Film Review: Tower

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

On a hot, sunny morning in August 1966 in Austin, Texas, a young man climbed to the outdoor observation deck of the iconic tower of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas and began shooting at random people below with a sniper rifle. Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent former Marine sharpshooter with violent tendencies and a brain tumour that may have exacerbated such issues, killed 14 people (not including his mother and his wife, whom he had murdered the night before) and wounded 31 more before he was shot dead by police.

Were it to happen tomorrow, Whitman’s killing spree would shock but not surprise America and the world, occupy a news cycle or two and inflame long-simmering political and social debates (gun control, militarism, treatment of mental health, any number of potential identity-politics flashpoints). The trauma might overwhelm those closest to its epicentre, gutting the lives of victims and their loved ones and shaking the communities where they occur. But then, all too quickly, it would slide into the annals of the collective memory, its dead decorously mourned, its heroes propagandistically lionized, its applicable lessons summarily suffocated under memorializing stone. American public discourse has thoroughly ritualized mass shootings, conditioned reaction and response to them, and rendered them as a common feature of the social landscape. Mass shootings have become as American as Chevrolets, Coca-Cola, the crack of a baseball bat on a summer afternoon, and highways stretching to the horizon. They might not evoke a sense of pride (even the self-styled “patriots” of the pro-gun right have not such atrophied souls as that), but they have certainly achieved a perverse but stable level of tolerance and acceptance, with the social errors they point back to removed from cleansing reform at a protective distance.

But in August 1966, a troubled loner slaughtering his fellow citizens still held a seismic charge of disorienting unfamiliarity. Keith Maitland’s truly remarkable re-created document of the terrible events of a half-century before, Tower, brilliantly and artistically captures the hyper-real unreality of bearing witness in the eye of a shooting-spree storm by depicting that perspective in a form of hyper-real unreality: rotoscopic animation. Animating over filmed actors playing principal victims and players in the saga on the re-created stage of the mid-’60s University of Texas campus, Maitland’s striking method of telling the story of the shootings was partially driven by necessity. His indie documentary was made on a small budget raised through online crowdfunding and matching grants from UT alumni, and he would not be able to film extended re-enactment scenes on the campus itself, which could be reconstituted instead through animation. But necessity can still be the mother of invention, and Tower is nothing if not inventive.

Maitland mixes the re-enactments with re-enacted testimonial interviews, all animated in a warm, colourful, but unsettlingly jumpy visual style, vaguely reminiscent of fellow Austin filmmaking impresario Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, albeit less surreal in its intentional effect. Indeed, the animation greatly heightens the powerful affect of Maitland’s film, emphasizing the sturdy, understated Texan lyricism of the interview accounts, which convey the flow of events, emotions, and impressions in a unified tapestry of mood and tone and feeling. Aesthetically, tonally, and symbolically, Tower renders the tragic dimensions of the event – its uncertain, sweaty panic, the horror of its silences, the strange guilt it engenders in even the most selfless of participants – as a work of art. Maitland even allows himself flights of artistic fancy, as when a movingly-timed flashback account of the dayglow romance of wounded pregnant student Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman (both Tom and Claire’s unborn child were killed by the tower-top sniper, losses of a weight that is almost unfathomable) is portrayed amidst delicate Art Nouveau lattice frames.

As Tower approaches its conclusion, Maitland transitions from his animated “period” actors playing witnesses and participants to current and archived interview footage of the real people themselves. It’s a surprisingly moving choice, this belated alignment of Tower with more established documentary conventions. It reflects the director’s decision to make his film predominantly about those in the crosshairs of the sniper rather than about the sniper himself. Indeed, Whitman is only named in the denouement in an archival news report, and his troubles and motivations are not explored in any detail (much of the info given above is from other sources). Those wishing to learn more about the shooter may be disappointed, but Tower is a film about survival and endurance and spirit in the face of indiscriminate violence, and it denies its perpetrator the primary product of that violence: power over others.

Maitland overtly connects the 1966 UT shootings with subsequent massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and more, in what might be construed as an overreaching late thesis-statement lunge at topicality and relevance for a film immersed in the minutiae of a vanished era. But in its striking visual style, poised balance between animation and documentary footage, and ultimate embrace of human struggle in the midst of senseless terror (for what are mass shooters but terrorists, their empathy lost in a demented swirl of foggy causes and exploded grievances?), Tower is a measured, memorable antidote to the common results of mass shootings. To state it plainly, where contemporaneous media makes the killers into mythic figures, this film gives his victims and those who stood to defy and defeat him the mythic treatment. It comes by its topical relevance honestly, with hard, smart, well-felt effort and skill. It’s riveting and reflective, realist and poetic. Tower is a great film, not only a great documentary.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016; Directed by David Mackenzie)

West Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob banks. Not for the thrill (well, that’s part of the appeal for the wilder ex-con Tanner) and not without a very specific, well-planned, indeed ingenious strategy. They hit only small-town branches of a single regional bank chain, only early in the morning to avoid midday crowds of customers (which in West Texas are more likely than not to be concealed-carrying firearms that they are not shy of using against criminals), and take only ready cash from the teller drawers, not the ink-marked traceable bills in the safes. They carefully bury their getaway car in prepared pits on the remote family ranch after each robbery. They launder the money through a Native American-owned casino in Oklahoma, departing its premises with a check made out to the same bank they’ve just stolen from. They are after a specific amount of money, it seems, and with a specific purpose.

Tanner’s penchant for reckless criminal behaviour creates risky deviations from the plan, as unforeseen circumstances do likewise. But the Howard boys’ spree manifests as a targetted frontier-justice scheme to secure their family’s land and future against the grasping, unfeeling greed of the financial system that Hell or High Water understands to be reducing wide swaths of American society to poverty-stricken rubble. The Texas Rangers pursuing the Howards, the canny, soon-to-retire Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, fully immersed in the crusty, wry style of his later career) and his biracial partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), discuss this system of legal, controlled plunder while staking out a rural bank branch that they predict will be their quarry’s next target. The Latino/Indian Parker openly and cynically compares contemporary capitalism’s consolidation of independent citizens’ financial means and property ownership to the imperialistic westward sweep of manifest destiny that stripped land and the political rights derived from its holding from Mexican and Native peoples alike.

Though the Rangers aren’t yet aware of it, the brothers they are chasing are carrying on a valiant outlaw resistance to this unjust system that law enforcement is sworn to uphold. Hell or High Water casts Toby and Tanner as Red State Robin Hoods with the vast near-empty plains of West Texas as their Sherwood Forest, their principled stand inherently futile whether or not it is a success. If their motives are more self-interested and focused than the mythic greenwood hero, then the bruised romanticism of their quest for socioeconomic levelling is ambiguously stained at the edges with dried blood. The brash, violent Tanner (pure, barely-checked Ben Foster id personified), ruled by his desires and his impulses like the classic American archetype, calls himself “Lord of the Plains” in a flash of fatalistic hubris during his suicidal closing armed standoff with police, but it’s a term he appropriates from the Comanche, much as his white Americans forefathers appropriated the tribe’s land. A Comanche he plays poker against at the Oklahoma casino retorts that where once they were Lords of the Plains, now they are Lords of Nothing. The Howards rage against the dying of that particular light. They choose a righteous heist caper over a hillbilly elegy, a brilliant smash-and-grab against the money men rather than a parched final ride into the sunset.

Directed by David Mackenzie, a Scot, and written by former actor Taylor Sheridan (the script earned him his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in three years), Hell or High Water combines the latter’s insider’s ear for language, context and setting with the former’s more unfamiliar position, which allows for an outsider’s more trenchant critical eye. As often as Mackenzie allows his camera to aestheticize the stripped-down dusty towns and ruggedly vast vistas of West Texas, he also directs his moving-vehicle panoramas (those visual mainstays of the rural U.S. film) at billboards for debt consolidation and payday loans. The tentacles of cash-ravenous capitalism stretch into the remotest outposts in the landscape.

The very first shot of Hell or High Water further emphasizes this socio-political angle of American finance intertwined with imperialism: it pans past scrawled graffiti on a bank building’s blank white outer wall that reads, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailouts for people like us”. Toby and Tanner obtain just such a bailout for their family by force, but it merely exploits and piggybacks on the existing system rather than dealing it any sort of damaging blow. They con the thieves in three-piece suits, but in the end, the thieves benefit from the con as well. Totter though it might, capitalism’s flexible ability to incorporate and even incentivize resistance to it while enfolding the profits from that resistance beneath its larger aegis is testament to its stubborn and not wholly positive endurance. Hell or High Water‘s scenario does well to recognize this alongside its more direct critiques of the system.

Hell or High Water was released mere months before Donald Trump cynically, exploitatively mustered just enough of this well-nursed sense of white rural and suburban resentment of neoliberal globalist capital and perceived cultural elitism to put himself in the White House, whereupon he proceeded to sycophantically serve the monied interests he pledged to undermine (without forgetting, as he never does, to serve himself first) at the expense of the voters whose wishes he promised to fulfill. Throughout the presidential campaign as well as after in its disheartening aftermath, the debate has raged concerning this Trumpian appeal, about where exactly its core of economic anxiety ended and its xenophobic bigotry began. Hell or High Water gives voice to the former concern rather than the latter, although Hamilton’s politically-incorrect ribbing of Parker’s “mongrel race” suggests underlying prejudice, despite being played predominantly for laughs (and Hamilton’s jibes dry up in the face of Parker’s aforementioned withering assessment of imperialistic capitalism). The film is a realist fantasy of adapted cowboy-movie anti-finance rebellion whose thematic diagnoses of the contemporary American disease are more compelling than its brazen but limited caper-flick cure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Get Out

Get Out (2017; Directed by Jordan Peele)

A surprise box office smash and undeniable film-of-the-moment, Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. Written and directed by debutant auteur Jordan Peele (one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele), it’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. Get Out works on its audience as a tense and troubling (though not often really frightening, in pure jump-scare horror terms) isolated imagined scenario but also subtly, incrementally imparts how tense and troubling (and often frightening) the experience of living as an African-American can be, in any scenario.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a few months, and with their relationship having reached the meeting-the-parents phase, she invites him to the family’s isolated country home for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents aren’t aware that he’s black, and, being white like their daughter, might not approve of him. Chris’ unease with the situation is fed by a phone chat with his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spins fanciful yarns about all the potential dangers lying in wait for a black man in a white person’s milieu (perhaps not so fanciful, given the chilling film-opening vignette of a black man being ambushed and kidnapped while strolling lost through an affluent suburb). That unease increases when a vehicular collision with a deer activates Chris’ childhood traumas, and builds to an eerie crescendo through their visit.

Despite an initially warm welcome to Casa Armitage, discomfort gradually consumes the observant Chris (he’s a photographer by profession, a highly conscious and symbolically-reflective choice by Peele). Awkward racial assumptions and behaviours both small and inadvertent as well as more major begin to add up. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) persistently calls Chris “My man”, points out his family connection to Jesse Owens’ showing-up of Hitler’s master-race posturing at the 1936 Olympics, and tells him he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could have (as Rose predicted he would with a precision that wrings out a laugh but may suggest something more). Rose’s vaguely-threatening med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more inappropriate, bragging of his jujitsu training and telling Chris that with his “genetic makeup” he could be a formidable MMA fighter. Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) doesn’t touch on anything racially-charged, but she does offer to hypnotize Chris in order to cure him of his smoking habit, and then does so on the night of his arrival, without his consent.

Outside of the Armitages themselves, Chris is also weirded out by their African-American servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who speak and behave in a very odd, old-fashioned (and, to Chris’ mind, non-black) manner. His paranoia waxing, a series of encounters at a garden party attended almost entirely by older, wealthy white people (friends of the dearly departed Grandpa Armitage, it’s claimed), who are inordinately interested in the colour of his skin and his physical attributes, finally drives Chris to insist on leaving. But it may be too late for him to extricate himself from a situation that will become far more sinister than a mere series of embarrassing social expressions of half-unconscious racial prejudice.

It’s impossible to properly discuss Peele’s ingenious embedding of the persisting fundamentals of African-American exploitation by the white supremacist order in his core horror concept without completely spoiling it. Consider yourself forewarned. But Get Out is so unsettling and challenging as it moves towards its expected twist because it deploys that twist’s active, leading clues alongside the hints of racism that Chris keenly feels throughout the awkward weekend retreat. Peele’s writing and direction and Kaluuya’s performance are all so keenly attuned to even the most minor of slights that this heightened attention disguised the film’s sleights (of hand). As Peele makes his audience, black but especially white, increasingly uncomfortable with a million pinpricks of racial prejudice, he also wratchets up the tension derived from the growing awareness that Chris may be in real danger of a worse fate than social mortification.

That fate, revealed following Peele’s exquisite depiction of the strained interpersonal interactions of those on both sides of the American racial divide, is a powerful punch of a metaphor for the enduring agony of African-Americans’ exploitation and marginalization by the nation’s generational white elites. As is revealed to a bound Chris by a television screen in an eeriely symmetrical wood-panelled basement den, the Armitages have maintained a secret family medical “process” for years known as Coagula, which allows privileged but aging whites to cheat death by transplanting their brains and therefore their consciousnesses into the captive host bodies of young black men (and occasionally women) chosen specifically for their physical prowess and robust health. The whole Armitage clan collaborates in these abductions: Rose acts as the attractive honeypot to lure them in, Missy hypnotizes them in order to control them with Jeremy ready to provide stiffer physical compulsion if required, and Dean swaps the white brain into the black body. The strange dinner party? A twisted form of auction, the attendees’ bizarre, racist assessments of Chris revealed to be simple, blunt probings of his potential as host-body merchandise.

Behind Get Out‘s body-horror-lite conceit lies a very clear message from Peele about African-Americans’ tragic history of corporeal oppression. Brought against their will to the Western Hemisphere to work for nothing to make white men piles of money, their bodies reduced to commodities no different than (and sometimes less valued than) livestock, furniture, or any other property, Africans in America were always defined above all in physical terms by their white masters, terrorizers, bosses, and superiors in privilege and wealth. Exploitation of the black body (once achieved in cotton fields, now carried on in high-gloss sporting arenas and low-wage jobs alike) has subsisted alongside its destruction: by the overseer’s whip, the lynch mob’s rope, the state trooper’s fire hoses and dogs, the city cop’s service weapon, by drugs, gun, and prison. For African-Americans, body horror is not a mere queasy, tittilating cinematic escape. It is a crushing daily reality, a discouraging way of life. Peele even has a zeitgeist-ready term for the space of dispiriting hopelessness this plight engenders: the sunken place, Missy’s name for the starfield-like empty space that Chris’ consciousness is banished to when she hypnotizes him. The concept of Coagula contains all of this and more, a disturbing genre-movie fantasy built out of a more disturbing real-world truth.

Get Out is flush with its own ideas and position-takings of race in America, but it isn’t difficult to notice that it’s a darkly inverted homage of sorts to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967 progressive Hollywood drama about an affluent young woman bringing her African-American boyfriend home to meet her liberal but still stubbornly bigoted parents. Whitford’s thick-rimmed black spectacles and white hair suggests that film’s patriarch Spencer Tracy, certainly. Williams, meanwhile, is the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, a link to White America’s cultural elite that makes her casting seem like another peeled-back layer of the larger joke (Whitford, a veteran of neoliberal television monolith The West Wing, and arthouse mainstay Keener seem to be similar chosen for more than merely their thespianic skills). The clean-cut creative-class Chris may contain something of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, a best-and-brightest, twice-as-good black professional, but Peele provides him with a crucial link back to African-American culture in the form of his outspoken best friend Rod, a TSA agent who plays amateur detective amusingly in the film’s last act-and-a-half.

Beyond these more superficial intertextual suggestions and self-aware subversions, Get Out repurposes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner most strongly in terms of the insights and sense of perspective that its scenario grants its audience, which in the case of the half-century-old film was presumed first and foremost to be white. More precisely, although Get Out presents a certain perspective on the African-American experience of racism, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it never allows a white audience to feel a surge of comforting, positive fellow-feeling about this opening of vision.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concludes with Spencer Tracy’s grizzled newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (known professionally for his progressive social concern) reluctantly acknowledging his inborn prejudice and giving his belated blessing to his daughter’s union with Poitier’s Prentice, recognizing with sad resignation that he may not have the time left in a waning life to banish his racial assumptions entirely. Made more poignant by the production reality that this was Tracy’s final role, one that he fought bravely to complete before dying (which he did, 17 days after filming wrapped, as it happened), Matt’s pained realization coupled with his magnanimous acceptance of his daughter’s choice in love made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not merely a major ideological focal point of liberal white attitudes towards anti-black racism, but a moving emotional expression of those attitudes as well.

But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also carries a legacy of helping to define white racial animus against blacks as a personal foible, a mere fault of social manners and behaviour to be overcome, or at least politely contained and then disavowed. This is how Get Out depicts such racism in its first half, often with nearly-transcendent insightfulness and a sharp satirical eye. But when the pivot comes, it comes hard, and shifts the film’s ideological axis firmly into the more “woke” symbolic space of emphasizing racism in America as structural, institutional, and as emanating powerful, inescapable social conditioning into the cultural spheres of whites and blacks alike. African-American professor Otis Madison, quoted by colleague Cedric Robinson, said that “the purpose of racism is to control the behaviour of white people, not Black people”. Though Madison added with a fatalistic turn that for African-Americans, “guns and tanks are sufficient”, Peele understands the awareness of racism as seeding not merely black-white interactions but discourse within each segregated community as well.

Chris is given a relatively happy ending, despite a stomach-churning tease of his potential arrest for the murder of the Armitages effected during his desperate escape. Although the flashing squad-car lights belong to TSA agent Rod and represent Chris’ rescue, they might just as easily (and, in an earlier, darker cut of the film, in fact did) belong to white police bringing the unjust arm of the law down across his chest, cruelly punishing him for achieving his own release from bondage and mind-slavery. But Chris’ escape, even alongside the reduction of Coagula, offers no comfort. Racism is greater and more terrible than one imagined scenario. Hate wins even in violent defeat, as Rose’s creepy smile as he strangles her in anger makes Chris realize, at the last.

Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in American and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. Before he gets out, Chris’ body was to have been the host for the mind of Jim Hudson (the always indispensible Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who admires Chris’ photographs (at least as they are painstakingly described to him by an assistant) and covets the younger man’s “eye”. Quite literally claiming not to “see colour”, Hudson doesn’t get to quite literally see through Chris’ eyes. I would argue that, despite Get Out‘s complex depiction of fraught social racism, we don’t get to really see through Chris’ eyes either. “We” in this case is white people watching the film, always already including myself, whatever dubious claims to laudable progressive attitudes I like to entertain and whose every crack and fissure of doubt this film mercilessly probes and enlarges.

Perhaps African-Americans watching the film can see through the protagonist’s eyes, and maybe Get Out is compelling, resonant, or painful for them in ways that white people, like myself, cannot ever really understand. Perhaps that assumption is another form of prejudice. Fundamentally, we cannot know what another (an other) sees, especially across the tremendous, fantastic wall that is the American racial divide. Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead. It’s a form of cold comfort, maybe, but recognizing and embracing that truth, and the truth of racism’s historical atrocities and contemporary conditions alike, does bring us closer to living with it, if never managing to overcome or contain it. Or to escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

March 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016; Directed by Matthew Ornstein)

Daryl Davis has a simple question that he wants answered: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” The African-American musician, speaker, and activist has been seeking an answer to that question in a person-to-person manner for over 25 years, and Accidental Courtesy is a documentary film depicting the green shoots and the persistent frustrations of his approach.

Davis is nearly 60 years old, and has performed with major musical artists such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more over his long career. He has also spent much of his offstage time since about 1990 meeting, conversing with, and even befriending dozens of prominent hardcore racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, the reactionary fraternal American white supremacist organizational movement infamous for its hate-group-level rhetoric, protests, and often violence directed against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, non-whites, and, most prominently, African-Americans like Davis. As Davis explains to the filmmakers in interviews, to seminar crowds at speaking engagements, and to sceptical listeners from across the political spectrum, he hopes through honest good-faith discussion, ordinary politeness, and basic acts of kindness to impress his humanity and decency upon men who inherently deny his claim to both.

Davis has met with some success over the years, making friends with many Klansmen and even gently persuading some of the errors of their racist ways. Those who discard their KKK membership and ideology altogether and credit Davis’ respectful, non-judgemental personal outreach for their conversion gift him with their disavowed Klan robes and paraphenalia, which he keeps in a private collection that he hopes one day to display in a museum. Some might see this practice as strange or even troubling (and some tell Davis so right to his face in no uncertain terms), but for Davis, it constitutes a combination of trophies of victory and a tangible reminder of the deep past and enduring present of white supremacy and social and cultural discrimination against African-Americans.

Director Matthew Ornstein films Davis’ interactions with Klansmen, former Klansmen, and other white nationalists, men who are so often dismissed as frothing bigots and so often dismissive of any and all racial others and political opponents. Very little that any of the stubborn enduring white supremacists who speak to Davis on camera say or do contradicts such generalized labelling, and some who count him as a friend hold him only as an exception to the general negative nature of his “race”. Davis’ desire to recognize the humanity of these men (and very occasionally women) is certainly fraught, lest it perversely, unintentionally justify or normalize their hateful, damaging, extreme ideology (which a more recent credits post-script added to the film’s streaming release recognizes has been emboldened in an unprecedented way by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President).

It’s impossible, however, to watch and listen to Davis speak during and after these encounters and consider him anything but well-intentioned and sincere. In the wider American political and social discourse, the exhortation to hold a meaningful dialogue on racial issues often seems a naive and perhaps cynical faux-panacea suggested by even nominally anti-discrimination figures as a productive-sounding substitute for the fundamental and nigh-on revolutionary social and institutional adjustments necessary to properly address and redress the country’s historical and continuing structures and process of anti-black oppression. Daryl Davis, however, is a charming, low-key evangelist for the transformative potential of such dialogue, at least on a micro level. The son of a State Department diplomat, Davis lived as a child in many foreign countries and in a variety of locations in the United States as well. Like Barack Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Davis learned to relate to and connect with a diverse and oft-changing group of peers and was inculcated with the necessity and later the inherent value of forging personal liaisons with those outside of his own background, experience, and culture.

Credit is due to Ornstein and Davis, however, for being willing to include in Accidental Courtesy resonant instances of when, as it did with Obama and his most intransigent critics on the right, this dialogic approach falls short. While some of these instances predictably feature white supremacists (one major KKK leader flatly refuses to even acknowledge Davis as a friend let alone give an inch on his master-race beliefs, and an important American Neo-Nazi treats Davis politely but seems unconvinced by his soft pitch), the most explosively contentious and challenging one involves fellow African-American political activists.

Davis meets with two young Black Lives Matter marchers and organizers in Baltimore, where they have been active in civil disobedience and forceful protest against police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans, particularly following the arrest, beating, and death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Any assumptions an observer (white, especially, but otherwise as well) might have made about the potential common ground between Davis and these men is dispelled very quickly. They are aggressively sceptical about Davis’ methods, about his collection of Klan memoribilia (one flatly states that he would never take his children to any museum about the KKK), and more than anything about the effectiveness of his efforts and their tangible benefits for the African-American community. Through active protest and building of robust black institutions and communities, they feel, their people can derive more advantage than could ever be possible from having coffee with Klansmen who despise them and deny their very personhood.

The encounter degenerates into shouting and namecalling over an issue of minor consequence (which his chats with white racist never seem to, at least that we’re shown), and Davis does not come off very well from the episode. Neither do his younger antagonists, though, who blithely declare their preference for the openly racist Donald Trump (“At least you know where he stands,” they pronounce with a disastrous naiveté which they might come to regret if his administration’s promised law enforcement crackdown on Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest groups comes to fruition) over the unreliable neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Nor do they substantively refute Davis’ accusation of the preference for segregation and separation evident in their views, although his greeting-card sentiment that they must all share the same country, black or white, seems a weak stab at persuasion.

But the whole episode is indelible, hard to shake, and challenges the perspective that has developed and been nurtured throughout the rest of Accidental Courtesy. The utility and even moral standing of Davis’ conversing approach, which Ornstein treats as fascinating and wondrously impressive up to this point in the film, is deeply shaken, and even a feel-good concluding story of one of Davis’ converted Klan scalps who now actively campaigns publicly against racism and white supremacy cannot restore the prior equilibrium. The pregnant dichotomy of the scene in Baltimore, the conflict between the macroscopic, self-righteous, mass-focused activism of Black Lives Matter and the microscopic, self-effacing, modest and friendly activism of Daryl Davis, strikes one as not only unresolved but perhaps tragically unresolvable, seeing as there are elements of merit in both approaches.

If only, the BLM agents insist, they had the time or the patience (or, one must admit, the privilege) to convince one white American at a time to treat them with equal respect and grant them equal opportunities and rights as citizens. But the plight of Black America is simply too urgent, they feel, requiring action more wide-reaching and drastic than Davis’ dialogues, which for all of their good intent strike them as irredeemably foolish and a waste of resources. Davis, for his part, does not see the effective conversion potential in BLM’s activities, and worries their tactics and aims merely calcify the racial divide that he hopes to see erode away. This dialectical collision leaves no answer for the viewer, only deepening the questions and doubts about the correct path to righting America’s most enduring wrong.

A further post-script to Accidental Courtesy, unmentioned in the film due to the proximity of the event to its release, further destabilizes Daryl Davis’ paradigm of hope for American race relations. One of Davis’ KKK friends in the film is a man called Frank Ancona, a Missouri Imperial Wizard (Klan titles and honorifics are like something out of pulp sword-and-sorcery novels; Exalted Cyclops is another). In the days before the film’s release, Ancona’s body was found in a Missouri river. He was murdered, his wife and stepson charged in his death. Personal issues appeared to be the motive, and the world of white supremacist terror groups is a harsh and violent one of its own accord. But one must wonder if the film’s revelation of Ancona’s willingness to relax his racial ideology in the case of Davis played into his death in any way as well. Hate is resilient, even if Daryl Davis kindly and doggedly suggests that love is as well.

Donald Trump Wants his Worst Policies to Fail: An Unsupported but Plausible Line of Thought

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve never bought into the suspicious, nigh-on cleverer-than-thou American political observer line of thought that U.S. President Donald Trump is not dim-witted, incompetent, imprudent, or hopelessly led by impulse and instinct but is, in fact, strategically brilliant and always thinking several steps ahead of his critics and the media, laying down narratives in advance to distract their attention from real problems and reports less-favourable to him. When weighing the choice between genius and ineptitude to explain Trump and his team’s seemingly haphazard and bumbling actions through the turbulent opening months of his Presidency, I’m generally inclined towards ineptitude on Occam’s Razor grounds, at the very least.

With all of that being said, I think there could be a consistent case to be made that Trump and his Administration is allowing certain policy promises from his presidential campaign to fail, or at least they are curiously deigning not to lift more than a perfunctory short finger to battle on their cherished, America-greatening policies’ behalf as they go down in flames. The case study for this argument is his notorious travel ban applied to citizens of seven six Muslim countries. Struck down by federal judges after its sneak weekend application at the end of January created chaos and sparked indignant protests at airports across the U.S. and the globe, a watered-down version of the ban (which Trump’s acolytes won’t even openly acknowledge is a “ban”) due to go into effect this week has also been blocked by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland (at least partially on the basis of public statements by Trump lieutenants that the order, however it was worded, had specific religious discrimination at the forefront of its aims).

At the core of this argument, if you’ll stay with me as I make it, is the hoary, cynical old theory that Donald Trump only wants to be President for the money and the fame. This thinking has often been dismissed, and has been largely abandoned by pundits since he won the election, but I think it might still hold, at least in this case.

You don’t have to look very deeply or for very long at Trump’s public political statements to conclude that he holds them rather lightly. At the risk of getting bogged down in the much-mocked “take him seriously, not literally” morass, it’s clear that Trump very often just, you know, says things. He’s firmly stated his position on matters and then just as firmly (and sometimes conveniently) forgotten that he ever stated that position. It’s not that words don’t matter when Donald Trump speaks them, but more so that they cease to matter to him very soon after he does. The man is fundamentally a serial bullshitter, but even the supposed core values beneath that surface-level bullshit are unstable and mercurial. Certain specific views remain consistent over the years (particularly, and revealingly, those related to race), but most are up for grabs at any given moment.

What is consistent throughout Trump’s public adult (ha!) life is his shameless grifting and his bottomless gluttony for fame. His politics and even his party affiliations can and have changed depending on who he’s trying to extract money or adulation or power and influence from at any given moment, but he’s always trying to do that above all. This might be the reason why he liked campaigning so much, and why he retreats to campaign poses in times of political turmoil: ego-boosting rallies, plentiful money-making opportunities (from voters, donors, and from general brand exposure), and he could say whatever he liked without real or immediate concrete consequences.

Perhaps Trump thought it would be the same in office. It quite assuredly is not. The grifting continues, emoluments clause be damned: foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels, multiple weekends spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort club residence in Florida (which has recently raised membership fees, ostensibly due to the unspoken promise of access to the President), the purchase of items from his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line marshalled as a right-wing political act, any number of potential hidden bribes and secret deals that are not transparent to the public, etc. But Trump hasn’t gotten the adulation he feels that he deserves as President, though a man who launched his political career with nastily racist conspiracy theories casting doubt on the citizenship of the sitting President should know better than anyone that as many citizens hate the POTUS as love him, that respect for the office and its power and prestige in the abstract has rarely translated to concrete respect for the man who holds it. His (frankly worrying) choice of presidential model, Andrew Jackson, could have told him that.

More important for the purposes of this discussion than that, however, is that Trump’s words, often lightly chosen and even more lightly supported by facts, have greater consequences now. His dashed-off, seat-of-his-pants tweets, the dramatic complaining tone of which endeared this sheltered Manhattan millionaire to his horde of loyal common supporters, are now the official pronouncement of the Leader of the Free World. However flippantly Trump is used to deploying words to his perceived advantage, they mean more now.

This new reality has implications for all of those outlandish promises Trump made during the campaign. Now, as President with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he’s expected to deliver on them, or at least to make a concerted and honest effort to do so. How firm those expectations are is unclear, based in voter perspective and passion, the support of his party, and media pressure, among other factors. Whatever the impetus for or level of these expectations, one can imagine Trump having a despondent Sideshow Bob-ish reaction to how his flood of campaign words are understood now:

The issue could be immigration, where both the blocked Muslim ban and his central promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (paid for by Mexico) are proving to fall short, or health care, where the contentious and faltering Republican House bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that will cost needier patients more and cover millions fewer people flies in the face of his brash claims on the stump that he would deliver a health plan that would cover everyone. He can’t, in these and many other cases, deliver on these brazen promises and even in his isolated bubble someone around him has surely told him that much.

This brings us to his Muslim travel ban, which has again been blocked again by federal courts. Trump has legal experts of some stripe around him; someone lawyerish crafted the executive order, after all. Perhaps one should assume simple ineptitude again, but surely an advisor or few must have known that the order would not pass legal muster. And, as Trump said in a speech in Tennessee given the same night as the news dropped of the new court order blocking the revised ban order, he wants to go back to the original ban order, which he preferred anyway. And, of course, which was already blocked in court and would, in unaltered form, certainly be blocked again if re-implemented.

Is the President just that dumb? Are his people that bad at finding ways to apply his harmful intended policies? Or is there an element of unwillingness at play, a disguised through-line of stealthy self-sabotage? Despite its basis in racist xenophobia (as close to a core belief as the ever-shifty Trump has), does he not really care that much about delivering on his Muslim ban promise? Or does he consider it only useful (or more useful) as source material for rousing rhetoric to please and rile up the xenophobic rubes in his support base? Judges block his ban so its messy consequences never come to pass. But Trump can still use the court order as a rhetorical cudgel against activist judges, the politically-correct institutions of the elite, the Washington consensus, sore-loser leftist protestors, etc. Specific initiatives fail, but the narrative endures. His political brand, Trump the besieged great man held down by limp-wristed snowflakes and corrupt technocratic global elites (but no anti-Semitism here, none of that, that is right out), endures.

This idea might furtively give Donald Trump some limited credit for secretly not wanting to prevent entry to the country for all Muslims from six countries (the original seven nations minus Iraq, likely removed from the order after bad press connected to Iraqi translators and other allies of U.S. forces in the country having visa troubles) for stated, dubious security-related reasons. But whether it’s true or not (and it certainly might not be, or might only partly be), it focuses on the man’s venality and irresponsibility in occupying the highest office in the U.S. Who cares about governing, it tells us, as long as Donald Trump is raking in the cash and the accolades of (a certain declining sliver of) the masses? True or not, this theory is plausible and well-grounded in Trump’s personality and predilections, and that inherent aura of plausibility tells us nearly as much about this odd, troubling, greedy figure in emperor’s robes as the actual truth would.

Film Review – Kong: Skull Island

March 12, 2017 1 comment

Kong: Skull Island (2017; Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

In some ways, Kong: Skull Island is a departure from the standard-bearing films telling the semi-allegorical cinematic myth of the giant gorilla, torn from the hidden jungle island home where he rules as a god-like monarch and destroyed by an arrogant techno-capitalist empire. This Kong physically dwarfs previous iterations (I’d estimate that he’s 3 to 5 times larger than the ape from Peter Jackson’s King Kong), he never leaves his island realm and does not meet his doom at the hands of military aircraft while perched atop a Manhattan skyscraper (not really a spoiler, though others may follow), and doesn’t really have a female blond-haired American object of unrequitable affection. Indeed, Skull Island leaves out almost any hint of the unruly, often troubling sexual and racial subtexts that defined the ideological implications of prior pictures (and which I’ve written about in great detail in the past, in a fourpart PopMatters feature).

In many other ways, however, Skull Island sees the Kong franchise (as Legendary Pictures is now considering it, alongside and eventually crossing over with its Godzilla films in a so-called “MonsterVerse” movie series) returning to its very oldest roots. As my essays discussed, Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original 1933 King Kong was essentially a thrilling potboiler of a B-movie whose political subtexts were established deep in its foundations and only rarely rose to the surface. Subsequent versions of the Kong narrative (John Guillermin’s in 1976, Jackson’s in 2005) layered on ideological implications and associations that clustered around the figure of Kong and reflected shifting political and social attitudes to what the ape and its destruction might be seen to represent: the struggle of African-Americans from slavery through Jim Crow and segregation to civil rights and beyond, progressing views of sexuality, and, more than anything, the nature of American global power and the sliding understanding of its moral dimensions. Kong was brought low by that power, a victim of its pitiless, prejudiced imperatives, and the 1976 and 2005 films mourned the great ape as a martyr (as the popular 1960s graffiti declaimed: “King Kong Died for Our Sins”). To be succinct, the symbolic trajectory of Kong ran from spectacle to elegy.

Cooper’s Kong is more than anything an exciting adventure movie that celebrates the waxing might of American capitalist imperialism and its triumph over primitive brutality, as expressed through Cooper’s favoured forms of projecting that power: motion pictures and air power (in addition to his moviemaking, Cooper flew fighter biplanes in World War I and the Polish-Soviet War and commanded the Allied air defense of China in World War II). Kong: Skull Island is a confident, intoxicating, beautiful reconstitution of pure old-school popcorn spectacle in the 1933 Kong‘s long-shadowed tradition, but it’s also the film series’ firmest repudiation yet of the conservative Cooper’s patriotic myth of rising American glory. Set in 1973, the film compellingly invokes the Vietnam War from which American troops were being withdrawn, as well as the zeitgeist films about the conflict that fed into Americans’ roiling doubts about their nation’s greatness and moral rectitude (Apocalypse Now, certainly, but Platoon and others too). Despite this, Skull Island is definitely the shallowest Kong film since the original, the most invested in superficial visceral sensation.

But how superficial is that sensation, really, when it’s quite this sensational? Skull Island, helmed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a ravishing stunner of an action-adventure blockbuster, bursting with imagination and clever visual designs and jaw-dropping epic scale. The astounding vision of this otherwise frothy distraction hits home with maximal impact in the great ape’s iconic full reveal, during a calamitous assault on a squadron of Vietnam-seasoned helicopters invading his island kingdom. There’s a dizzy, violently giddy delight to this sequence that, even with plenty of notably fun action beats to come, is singular and memorable. Vogt-Roberts’ direction is positively drunk on the inspired glory on his imagery here, and you can’t wait to tip back your glass until you’re under the table with him.

There’s some rote introduction and exposition to get through before this launch pad moment, mind you. Skull Island‘s opening act is structured in the precise same manner as previous Kong movies (though more efficiently than Jackson’s divisive, protracted voyage on the Venture), with a determined rogue dreamer talking up an expedition to a tantalizing, mysterious unexplored island and leading a team into the uncharted unknown, about which he usually knows more than he lets on. This time, the Carl Denham figure (based in the original film on Cooper himself, who made daring documentaries in exotic locales during the 1920s) is government official Bill Randa (John Goodman), who convinces a U.S. Senator (Richard Jenkins) to allow him and his Yale-graduate geologist protégé Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to join a private mapping voyage to a skull-shaped island recently spotted by satellites in the South Pacific.

Expecting to encounter something worth protecting against, he enlists a military escort in the form of the aforementioned air cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s reluctant to leave the war in Vietnam behind and is eager for renewed action. Randa also hires former British S.A.S. soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a hunter-tracker (though he doesn’t say what he intends Conrad to hunt and track), and neither he nor Packard elect to turn away award-winning anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who gains credentials to cover the expedition in the hopes of exposing its dark secrets.

Split up and consigned to travel on foot by Kong’s furious decimation of their seismic-depth-charge-dropping choppers, this ragtag squad encounters a fantastic and often lethal variety of superfauna as they make for a scheduled three-days-hence rendezvous point on the island’s north shore that is their only ticket off this hellish place. Believed to have alighted on the island via thermal vents which connect to vast, unexplored subterranean worlds, these animals are often enormous and sometimes more wondrous than deadly. They have runs in with a mega-spider with viciously sharp legs camouflaged amidst a bamboo forest; a docile, massively humped swamp-dwelling water buffalo; a giant squid which Kong dispatches and then snacks on; nasty flocks of ravenous pterosaur-like predator birds; a sort of towering stick-insect disguised as a fallen log; and, most dangerously, razor-toothed carnivorous dual-armed lizards known as skullcrawlers. Emerging from the vents to maraud through the island ecosystem, the skullcrawlers are only kept at bay by Kong, who kills the younger ones before they can grow too large for him to handle.

The source for much of this island lore is a stranded World War II pilot, Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Seen crash-landing on the island along with a Japanese fighter-pilot antagonist in the movie’s cold open, Marlow has survived for nearly 30 years there and developed a knowledge of the place as well as more than a mild eccentricity. He dwells with the island’s native human inhabitants, mute grid-painted indigenes that he calls Iwi (a term for a community of Maori, so I suppose they’re Polynesian in origin) who view Kong as a god-like protector and who dwell behind a tall wooden wall to keep out the things nastier than the ape. In the highly fraught history of Skull Island natives, the depiction can be said to have progressed to the level of noble savage, which is certainly preferable to the racist stereotypes of prior movies but still insufficient. Conrad, Weaver, and their group fall in with Marlow and the Iwi, and realize that contrary to Packard’s single-minded rules of engagement thinking and drive to avenge his dead soldiers, Kong is not their real enemy and may indeed prove to be an ally.

While Kong: Skull Island is generally glorious entertainment, the praise does need to be tempered a tad. The script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly) pauses too often to remind the audience of the plot goals (find lost soldiers and armaments, obtain proof of the island’s fantastical monsters, reach the rescue site in time) and driving character motivations. While some key characters are well-enough fleshed-out (Reilly’s scene-stealing Marlow gets plentiful backstory, an endearing emotional core, and even a satisfying credits coda) and others work decently in broad strokes (Shea Whigham as a cynically bemused Captain and Toby Kebbell as a Southern Major give you all you need to know about them in limited beats), others still want for added depth. Hiddleston’s Conrad, putatively the male lead, seems to be missing important development beats, and mostly stalks through the undergrowth with gun in hand, urging the others on and discouraging Packard’s single-minded revenge mission against Kong. He is given one showpiece action moment, but it’s an odd one, donning a gas mask to stride balletically through a green toxic cloud slicing purple-blooded pterosaurs in half with a samurai sword.

Larson doesn’t get too much development either (though between her and Hiddleston, both clad in skin-tight undershirts in the sweltering jungle, there is plenty of corporeal aesthetic interest for voyeurs of any orientation), but her capable and compassionate photojournalist can fully take care of herself and even displays some ingenuity in the heat of battle with the skullcrawlers. As the sole flaxen-haired white woman among the party (Jing Tian is the only other woman, as a Chinese biologist), Larson’s Mason Weaver would be the film’s obvious Ann Darrow proxy as the focus of Kong’s yearning affections. Skull Island doesn’t go there nearly at all, though: she and Kong share a moment of empathy over a nature-lover’s protective instinct, and his protection of her figures centrally in the climatic moments of Kong’s closing dust-up with the alpha skullcrawler, but neither the lascivious desire of the earlier Kong/Ann relationships nor the tragic romance of Jackson’s film enter into the picture.

Instead, the voyeurism is turned the other way: Weaver’s 1970s vintage still camera is often the filter for the human gaze viewing and assessing Kong’s world. Additionally, Cooper’s dominant composition of Kong’s fights, with gigantic beasts filling the frame locked in mortal combat while puny human spectators observe from the corner edge of the foreground, is repeated on a few occasions by Vogt-Roberts, re-emphasizing the voyeuristic impression.

This towering Kong is realistically and often thoughtfully rendered, though not transcendingly so. Played via motion-capture by Terry Notary (his heavy gait is recognizable to an eye which has beheld hours of his behind-the-scenes DVD footage on The Hobbit films), Kong doesn’t have the wounded, lonely soul of a grizzled aesthete as he was played by Notary’s mo-cap mentor Andy Serkis in Jackson’s film, but he is given a brief beat of hesitant wonder at a dazzling nighttime aurora australis display. Without romantic facets and no evocation of what has been critically understood as Kong’s African-American symbolic dimensions, however, this is Kong as a nearly pure movie monster, closer to the proud but inscrutable Godzilla than to the sympathetic cousin to humanity and tragic reflection of its flaws that comes through even in Cooper’s film.

This leaves only the questioning depiction of American power standing among the text’s standard political metaphors, and Skull Island gladly provides that. It very purposely and directly invokes the recognizable iconography and sensory detail of Vietnam movies, from its sweaty jungles to the alternating terror and fleeting comradery of green-clad GIs to the carpet-bombing period rock n’ roll soundtrack. There’s even a river voyage on a rickety boat made of salvaged plane parts, and the Apocalypse Now associations were made very literal in the parodic movie poster to the right. Skull Island doesn’t exactly dwell on its ideological message, but is quite clear in its preference for cooperation and understanding in lieu of the self-interested imperialistic realpolitik which drove the disastrous folly of the bloodbath in Indochina.

The screenplay namechecks Apocalypse Now‘s anti-colonialist literary source Heart of Darkness (directly referenced and even quoted, though not unproblematically, in Jackson’s King Kong) through the names of Hiddleston and Reilly’s characters, but digs further into the literary canon for a metaphoric carrier for its broad critique of arrogant American imperial power. As the helicopter squadron flies through the storm-front ringing the island, Col. Packard (in fine Sam Jackson style) relates the Greek myth of Icarus, whose wings of wax forged by a god allowed him to fly but who plunged to earth when he flew too close to the sun and the wings melted. A classical parable of warning against hubristic ambition, the myth is visually recreated in the very first shot of the film, the silhouette of a man (the young Marlow during WWII, as it turns out) falling from above against the hot sphere of the sun.

Packard brushes aside this ancient caution with brash techno-military confidence: the U.S. Army gave his choppers wings of Pennsylvania steel, so he fears no enemy, god or otherwise. Packard refuses to accept that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; they “abandoned” it, he says, and he refuses to cut and run against Kong in the same way. Skull Island is a new theatre in which he can wage a winning campaign to make up for the dishonour of the Vietnam withdrawal. That the civilians around him, and even his own troops, come to view his insistence on this mission as obsessive madness reflects popular disdain for American global militarism that, despite this widespread hostility, continues to be propagated and perpetuated. Packard’s stubborn refusal to accept that American hegemony could possibly be wrong or fail mirrors that of neo-conservatives, Trumpites, and tenders of the military-industrial complex alike, and his mania for killing Kong and thus upsetting the island’s delicate balance of power reflects the destabilizing application of that hegemony across the globe for more than half a century.

Kong: Skull Island, then, is true Kong in as many ways as it is counterfeit Kong. It evades the thematic traditions of tragedy and mixed ideological messages concerning race and sexuality, and settles instead on standard-issue Hollywood assumptions both political and commercial: anti-war liberalism and skepticism of militaristic empire on the one hand, preserving its showpiece simian for continuing franchise sequelization on the other. But it’s an exciting, impeccably shot, inventively-designed action-adventure white-knuckler as well, which is what the greater mass of moviegoers who haven’t dedicated thousands of words to the deeper meanings of giant ape movies surely expect. Skull Island sees the pendulum of Kong screen narratives swing away from elegy and back towards spectacle, where the enduring cinematic myth began. Something is lost, certainly, but something else is gained, and it’s hard to regard a picture as highly enjoyable as this one as merely achieving a balance. It tips decisively to the positive, despite what it leaves off the scale.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Independence Day: Resurgence

March 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016; Directed by Roland Emmerich)

There may be no better predictive model for the current style of the Hollywood blockbuster than 1996’s Independence Day. The cinematic decade of which Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s hugely successful, extremely corny, doggedly entertaining alien invasion epic pastiche represents an obvious middle point includes many such important signposts to our outsized movie present. From Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 (vital beachheads of the comics superhero invasion that has conquered Hollywood) to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy of 2001-2003 (important demonstrations of the viability of computer-generated special effects in central filmmaking roles), we can locate many of the foundations of the blockbuster as we now know it (and frequently lament it).

But to my mind, it was Independence Day that, more than any other film, forged the big-budget movie world that we now live in. ID4 (as it was dubbed by studio marketers) was full of shameless borrowings from past hit films, featuring a rag-tag band of plucky American underdogs facing a global existential threat portrayed with SFX verisimilitude (using CGI, yes, though with many more models and practical effects than is generally appreciated). It was shot through with militaristic jingoism and liberty-bell-gonging platitudes with an added twitchy tinge of paranoid conspiracism (given his subsequent work, this was clearly Emmerich’s hand at work) that, while presenting as harmless contemporary folk-myth whimsy at the time, feels more sinister now given America’s current political predicament.

What Independence Day’s 20-years-hence sequel Independence Day: Resurgence makes surprisingly and often painfully clear is how skilled and likable the original’s deployment of unpretentious popcorn-flick entertainment really was. As goofy, predictable, and derivative as it was, as many city-destroying spaceships as you could comfortably pilot through the gaping holes in its plot and character development, ID4 was undeniably fun and charming, coasting on the endearing qualities of its unlikely co-stars, an on-the-cusp-of-superstardom Will Smith (indeed, in the role that pushed him past that cusp) and the indispensable blockbuster-elevating Jeff Goldblum. It was also, as mentioned, willing to be kind of weird, finding space for the peculiar talents of Randy Quaid as an anti-government, alien-abduction-believing kook (alternately, as himself), a wild-eyed Brent Spiner as mad Area 51 scientist Dr. Brakish Okun, and Judd Hirsch carpet-bombing Semitic stereotypes as Julius, the nagging Jewish father of Goldblum’s world-saving David Levinson. It was fundamentally stupid nonsense, but it was almost irrationally easy to enjoy.

This is how truly, incredibly terrible Resurgence is: it has inspired me to wax nostalgic about one of the cheesiest American blockbusters of the past quarter-century. Perversely, Independence Day seems like Citizen Kane in comparison to its thoroughly lackluster sequel. Saddled with incompetent dialogue both expository and exclamatory, thin characterizations, poor acting, CG spectacle at once overwrought and underimagined, scale, pacing, and tension amateurishly applied, and one anemic idea after another, Resurgence is nothing of the sort. It’s more of a degradation, and an unsurprising one given sole director Emmerich’s precipitous decline as a filmmaker since he and Devlin made ID4.

In a rare, nearly-meta convergence of release date and in-text story, Resurgence follows the original Independence Day by exactly 20 years. This allows for the natural aging of returning cast members and an easy explanation of Earth’s technological quantum leaps (utilizing technology salvaged from the hulks of the alien invaders’ destroyed super-ships), but also leaves potentially fascinating storylines of the aftermath of and rebuilding after the War of ’96 languishing in the narrative background, as we’ll see. Earth is now apparently politically and socially united, albeit with America in a primary leadership position, and preparing with great expense and techno-military infrastructure for the aliens’ anticipated return assault. Its great cities have been rebuilt (Washington D.C. is virtually identical, and London, Paris, and major Asian cities have their landmarks restored as well, though perhaps not for long), defense bases are spread across the solar system, and both the sacrifices and triumphs of the prior war are commemorated and celebrated with characteristic mock-solemn American bravado (the obelisk of the Washington Monument now carries the names of millions of the dead).

Key figures in the fightback against the malevolent extraterrestrials in 1996 have varying levels of involvement in the new order, alongside related characters. Levinson is the Director of Some Alien-Killing Research Organization, while his father Julius hawks his book about how he saved the world (an offhand comment of the elder Levinson inspired David’s computer virus plan to defeat the alien mothership) to disinterested retirement-home denizens. Former President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) struggles with nightmares of the extraterrestrials, while his former fighter-pilot daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is an aide to the new Commander-in-Chief, President Elizabeth “Nuke Them From Orbit Then Have a Campaign Rally” Lanford (Sela Ward). Her fiancée Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), who lost his parents to the attack in ’96, chafes at the restraints of a position as a space-tug pilot on the lunar defense base alongside his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope).

Jake was busted down the ranks after his reckless piloting nearly killed fellow flying ace Captain Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher) in a training flight. The son of Will Smith’s well-remembered cocky hero pilot Col. Steven Hiller, who is said to have died in a test flight but was really claimed by a star’s taste for better scripts (or not), Dylan is essentially a walking, talking propaganda poster as the leader of an elite international squadron; Chinese pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy; yes, that’s her real stage name) is the only other one of its members to get any real screentime, and then mostly as fodder for Charlie’s puppy-dog affections (and to help with the Chinese box office numbers).

Dr. Okun is back, too, despite having apparently been snatched and tentacularly strangled to death by a captive alien in the first film. He’s been in a coma at Area 51 for two decades, cared for by his devoted assistant/lover Dr. Milton Isaacs (John Storey), and his sudden reawakening is one of several forebodings that the long-dreaded return of Earth’s ultimate antagonists is at hand. Levinson and fellow alien researcher Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) find similar suggestions that the aliens (and perhaps another space visitor as well) are back in Central Africa, where stern warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) and his people fought a brutal, often hand-to-hand guerrilla war against a landed ship’s alien crew for years. And back on the lunar base, Luke and Charlie will be at the front lines of the aliens’, well, resurgence.

One of the things that makes Independence Day: Resurgence’s abject failure to be any good even as stupidly rousing popcorn entertainment so maddening is how many far better potential sequels concepts it leaves discarded in its dull inexorable wake like husks of alien superships. As the credits rolled on the original ID4 twenty years ago, I wondered if a possible sequel might take a tonal U-turn and address the daunting rebuilding of human civilization on Earth, perhaps with some mopping-up of surviving alien forces thrown in for action-sequence fodder. Resurgence shunts this complex story into its initial expository background and lacquers over simplistic jingoism: Earth is back, better and more unified than ever! But the U.S.A. is still in charge, woo!

But Resurgence leaves more tantalizing material by the wayside as well, especially one potentially cracking narrative of badass alien-killing that resides not merely in one critic’s fevered imagination and involves considerably fewer depictions of large-scale construction projects. The merely-sketched subplot of Umbutu’s protracted guerrilla war against a surviving alien enclave in Central Africa fills a minor storytelling function early on, and there’s just the slightest beat about the warlord’s deeply-felt family losses in the conflict. But the character soon degenerates into a stereotypical (and more than a little racist) background role, his stiff-jawed warrior’s ethic played for comic relief alongside Floyd Rosenberg (Nicolas Wright), a bureaucratic drip thrust into mortal danger. But what a conceivably intense and fascinating left-turn of a sequel it would have been to have made a harrowing, intimate horror-thriller about his people’s draining battles with the aliens (which may have presented an opportunity for postcolonial metaphors and atonement for the soft-imperial flag-waving of the original) instead of relegating it to backstory duty.

Such a storytelling choice would have required a filmmaker of a whole other stripe than Roland Emmerich, however. His movie aspires to grand ambition but lands on a scale more narrow and venal. Driven centrally by empty nostalgia, it proceeds in predictable swoops of action and reaction, punctuated by sophomoric humour, wan characterizations, and wasted, almost exasperated onscreen talent. Goldblum’s performance in the original was, along with his Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the foundation for his enduring reputation in movie fandom as a stealth savior of blockbusters. But even his ah, ah, you know, particular line delivery style can’t overcome a fatal dearth of lines worth delivering. The Lesser Hemsworth isn’t better than the material and doesn’t really try to be. Usher is an automaton, with none of the enjoyable irritated attitude of his fictional father. Spiner, a fine comic actor, is made a clown. If Pullman isn’t openly embarrassed by his role in this fiasco, he surely ought to be. Only Maika Monroe, so riveting in the indie-horror nu-classic It Follows, summons any commitment and intensity, and even then can only impart it wordlessly when she’s freed from the burden of speaking her painful dialogue.

All of these factors and more combine forces to render a model of the big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster into a case study in what happens when the deceptively fine balance of the form is clumsily upset. Independence Day was broad, bombastic, silly idiocy that hit its marks with the fine eye of a skilled archer; Independence Day: Resurgence not only fumbles and misses those marks, its bowstring snaps and blinds it in one eye. This woefully atrocious movie is the most direct and lamentable product of Independence Day‘s mixed legacy.

Categories: Film, Reviews