism, masculinity, and military hierarchy that had built their impact prior to that point in The Terror with slow (perhaps too slow, at first) incremental aggregation. The ten-episode narrative begins with the entry into the Arctic waterways of the polar exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). It takes its time establishing the various characters onboard the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, among them leadership figures such as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), as well as surgeon and naturalist Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) and men lower down the ranks like Hickey, with their own tensions and concerns interwoven with and separate from those of the officers. With the vicious Arctic winter coming on and the Erebus and the Terror stranded in constricting ice, Hickey urges Franklin to abandon his plan to weather the season on board the ships and begin travelling on foot towards settlements in order to survive. Their disagreements on this point are complicated by the appearance and attacks of tuunbaq, as well as by the presence of an Inuk woman they call Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who might exert some influence or at least possess some important connection to the monster that might safeguard the crew from its wrath.

Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of a decade ago, The Terror is built on the imaginative uncertainty underlying the horror of the Franklin expedition’s cataclysmic end (not a man who set out from the last port of call returned alive, but only fragmentary clues suggest the causes). Simmons’ addition of an element of supernatural horror served to dramatize and account for a disaster that history and the isolated hardness of the land, sea, and ice had left tantalizingly under-detailed, and combined with a flash-forward ending emphasizing climate change’s terrible effect on the polar regions gave this tale of Victorian heroic folly some contemporaneous relevance. History, science, and questionable notions of Canadian arctic sovereignty have since combined to alleviate more of the mystery around the Franklin expedition’s fate with the discovery in recent years of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror. But this still leaves major thematic and metaphorical implications to Simmons’ fictionalized narrative of the destruction of the expedition, whose television adaptation was supervised by Dan Kajganich and his team of writers (and executive produced by Ridley Scott as well as by Simmons himself).

The Terror doesn’t merely park the Franklin expedition’s demise on the premises of a (slightly goofy) gigantic all-devouring behemoth. The unforgiving elements, hostility to and misunderstanding of indigenous peoples who could have aided them, encroaching disease, lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned canned food, and despair among and in-fighting between the men contribute to the disaster, as do a litany of unwise command decisions, first from Franklin (played by Hinds as an ineffectual booster too rigid in his ways and too far out of his depth), but later from Fitzjames (Menzies excels at playing men of assumed dignity who find themselves sinking into disastrous and fatal self-doubt) and even from the series’ putative protagonist and most sympathetic figure, Harris’ layered, savvy, brave Crozier, who proves as susceptible to weakness in the face of the howling Arctic wastes as any other man.

But the grander point of The Terror is that this well-supplied and capable band of British adventurers could not have helped but met lonely, cold, gruesome ends in the frozen north of the world. It is the logical end of their grandiose imperial hubris. Franklin’s team seeks to penetrate the Arctic waterways in search of the fabled commercial throughway known as the Northwest Passage, but when Goodsir attempts to explain to Lady Silence the vital importance of finding this passage for British economic and prestige concerns, he not only comes across as incomprehensible to her but ridiculous to us. There are numerous examples early in the series of that breed of confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance imperial/patriarchal/hierarchical masculine order that enervates their quest and provides the men with a sense of unity of purpose that is often the only thing that binds them to one another and keeps them alive. But that same binding sense of order also contains the seeds of the expedition’s demise, growing brittle and unenforceable as numbers dwindle and authority can no longer compel obedience with brute punitive force.

Cornelius Hickey is the nexus of authority’s impotent impunity. An Irishman and a homosexual, Hickey is already doubly othered in relation to the British imperial centre and its identity markers. He is privately chastized by a straight-arrow bible-thumping lieutenant for his penchant for buggery: in one of the series’ funniest scenes, this Lieutenant Irving, played by Ronan Raftery, suggests alternative outlets for these sublimated sexual energies, including “climbing exercises”. Hickey conceives of his Irishness, meanwhile, as a potential bridge to favour from fellow Irishman Crozier, but it mostly gains him epithets from his crewmates (it is never gestured to, but it’s hard to ignore that as Franklin’s men were starving to death in the Arctic between 1845 and 1848, the British Empire stood by as a million or more Irish starved to death in their own food-exporting country).

Punished for insubordination (ironically, for acting on a plan without orders that the command group was on the cusp of ordering anyway) with painful and humiliating lashes, Hickey is not cowed but emboldened. Crozier orders his punishment in recognition of the necessities of chain of command and the need to protect authority to preserve order, but ordering the whipping of Hickey is the one decision that most directly leads to the expedition’s disastrous demise. Otherwise canny and open-minded when it comes to strategies of survival, Crozier falls back on the imperatives of pitiless imperial authority and masculinized command strength in this instance and it costs his men dearly. This is not to diminish Hickey’s mutinous choices, which are deplorable and increasingly monstrous and entirely of his own terrible volition. But the punishment prods him in a dangerous direction that leads to a frozen vision of hell.

This hell, of course, involves cannibalism (oddly ritualized, in a carnival-mirror inversion of imperial etiquette), a possibility initially denied by a Victorian public culture that painted Franklin and his men as fallen heroes but now basically accepted as the evidence-supported horror of desperate survival that had to have been the expedition’s only end-point. There are layers of meaning to consumption of nourishment in The Terror: the men become sick from eating the lead-poisoned preserves, tuunbaq becomes sick from eating the men. Seal meat in a man’s stomach unveils Hickey’s treachery. When Hickey’s faction begin eating each other, a moral or spiritual sickness reduces them, especially the anatomist Goodsir, who is compelled to become their designated butcher against his will.

“Tell me what you eat,” declaims Lt. Hodgson (Christos Lawton) in anticipation of the final meeting with the creature, “and I will tell you what you are.” What Franklin’s desperate men eat is what they constitute as agents of imperial expansion and dominion: poison, corruption, cannibalistic self-destruction. Tuunbaq, superficially a vengeful spirit representing diminished and exploited indigenous peoples that strikes satisfyingly back against British colonial hubris, eats these corrupted bodies and is poisoned by them too. Even when utterly annihilated in microcosm, imperialism leaves an indelible mark. If Victorian Britain saw jingoistic masculine endurance and heroism in the Franklin expedition in the immediate aftermath of its loss, The Terror reflects a worldview more jaded and wary of imperial chest-beating and the long, cruel tail of its consequence.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Television Review: Sense8

Sense8 (Netflix; 2015-2018)

Art creates a world. This world can be a reflection of our own, seen through a rose-coloured filter, through jaded and jaundiced eyes, or through a funhouse mirror. It can be an imaginative projection, into the future or the past or even sideways across the present. It can be a nightmare or a dream, a representation of humanity’s worst impulses or a hopeful constitution of its best. The creation of that world might tells its audience many things about themselves, but at the soul of the matter it tells us most about its creators, and what kind of world they see as ideal and preferable.

In Sense8, the Wachowskis (with an able creative assist from Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski) realize an act of vivid, emotive world-creation that they have fitfully whittled away at since at least their breakthrough as culturally significant filmmakers with The Matrix in 1999. It’s a world of interconnection, a sinuously-threaded global village of criss-crossing interdependent identities striving for unity against persistent and well-resourced forces of controlling disunion. It’s also, vitally, a world of imperious self-creation and epiphanous self-realization, where the best and truest way to survive and strive for collective improvement is not to sacrifice what others need at the altar of what you want. It’s a pulpy but weirdly moving ode to the inherent value of empathy in the face of a ceaseless torrent of selfishness. Cut short just as it seemed to be ramping up and expanding its scope, Sense8 nonetheless feels like as complete a statement of values and purpose as the Wachowskis have ever managed to produce, just surpassing the uneven and sometimes self-contradicting Matrix Trilogy and the sprawling, flawed, beautiful Cloud Atlas. The latter is an obvious pre-requisite for the series in thematic terms and in cross-edited, globe-spanning construction, and the author of the (far more brilliant) novel on which that film was based, David Mitchell, co-wrote the Sense8 finale episode, cinching the close connection of the material.

Over two seasons on Netflix and a recently-released 2.5-hour finale film wrapping up as many of its storylines and arcs as proved possible, Sense8 presented a compelling (if often silly and generically conventional) metaphorical narrativization of the essential forces of conflict and rapprochement in our globalized post-capitalist mega-society. Laying out its complex pseudo-scientific premise gradually over its rising action, the show introduces the concept of “sensates”, a separate, mostly-hidden species of human beings who are able to connect with each other in a psychic/empathic/telepathic manner that is made visually and emotionally clear while also being left a little functionally ambiguous. These sensates, known scientifically as homo sensorium, are “birthed” by previously established sensates in clusters of eight which are physically born (to ordinary homo sapiens parents, by all evidence) at precisely the same moment. Thereafter, at some point in their lives, they begin experiencing the lives and the inner thoughts and the feelings of their other seven clustermates, and are able to communicate with these faraway strangers and even temporarily take possession of their bodies, should the need or desire arise (which it often does, for dramatic, sensual, and action-related reasons).

Sense8‘s globally-strewn main cluster begins to explore and cope with their new collective reality while contending with their own personal relationships and problems:

  • Bay Area trans hacktivist and blogger Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and her spunky girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) evade shadowy official forces that seek to imprison and disfigure Nomi, and deal with her disapproving parents who can’t accept her transition to a new identity.
  • Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to reconcile his police responsibilities and outlook with his sensate revelations and related growing distrust of institutional authority, with the sometimes-ambiguous aid of wanted terrorist Jonas Maliki (Naveen Andrews).
  • Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a successful movie star in Mexico, who hides his passionate same-sex relationship with university art professor Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) in order to preserve his hyper-masculine action star career.
  • London-based Icelandic DJ Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton) contends with dangerous characters in her present and unthinkable tragedy in her past.
  • Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) navigates the fraught and deadly criminal underworld of Berlin while carrying the psychological weight of a traumatic upbringing by his thuggish father.
  • Capheus Onyango (Aml Ameen in Season 1, Toby Onwumere in Season 2) drives a matatu (a sort of pay-as-you-ride shared bus) in Nairobi, Kenya and cares for his HIV/AIDS-infected mother (Chichi Seii), and becomes an unlikely folk hero when he stands up to the city’s endemic criminal gangs.
  • Mumbai pharmacologist Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is engaged to her boss’ son Rajan (Purab Kohli), but is entertaining doubts concerning her feelings for him that intensify when she catches sensate glimpses of sexy Teutonic bad-boy Wolfgang.
  • Sun Bak (Doona Bae), daughter and heir to a South Korean corporate titan as well as a badass kickboxing virtuoso, who must decide if she should take the legal fall for her father and brother in an embezzlement scandal.

Connecting with each other and teasing out the meaning of their condition, this sensate cluster discovers the history of their species, the fates of their fellow homo sensorium, and the evil, destructive intentions of a shadowy NGO known as the Biological Preservation Organization (a.k.a. BPO) and its sinister sensate hunter known only as Whispers (Terrence Mann). Indeed, as it proceeds and develops and expands, Sense8 becomes an increasingly bifurcated text, split between the action-thriller conflict between the cluster and Whispers’ BPO (heavy on fight scenes and shootouts spearheaded by Will, Sun, and Wolfgang and capers directed by the prodigious hacker and techie Nomi) and the various melodramatic personal subplots of the individual sensates (Kala’s plot in particular is quite nearly a homage to the romantic corniness of Bollywood). The Wachowkis (who often direct episodes themselves, with previous collaborators like Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer and V For Vendetta director James McTeigue taking the helm as well) are always keen to break up the drama and the tension and the action sequences with enervated intermittent collective celebrations in the vein of the infamous dance-party/sex/orgy sequence in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded.

Indeed, it is with such joyful, often erotic quick-cut montages (including one ending the finale, after the BPO thriller plot is closed off perfunctorily) that the Wachowskis make their deeper point about collective unity and action in Sense8. There is no lack of social and political commentary in the series, much of it fairly heavy-handed and self-consciously relevant to contemporary events. But the general through-line of the series emphasizes empathy as the cornerstone of positive progressivism; its characters quite literally see the world through the eyes of others from very different circumstances and grow to be better and more open people as a result. The pitiless Whispers is a picture of unfeeling institutional oppression and violence, while the cluster is a collaborative collective, a mutually respectful and caring group effort to defeat dead-end fascist discrimination and neutralization efforts and to ultimately craft a better world.

It is this collectivized vision of a better world that saves Sense8 from its own persistent pulp goofiness and numerous flaws (whimsical comic sidekicks abound, the recurrent – though masterful – violent action scenes clash with the hopeful tone of togetherness, and the series’ cancellation and rushed conclusion led to the jettisoning of certain of the more frivolous, but still absorbing, subplots). The Wachowskis, of course, began their filmmaking careers as brothers, but have emerged from Sense8 as sisters. Their gender transition (which kept Lilly away from the production in its second season, leaving the earlier-transitioned Lana to take the lead in writing and directing) is directly referenced in Nomi’s arc and less directly reflected in Lito’s struggles with the closet, certainly. But their difficult shift in identity is mirrored in the entire sensate experience, a shift that ends not in self-doubt or loathing but in festive unified love.

Sense8 employs a number of cultural touchstones to demonstrate its vision of collective power, from pop song singalongs and thumping party montages to references to films both classic (From Here to Eternity is a key film for Lito’s homosexual identity) and cheesily B-level (Conan the Barbarian and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies are keystones of Wolfgang’s and Capheus’s closest friendships, respectively). But the series provides defining thesis statements in front pair of more highbrow art history talismans. Lito galvanizes his deep intellectual and emotional connection to Hernando (with a hand-on-the-shoulder assist from Nomi) in Mexico City’s Diego Rivera Museum, with the artist’s paintings of idealized but socially realistic scenes of collective socialist action as a backdrop. Then, Will meets a potential ally from inside BPO in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch. They speak of the progressive evolution of ideas, of ways of seeing and of understanding. But the BPO exec also recognizes in Rembrandt’s painting a heroic act of world-creation, a reified envisioning of collective action for the common good. Sense8 may not be The Night Watch of its time, nor the Wachowskis the Rembrandt of theirs, but it is likewise a heroic creation in its own beautifully flawed way, concerned with the power of a unity of individuals integrating their own quests for identity with a larger collective quest for an improved reality.

Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

Documentary Quickshots #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Television Review – The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

April 26, 2018 Leave a comment

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX; 2018)

The second season of television super-producer Ryan Murphy’s social-politics-minded true crime anthology series is neither as spectacularly star-studded or thematically wide-ranging as the first season, the Emmy-winning The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But The Assassination of Gianni Versace, written entirely by Tom Rob Smith (Maggie Cohn has a co-writer credit on the penultimate episode) with a premiere episode directed by Murphy, is a more focused and reflectively dichotomous work. Becoming ever-more intensely about the fascinatingly troubled young man who killed the famed Italian fashion designer in Miami in 1997 (and at least four other men as well), this American Crime Story is an absorbing, shocking, and nuanced meditation on the social and psychological costs of closeted homosexuality and the nature of capitalist success, on the image we wear like a mask and project to the world and the true, less presentable self that we can never really disguise.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace opens with its titular murder and tracks back to explore the path that led killer Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss, in the season’s star-turn standout performance) to take the life of Versace (Édgar Ramírez), It also considers key moments in that life (often employed as sharply mirroring contrasts to Cunanan’s degenerating life and choices), as well as the grief-stricken tug-of-war over his memory and legacy after his death between his sister and design partner Donatella (Penélope Cruz) and his lover and life partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin; yes, that Ricky Martin, and he’s good, too). For a viewer unfamiliar with the details of Versace’s life and of the background of his killer, the narrative is full of surprises and revelations, illustrating details and remarkable visual metaphors. It will also work quite hard in its lesser moments to make you care about and believe in fashion design as a vibrant and meaningful art form. Unless you’re already of such a mind, you will leave unconvinced.

But after an establishing episode or two (the manhunt for Versace’s killer is teased in the opening episode and then deferred until the closing hour), the show really becomes The Disturbing Adventures of Andrew Cunanan. The central serial killer is a charming and fairly open homosexual, a sociopathic, self-aggrandizing pathological liar, and given more defined psychological contours as his narrative arc fills in innovatively backwards. He is forever making ambitious plans that he does not work hard enough to achieve, lavishly spending money he has not earned, seeking to impress others with fancifully exaggerated tales about his connections to wealth and fame, and bouncing between secretly-gay wealthy sugar daddies and potential younger paramours. A cossetted golden child of his Fillipino father (Jon Jon Briones), who flees the United States ahead of federal charges of embezzlement and leaves his abused wife (Joanna P. Adler) and the spoiled Andrew to fend for themselves, Andrew runs in gay community circles in his native San Diego and San Francisco, eventually drifts towards drug abuse and prostitution, and is exposed and rejected by several friends and lovers in quick succession, triggering the murder spree that ends with Versace.

Cunanan’s fractured, manipulative, sociopathic psyche is repeatedly contrasted with the varied group of gay men whom he meets, befriends, and, in many cases, kills, through whom The Assassination of Gianni Versace provides a notably multifaceted view of the experience of being gay in America in the still-unaccepting 1990s. Versace himself came out publically in an interview with The Advocate in 1995, despite the concerns of his sister; after his death, the deep grief of his partner D’Amico (Martin himself came out a few years ago, at age 39) is exacerbated by being denied any acknowledgement of their relationship or compensation for the loss by the Versace family and business, a common experience for same-sex partners without legal union rights.

Cunanan’s other lovers, acquaintances, and victims reflect other facets of the homosexual experience: Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell) is a Chicago real estate developer with a public marriage to infomercial perfume hawker Marilyn Miglin (a formidable Judith Light) and private secrets; Norman Blachford (Michael Nouri) is another wealthy older man who takes on Cunanan as a live-in lover/style consultant/assistant, but sees more readily through his web of lies; David Madson (Cody Fern) is a small-town Midwesterner who comes out to his traditionally conservative father in a scene that doesn’t entirely follow any predictable script; and the perspective of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), a closeted Navy officer, provides a sharply political commentary on homophobia in the U.S. military and the contemporaneous bureaucratic injustice of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (which was only actually suspended in 2011).

But Andrew Cunanan himself, as characterized in Criss’s tremendous performance, is the key carrier of The Assassination of Gianni Versace‘s thematic meanings concerning the fraught performativity of identity in American capitalism. Andrew is not closeted like most of those other gay men, but he is nonetheless hiding his true self and projecting a falsified, grandiose image for the world. His father taught him to perform success at all times, even if it actually eludes him. Once he begins killing, Cunanan of course hides his murderous, monstrous nature from the world to remain at large. But he is always wearing a mask even before that, playing the role of a charming, worldly, confidently interesting young man with illustrious connections and swaths of wealth and privilege when the real Andrew Cunanan, at his core, is financially precarious, increasingly desperate, and inherently insecure, forever seeking love from others but cripplingly incapable of feeling it in return. Like all confidence men, there is a confidence-shaped hole at his centre.

Ever in contrast to the daring, visionary designer Gianni Versace, who poured his sensibility into his clothing, Andrew Cunanan dons outfits with handsome swagger but never can inhabit them, never seems at home in his own skin. The Assassination of Gianni Versace‘s brilliant leap is to delve more deeply and even encourage a perverse identification with the serial killer Cunanan rather than its titular figure, and to suggest that his obsession with surface appearance and his related disconnect from the truths of his own existence constitutes a typically American quagmire of identity formation, reflecting the dilemmas of our own time as well as of those of 20 years ago.

Categories: Reviews, Television