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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.

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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

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Quickshots #37

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Young Pope (HBO; 2017)

From Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, the crafter of the rapturously gorgeous The Great Beauty, The Young Pope is a visually beautiful series headlined by a career-pinnacle performance from its star Jude Law, who plays an under-50 American pontiff with arrogantly old-fashioned autocratic and revanchist ideas concerning the Vatican’s management of the contemporary Catholic Church. Still, it’s narratively and thematically uneven and inconsistent, even as it productively challenges Catholicism’s current trajectory.

Blowing into the august halls of the Vatican like a scalding wind, this new Pope – Lenny Belardo is his birth name, and he assumes the papal name of Pius XIII – presents as a youthful iconoclast. If he never quite reaches the rebellious absurdities of the internet’s roiling, riotous Young Pope memes, in-text Pius comes much closer than one might have believed when, in the early stages of the limited series, he lights up a cigarette in the Papal Palace in contravention of John Paul II’s prior non-smoking edicts, saying, “There’s a new pope now.” The opening titles distill this essence into even more ludicrous form; you almost don’t have to watch the show if you watch them.

His refusal to appear in public, autocratic pronouncements, and desire to root out all homosexuality in the Church clergy frustrates and confounds the Cardinals, particularly his one-time mentor Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) and the Cardinal Secretary of State, the sly, subtle, self-promoting Napoli football fan Angelo Voiello (a superb Silvio Orlando). Even close allies – such as Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him in an orphanage after he was abandoned by his hippie parents, the core psychological trauma that Sorrentino returns to time and again to explain Lenny’s perspective – doubt his direction, and he himself even doubts his belief in God.

Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoot their re-created Vatican City with sun-drenched magnificence and rich baroque lustre, incorporating earthy continental sexuality and magic-realist touches (such as the kangaroo that Pius receives as a gift and lets loose in the gardens, a symbol of some element of his psyche or faith or doubt that is difficult to firmly pin down). The dominant issues facing the modern Catholic Church – homosexual clergy, the celibacy oath, priest child abuse, secular unbelief, charismatic salt-of-the-earth miracle-workers, worldly capitalism and politics, the increasing importance of the developing world among its global flock – are addressed and sometimes even prodded out of complacent positions. Belardo and Spencer even hold a straight one-on-one debate on the Church’s position on abortion in the Sistine Chapel, which while a touch direct, does at least lay out the germane internal thinking on the issue among the theological elite.

Whatever points (be they so pedantic or more elegant and subtle) Sorrentino is seeking to make about Catholicism of the moment, they dissolve into Jude Law’s commanding central performance. Belardo’s psychology and beliefs are not always crystal-clear, and personal losses through the series shift the brazen dictatorial caprice of his initial days towards a more publically-acceptable light-poetic inspirational persona. But Law keeps us always focused on the man he is at his core: a seeking orphan, a figure of solitude, and perhaps a leader touched by special divine favour. Even a Pope, perhaps especially a Pope, can be a lonely man.

Altered Carbon (Netflix; 2018)

A handsomely-budgeted serialized adaptation of the first of Richard K. Morgan’s science-fiction novel series, Altered Carbon presents like Blade Runner with the fuzzier margins of design and world-building busily filled in. It has very different ideas in mind, however.

Altered Carbon is set in the late 24th Century, and finds humanity dwelling in a fascinating new multiple-lifetime reality: for centuries, individual human consciousness has been contained in talisman-like data packets known as stacks, allowing a single person’s mind and memories to outlive the lifespan of their physical body (the relative disposability of which has led them to become known as sleeves). This has almost countless implications on human relationships, philosophy and religious belief, laws and politics, government and socioeconomic differences, many of which Altered Carbon draws out in good time.

Following a former supersoldier turned defacto detective named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who is “spun back up” from decades of disembodied imprisonment in order to solve the murder of a super-rich man (James Purefoy), Altered Carbon is far more interesting and thought-provoking in its early world-establishing episodes, before its genre-fiction plotting and graphic violence grasp the controls. Exploring the myriad implications of stacks and sleeves proves a richer experience than the adolescent melodrama of the narrative, and if Netflix continues to adapt Morgan’s books, such world expansion can be expected to be its primary allure.

Categories: Reviews, Television

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

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Politics, Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #36

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 2014-2017)

A frothy, semi-desperate attempt to replicate the critical and cultural success of AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men when its first season aired in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire lost its network predecessor’s relatively robust audience in its early, imitative days but responded in its final three seasons by becoming one of American television’s finest, truest, and most emotionally well-tuned dramas of the social connectivity consequences of our modern technological reality.

Opening in the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas’ Silicon Prairie and running through the mid-1990s internet explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area, Halt and Catch Fire follows five primary core characters as they navigate the computer boom, forever chasing the next big frontier of development while struggling through office politics, life struggles, and relationships romantic and platonic. Husband-and-wife engineers and on-again/off-again tech entrepreneurs Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) open the series toiling as lower-mid-level cogs in corporate machines. Donna balances subordinate tasks at Texas Instruments with motherhood (their two daughters, Joanie and Haley, are background children for the first two-plus seasons but move closer to the core of the cast as teenagers in the closing act), while Gordon nurses the disappointment of his fallen ambitions (he and Donna designed a computer together that failed to win investment or distribution) at a company called Cardiff Electric under Texan good-old-boy senior VP John Bosworth (Toby Huss).

The Clarks’ fortunes change (though not immediately or even entirely for the better) when Bosworth hires a hot-shot former IBM sales exec named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). A hyper-driven, semi-sociopathic maverick with a closet full of secrets from his past, Joe is (at first, anyway) a microchip-age Don Draper who manipulates Cardiff’s product development direction with passion, vision, and frequent dishonesty and bullying, elevating Gordon to the lead on a team aiming to produce a portable IBM clone personal computer. He brings in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant programmer with a prickly personality and punk-rock anti-establishment attitude, to program the operating system as well, though that is partly because they’re sleeping together.

As mentioned, the initial period-specific, workplace-focused, anti-hero-driven focus of Halt and Catch Fire faded after its first season, as Joe’s self-destructive, edge-seeking behaviour and principles alienated prior collaborators and burned previous professional bridges. Pace is superb at registering how Joe’s brush-torching actions, and the connections he builds with Cameron, Bos, and the Clarks despite them, exact a real and permanent toll. While it’s reductive to pigeonhole Jon Hamm’s excellent work in Mad Men this way, his Don Draper was allowed to reset the board time and again, suggesting that none of the pain he caused or felt stayed with him or changed him fundamentally in any way, even in the end (this was also a result of the general character philosophy of Matthew Weiner and his writers on the show: people do not change). Pace’s Joe becomes more fragile, more fallible, more human, just as his fellow cast members do, despite the stock-figure nature their characters begin with. This is especially true of Davis and Huss, who craft one of the most endearing relationships in recent television. Bishé was doing surprisingly nuanced work from the get-go and soon enough takes over a great swath of the show from the inside, and although McNairy’s Gordon goes through long arcs of being a pathetic twit, even he rallies near the conclusion.

Ultimately, Halt and Catch Fire became, prior to its perfectly-pitched and subtly moving finale which aired last year, a more endearing and humane take on the themes of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. It leaps off from the core irony of that film – that technology brings us closer together while holding us inherently apart – but takes its time drawing out those themes while treating them with none of the smugly superior boomer-generation disdain that creeps into Sorkin’s script. Halt and Catch Fire is about the relentless, unforgiving bleeding-edge forward momentum of American capitalism and its human costs, yes. But it is also about connecting with others (and breaking with them) via technology and in person, and how similar and different, how satisfying and insufficient, each of those scenarios can be.

 

The Night Of (HBO; 2016)

Based on the 2008-2009 BBC crime drama Criminal Justice, HBO’s The Night Of follows a single defendant through the American criminal justice system, from arrest and police investigation to incarceration and trial. The defendant is Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed, who won an Emmy for his performance), a college student and son of a Pakistani-American cab driver whose abortive attempt to attend a Manhattan party lands him instead in a desultory drugs-and-sex evening with a free-spirited young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia). When Naz awakes to find her dead but with no recollection of what happened, the wheels of justice begin to turn, providing Naz (and the audience) with a detailed (if hyper-dramatized) view of the inner workings of the interlinked system including the police, the courts, and the prison.

Written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh, The Night Of is superbly crafted and incorporates examinations and critiques of not only the criminal justice machine but also peeks into other American pathologies, from media fervour to economic discrimination to anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of these perspectives come via Naz’s on-and-off again lawyer John Stone (a wonderful John Turturro), an exzcema-afflicted low-rate huckster barrister who customarily makes a living on plea deals for hopeless offenders. He’s well over his head in a high-profile, complex, politically touchy, and increasingly ambiguous murder trial, as is big-firm junior associate Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), who takes the lead in court after her boss unexpectedly drops out of a publicity-minded handling of the case.

Through Stone as well as through soon-to-be-retiring investigating detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who leaps on the surplus of evidence pointing in Khan’s direction at first but begins to entertain doubts as to his guilt, The Night Of delves more deeply and more ambiguously into American justice than is usual on television, with the forensics-and-profiling-heavy moral certainties of its big-ratings police procedurals. It even outflanks the increasingly common, superficially grey-zoned, moody neo-noir troubled-detective genre springing up on channels and streaming services around the globe (largely influenced by detective noirs of Scandinavian television).

Ahmed is a huge part of the show’s success; Naz is physically transformed by his ordeal, gaining muscled bulk, tattoos, and a shaven head while in prison, but Ahmed holds himself differently, walks and speaks with subtle gradations of hardness, as experiences work themselves upon him. Even so, when put on the stand in the trial (usually a huge defense no-no that Stone hasn’t the power to talk Kapoor out of), Ahmed summons the essentially decent and frightened young man trapped in a whirlpool that threatens to drag him down. Like The Wire (which it resembles in a more limited way and, like many HBO productions, shares a few cast members with), but perhaps more so, The Night Of couches its depiction of systemic machinations in bare human drama, grounds its sociological observations in expressions of empathy.

Categories: Reviews, Television