The Nuanced Dualistic Masculinity of Letterkenny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Culture, Politics, Television

Film Review: Mother!

February 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Mother! (2017; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s defamiliarizing psych-horror fable Mother! might as well have been entitled That Escalated Quickly: The Movie. Set entirely in a rambling, isolated country mansion, the film is generally constructed as two unexpected and unwanted visits that crescendo into death and tragedy, seen from the perspective of the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who only wants peace, quiet, cleanliness, and alone time in the house she is renovating for her husband (Javier Bardem), a writer’s-blocked poet labouring to produce a follow-up to a famous and revered prior work. What begins as a chamber-piece social drama about guests that just won’t leave becomes a discomfiting, graphic parable before it is realized (belatedly for me, perhaps embarrassingly so) that the whole thing is a politically-charged biblical allegory. Like I said, that escalated quickly.

The unwelcome guests that first disturb the domestic solitude of Mother and the Poet (so I will choose to call Him, which Aronofsky’s script dubs Bardem’s character) are a researching doctor (Ed Harris) and his uncomfortably forward wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). They are soon followed by their sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), who bicker violently and eventually fratricidally over their inheritance, then by a growing mourning party that begins to destroy Mother’s house and test her bustling patience. Mother tries to expel the guests and then scolds them for their destructive misbehaviour, but the Poet can only ever indulge them, no matter how bad things get. Some peace and bliss is restored when Mother becomes pregnant with a long hoped-for son, which sparks the Poet’s creativity at last and leads to the completion and successful release of his promised book. But this bliss is finally and irrevocably shattered by a descent of a flood of his zealous acolytes, whose sincere adulation turns into cultish worship, more violence and disruption, and still greater horrors of blood and fire.

If you hadn’t guessed (and I did not, as I must acknowledge, until sadly late in the film), Lawrence and the house are the Earth, Bardem is God, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the Gleeson Bros are Cain and Abel, Lawrence and Bardem’s long-awaited child is Jesus Christ, and the waves of unwelcome, damaging guests are the grasping, crude throngs of humanity that has so deformed and threatened and taken for granted the planet that is their shared home. I honestly ought to have clued into Aronofsky’s allegorical intent early on, amidst the business with the precious apple-like lump of crystal given pride of place and care in the Poet’s private writing library, and certainly should have caught on after the fratricide, to say nothing of the broken sink and flooding episode that leads Mother to banish everyone from the house. I suppose, if I want to absolve my own perceived slowness to interpretation, that it’s testimony to Aronofsky’s clever construction and immersive experiential perspective that he is able to misdirect the audience for so long about the subtext of what’s happening in Mother!

But when one realizes that Mother! is simply allegorically retelling the foundational narrative of Judeo-Christian cultural civilization, once all hint of the specificity and psychological nuance of the actor’s performances vanish into the grand sweep of the Greatest Story Ever Told, one is left to wonder at the point of it all. Aronofsky – who has tread the biblical boards in previous films like Noah and, to some extent, the heightened philosophical mysticism of The Fountain – plays with some bold critiques of human nature and religious faith here, especially concerning the fundaments of Christianity, but the parable-type tone largely means that nothing really lands.

The masterfully orchestrated litany of encounters that Lawrence has with the houseguests are brief doodles of visual thought on ritual worship, political oppression and revolution, and the nature of God. Mother! is a tremendously-made film from a technical perspective, with strong performances (Pfeiffer is undergoing an understated renaissance that aging actresses rarely are afforded in Hollywood) and plenty on its mind. But when Darren Aronofsky pulls back the curtain and reveals that this often unsettling work of art is essentially adapting the hoary old book that dominates the complex and problematic construct that we have found ourselves calling Western civilization, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t diminish rather than elevate the final product. Are not human psychology and social conventions and behavioural extremity not fulsome enough subjects without lashing them to the Bible? It’s hard to say that Mother! is made more impressive cinema as a result, and that leaves it as a difficult and paradoxical work of filmic art.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: Room

February 17, 2019 Leave a comment

Room (2015; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

The quietly remarkable Room is a sturdy and unsentimentalized child’s eye view of forcible confinement, psychological and sexual abuse, and recovery from sustained trauma. Put it that way and it sounds a harrowing ordeal, but Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s Best Picture-nominated emotional-realist drama about a boy and his mother who are held captive for years by a predatory man in a single-room garden shed is instead a clear-eyed statement of the healing power of connective love and the unaccountable strength of a child’s imagination and almost magical capacity for self-renewal.

Room is set for its first half or so entirely within Room, as recently-turned five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) calls the spartan, messy confines of the prison he shares with his mid-20s “Ma”, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson). Ma and Jack rely on their captor, known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), for food, electricity, and running water, and he extracts sex from Joy once a week or so as his forced reward. Joy has managed to shelter Jack from the harshest sharp edges of their experience and feed his precocious imaginative nature as much as she can, and Jack has constructed an entire juvenile mythological cosmology, complete with promises of hope and freedom that he can barely fathom, to account for the harder truths that she hasn’t yet opened up for him. But Joy can only hide Jack in the cupboard when Old Nick enters Room to have his way with her for so long, and when the curious boy ventures out and has a contentious encounter with Old Nick, she begins to reveal the reality of their condition and conceive of a way that Jack can free them from it.

Abrahamson, working from a script by Emma Donoghue based on her own novel of the same name, has a keen sense (passed on from and/or shared with Donoghue’s writing) of just how much of the harsher elements of Ma and Jack’s confinement should be shown and how much should be implied (Old Nick’s regular rapes are definitely kept as the latter), as well as when to open the story up by getting them out of Room. Jack’s escape takes a bit longer than planned, as he is awestruck and paralyzed by his first glimpse of open sky (Tremblay is a preternaturally tuned-in child actor, and he nails this moment memorably), and one might nitpick (if one were so inclined) that Old Nick lets him go far too easily and incautiously, considering the years of carefully devious self-preservational captive-keeping that has led up to that point.

But when Jack does effect his and Joy’s freedom from Room, Room becomes a moving and patient examination of recovery from a shattering trauma and regaining a hard-won measure of emotional equilibrium. Safe in the home of Joy’s mother Nancy (Joan Allen, who is never not tremendous) and her rumpled, empathetic partner Leo (Tom McCamus) – Joy’s father, played by a careworn, impatient William H. Macy, separated from her mother in the wake of their daughter’s abduction and can’t bear the sight of the boy that is a living reminder of it – Joy and Jack adjust to life in the wider world at their own pace, with their own struggles. And it’s Jack, whom a kindly doctor (Cas Anvar) is understandably concerned will be permanently scarred in psychological and social terms by the ordeal, who proves more fluid and resilient in his road to normality, bonding movingly with Nancy and Leo and Leo’s little dog Seamus and a new neighbourhood friend, and dragging a shaken and haunted Joy (Larson won the Best Actress Oscar for the role and it’s not undeserved) along with him.

Abrahamson’s previous film Frank began as a very specific farcical in-joke (about the independent music subculture, in particular) but then expanded with surprising emotional deftness into a larger, more potent statement about connection and belonging in the context of mental trauma. Room doesn’t have a satirical bone in its cinematic body, but is structured as a similarly unfolding bloom of emotional honesty and complexity, from a literally confined setting to a heartening, healing engagement with a wider experience of the world. It’s a wondrous little movie, and one quite worth making acquaintance with.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

February 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Directed by Bryan Singer)

It’s extremely self-evident exactly why the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was such a thunderous box-office hit at the same time as it is undeniably clear why it is not, properly speaking, a good movie. Spearheaded by a brassy mirrorball-smash of a performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and featuring numerous spectacular and exhilirating cinematic re-creations of the English rock legends’ bravado live performances, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you humming and buzzing as its credits roll. It’s a spirited and slavishly faithful tribute to Queen’s ambitious, dramatic music, which, after all, remains very popular, so why shouldn’t a movie about them be likewise popular?

But this is a film that never met a musical biopic convention it could resist locking onto like a rocket ship on its way to Mars, even if (especially if) those conventions inconveniently did not happen to apply to Queen’s career. Outside of its performance sequences (and even inside of them), it’s also a frequent technical fiasco: a queasy cinematographical palette from DP Newton Thomas Sigel, frightfully, distractingly over-busy editing from John Ottman (he was nominated for an Oscar for editing like this, in run-of-the-mill dialogue scenes, no less), and a glaring lack of vision and finish. This last flaw might have been predictable, given the erratic and contentious stewardship of original director Bryan Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with weeks to go in principal photography over persistent absences and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who isn’t allowed a directorial credit due to guild rules; he’s listed as an executive producer). Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success has been understood to be in spite of Singer, not because of him; at least one hopes so, given the litany of accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, which themselves did not rise to the level of disqualification from helming such a prominent studio release.

The extent to which any of these technical or behind-the-scenes criticisms will damage Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone matter to anyone watching it, will certainly vary. I, for one, was almost irrevocably lost to it when Mike Myers, buried under blotchy make-up, a permed wig, and an English accent as a fictionalized EMI record exec, directly references the unlikelihood of a scene like the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong-in-the-car sequence in Wayne’s World ever happening when arguing with the band about releasing the six-minute rock-operatic classic as a single. If I hadn’t been watching the movie in my living room, I would have walked out right then.

That’s the kind of nail-on-the-head in-joke that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay thinks is amusing (and that Myers always has), and those thought processes transfer to more serious dramatic elements of Bohemian Rhapsody. The script builds in a growing distance and then personal rupture between Mercury and his first partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); while they did end their romantic involvement with each other when Mercury told her about his sexual orientation, they were close friends until the end of his life. The pre-third-act crisis that “breaks up” the band is precipitated by Mercury’s desire to make a solo album, which the other three band members treat as an arrogant betrayal; in truth, every Queen member but Mercury released a solo album before he did. The band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 – widely considered to be the greatest single live performance of rock era, which we must by now get used to referring to definitively in the past tense – forms the climax of the film (it was re-created and filmed meticulously in its entirety, though two songs are cut from the final film), and is built up by the implication that it was their first show together in some time, when really they had released an album the year before and toured extensively just prior to Live Aid. Quibbles about historical accuracy can be judged to be particularly fruitless in terms of a cinematic biography of self-mythologizing rock stars, but these things add up and give an impression that Queen was something other than they were.

Who Freddie Mercury was, however, is the real focus of the non-musical-number scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was an unlikely person to become rock history’s most obscenely outsized talent: the son of Indian Parsi Zoroastrians born in Zanzibar before emigrating to England, he was a sublimely gifted singer with perfect pitch, a (rumoured, never quite confirmed) four-octave range, and pure, swaggering on-stage panache. Identifying as bisexual though increasingly involved in the growing gay community (from which he contracted the AIDS that would claim his life), he was and is nonetheless accepted by a wide range of music fans who responded to his talent and his music, whatever they thought of his lifestyle. Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that behind the arrogant rock star swagger was profound self-doubt and self-loathing without a specific root, that he projected supreme self-confidence but never felt it. The film stumbles clumsily around Mercury’s sexuality and identity, but always retreats to a safe neutral position that it didn’t really matter, because he will, he will rock you. For those of LGBTQ identity who find inspiration and tragic pathos in Mercury’s blazing comet of a life, a position like this in a film from supposedly progressive Hollywood in 2018 smacks of an insult.

The film that treated Mercury’s sexuality with a bit more respect and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody does would be a better film. But then, a better film would have found a way to balance the joy and the tragedy of Mercury’s life in and out of Queen. A better film have explored the giddy inventiveness of Queen’s recording, rather than quick-cutting from the working band selling their van to pay for studio time to swinging guitar amps and scattering coins on drumskins because someone randomly shouted out, “We’ve got to get experimental!”. A better film would explore the interpersonal dynamics of massively popular and rich rock stars and their managers and entourage without inventing conflicts and ruptures that didn’t happen and tell us nothing about Mercury or Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor as people (and Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t offer us much about Mercury’s bandmates, although Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello labour away to give them personality that the script is uninterested in).

A better film, too, would have been able to find a consistent and potent dramatic and emotional equilibrium between the mass-participation delight of Queen’s live shows and the private, diminishing agony of Mercury’s slow health decline from AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody does better with this than it perhaps ought to, given its other related limitations. Rami Malek’s Best Actor Oscar nomination is really for his impressive physical approximation of Freddie Mercury as a performer (the Academy is full of narcissists and therefore responds strongly to good impersonations of famous people like them), but he is an observant-enough actor to effectively sell the film’s link between the fear and uncertainty he feels due to his AIDS diagnosis and his closing Live Aid performative triumph.

Malek registers, almost imperceptively but entirely clearly, how the awareness of creeping mortality spurs Mercury on to ensuring his immortality. And damn it, despite itself, here at the end, when it matters, Bohemian Rhapsody works. Malek’s Mercury has fully reconciled with his bandmates and told them of his AIDS death sentence. He has found sufficient inner peace to seek out companionship from Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the loving partner of his final years, while also having a place in his life for Mary. He has earned the approval of his conservative Parsi family (although his father’s proud regard is only finally earned by the “good deed” of playing Bob Geldof’s preeningly compromised African famine relief charity mega-concert, so okay, then).

With all of that held in mind, with those charged atoms pinging through the electrified firmament, Malek-as-Mercury’s delivery on the Live Aid stage at Wembley of the passionate piano verse that is the second movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with its melodramatic scenario of maternal entreaty, murder and death, and existential erasure, sees the film that shares the song’s name snap suddenly, unexpectedly into sharp and powerful focus. When he sings for a billion people “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, his face reflected in the surface of the piano, I’ll be damned if it isn’t finally moving.

Maybe it’s folly scratching at the picayune inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (though I’d argue its technical problems are a bit more major). Almost certainly, however, it’s folly to wish it to have been more subtle and nuanced. This is a Queen biopic, after all, and you do not rush into Queen’s bejazzled bosom in search of subtlety and nuance. You go there to be swaddled in smothering grandeur and boundless ornate ambition, to be swallowed whole by the bloated, sparkling beast and sleep cozily in its gold-encrusted bowels.

Queen gets a bit of posthumous flack for the reduction of some of its stadium anthems (“We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” primarily) to sports-arena fan-riling fodder, or for unintentionally birthing the half-feral stepchildren of 1980s cornball hair-metal, that absolute nadir of a half-century of popular music genres. But Queen was unquestionably greater than the parasitic worms that would feed themselves from its spent body. It’s hard to argue, though, that despite its popularity and flashes of quality, Bohemian Rhapsody is one such worm. But Queen also gets the bombastic, unsubtle, mass-market biopic homage that it arguable deserves (and with manager Jim Beach, played in the film by Tom Hollander, producing and with May and Taylor as executive producers, the film the keepers of its legacy asked for and oversaw). Maybe that’s a decent measure of balance, after all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

February 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019; Directed by Dan Gilroy)

“All art is dangerous,” a gallery owner warns a prominent art critic. In Dan Gilroy’s art-world dark satire/horror film Velvet Buzzsaw, the in-born danger of art comes to terrifying life as a deadly return-of-the-repressed revenge fantasy against the greedy, status-driven human apparatus of the big-money art industry. This is a realm of ridiculous displays of wealth, avaricious brokers, pretentious opinion-makers, and diffident creators, where the traditional markers of meaning and authenticity in art have been relentlessly commodified and thus drained of power and significance.

This significance was understood to lie in originality, mastery of technique, and power of expression, yes, but also vitally in the emotional and psychological anguish of the problematically idealized tortured artistic genius, who pours his (and it’s still always a man, of course) impossibly grand pain into masterpieces that no mentally healthy creative person could evidently conceive, and no wealthy purchaser would think of paying top dollar for even if they could. We can thank Vincent Van Gogh for this problematic framing, or more broadly a century of psychoanalytic Van Gogh scholarship, or even more broadly the cultural romanticization of bohemian deprivation, debilitating addiction, antisocial abusive behaviour, and mental illness in the mythifying biographies of creative people of note. Velvet Buzzsaw turns this paradigm of valuation of art’s cultural currency on its head, or rather takes it deadly seriously. The profound mental disquiet of a truly disturbed artist quite literally bleeds into his art, turning that art and any other art that crosses its path into fatal weaponry that kills and consumes anyone seeking to profit from its sale.

The dangerous art in question was the hidden life’s work of a mysterious, disquieted recluse named Vetril Dease, who dies in his apartment building and leaves behind a trove of vivid paintings (most of them reminiscent of the twisted modernist realism of Lucian Freud or the psychosexual torment of Francis Bacon, while his biography suggests a figure like Henry Darger). Despite his leaving unambiguous and ominous instructions that all of the paintings be destroyed, Dease’s work is snapped up by building neighbour and art world striver Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for that warning gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and is sexually involved with Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), the aforementioned influential art critic whose reviews can make or break careers (Gilroy’s script is peppered with note-perfect silly art-world names like these, including Tom Sturridge’s rival art dealer Jon Dondon and a quickly-referenced fictional artist magnificently named Mertilla Splude). The Dease paintings create a sensation and are snapped up for millions, but the obsequious Vanderwalt begins to suspect their dark designs as he researches the artist’s past, as his acquaintances in Los Angeles’ art scene start to perish around him in ornate horror set-pieces, and as his previous dismissive critical pannings of exhibitions and works come back to haunt him.

Velvet Buzzsaw is Gilroy’s anticipated follow-up to the superb and compelling L.A. noir/television-media critique Nightcrawler, from which he retains stars Gyllenhaal (who is hilarious) and Russo (who is formidable and ultimately weirdly moving). It represents a considerable tonal shift to black-comedy/horror (and bounces around tonally during its running time as well), and probably is grounded too deeply in the inside-baseball details of the contemporary art trade to appeal to a wider audience. But fuck all of that, Velvet Buzzsaw (the title refers to Haze’s former rock band whose punk aesthetic her opulent current circles baldly expose and reject) is a visually clever, sharply trangressive delight (albeit a patchily-paced one with too many minor characters and subplots to keep airborne at any one time, like a less-assured Robert Altman film) that comprehensively skewers the bloated corpus of the art world and its shimmeringly ugly transformation at the hands of the monied elite.

Haze, Josephina, and the shallow Dondon are just in it for the money and the status, as is Gretchen (post-modern horror queen Toni Collette), who blows off a thankless curator position at an under-resourced contemporary art museum to become a private art consultant to a deep-pocketed collector. Lower down the ladder are gallery grunts like Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a frustrated artist labouring as an installer, and Coco (Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer), who bounces from one employer to another as they get bumped off in hopes of drawing enough income to avoid having to decamp back home to humble Michigan. Somewhere perhaps even lower in this pyramidical arrangement are the artists themselves, like inspiration-blocked recovering alcoholic Piers (John Malkovich) and former art collective street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), who are courted by the capital-rich galleries but seek some simpler and more essential creative truths away from the ravenous meat market of the lucrative art trade.

Because at the centre of Velvet Buzzsaw is a suggestion that most celebrated and high-priced contemporary art is not only not dangerous but hardly interesting or engaging and mostly laughably derivative. The art pieces created for the film drive this idea home. In the film’s opening scene at Art Basel in Miami, Vanderwalt is bemusedly dismissive of a piece called Hoboman, consisting of a deteriorating cyborg on crutches wearing a black Lone Ranger mask and tattered Uncle Sam jacket jerking robotically around and uttering imperial-decay phrases like “Once I built a railroad” and “I can’t save you” (the critic and Hoboman will meet again, before the end). An unimpressed Rhodora Haze walks into an installation at her gallery painstakingly re-creating a frozen, mundane moment in the kitchen and living room of an unremarkable suburban family, complete with wax figures of the family (she laments that it seemed “edgier at the Biennale”). Josephina’s ambitious self-rising embrace of artifice is confronted by a magic-realist sterile gallery space hung with wall graffiti that bleeds threateningly towards her, the creeping retribution of urban authenticity.

Other moments emphasize how the highly-intellectualized conceptuality of the post-structuralist breakdown in centrality of meaning has unmoored art from consistent apprehension and recognition. When Jon Dondon visits Piers in his studio, the bottom level where reproductions are made is bustling with the activity of apprentices, but on the bare second level where the blocked artist is supposed to be making new work, the foppish Dondon mistakes a clump of garbage bags for a “remarkable” contemporary piece. A reflective piece called Sphere featuring holes in which observers can insert their arms to experience various unique sensations is exhibited in a museum alongside a clutch of the poisonous Dease paintings; when it claims a victim the night before the big opening, attendees are non-plussed by the dead body and the pools of blood around the sphere, believing them to be part of the exhibit. Even Los Angeles itself is turned into a detached landscape in a series of interstitial long shots by Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit, overlook vistas and overhead views of a cool, impersonal, disconnected lighted grid of urban sprawl like a Mondrian canvas.

Compared to this cerebralized and commodified art, the paintings of Vertil Dease in their agonized, pulsating expressionist honesty are vital, terrible, and dangerously real. It is this unsettling psychological realism and sublime power that is the true threat to the art market’s milieu of surface and capital (the Deases are labelled as “outsider art” when shown, as being outside the art establishment is at once a detriment and an advantage). Velvet Buzzsaw is a layered satirical critique of the art market which does not simplistically trade on juxtapositions of real vs. fake, authentic vs. constructed, original vs. derivative. It ruthlessly lampoons the fluttering contrivance of narcissistic art-world fools, yes, but likewise constructs the supposedly authentic artistic vision represented by Dease’s work as literally murderous in its revelation of a tortured psyche. In Velvet Buzzsaw‘s disconnected, sales-driven world of contemporary art, art that bares the human soul in all of its lurking darkness is indeed extremely dangerous.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

The Fyre Festival Documentaries and the Late Capitalist American Moment

February 9, 2019 Leave a comment

If any one contemporary event can be said to come closest to embodying a succinct-yet-nuanced summation of the semi-fraudulent, endlessly aspirational, wildly unmoored state of American Late Capitalism at this moment in history, it is surely 2017’s Fyre Festival. As depicted from differing, distinct, and uniquely compromised angles by a dueling pair of streaming documentary films released this year – Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud – Fyre Festival promised to be an exclusively, luxury music festival on a tropical island in the Bahamas that would play out in the e-spotlight of social media, a baccanalian carnival of online influencers, beautiful people, celebrities, swimsuits, alcohol, and popular music. A sort of Coachella in the Caribbean for wealthy millenials, Fyre Festival was supposed to be the next big thing in terms of culture and online buzz and profit, but sputtered out in a spectacular implosion of shoddy half-completion, cut corners, disorganization, and rampant financial crimes.

It’s important to have a solid grasp of the narrative fundamentals of what happened leading up to and on a desultory April weekend on the Bahamanian island of Great Exuma in 2017 before leaping off from those happenings to a wider understanding of what they reveal about the contemporary American social economy. For that purpose, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix, directed by Chris Smith, is a more detailed blow-by-blow chronicle and thus worth watching first.

In broad strokes, American entrepreneur/serial con artist Billy McFarland masterminded Fyre Festival, with the support of rapper and public hype-man Ja Rule, his overstretched staff at Fyre Media, Inc. (the company behind a semi-successful talent-booking mobile app that the festival was conceived of to promote), patchily-paid international event professionals and local Bahamanian labourers, and controversial social-media marketing firm Jerry Media (a.k.a fuckjerry, who are the problematic co-producers of the film). What followed was a litany of foolish decisions, shambolic planning on an unrealistically compressed timeline, an endemic lack of funds, and above all a virulently fantastical tone of upbeat positivity and yes-man assurances that it would all work out no matter how disastrous things seemed to be trending. When paying festival attendees and complimentary-admitted social media influencers arrived on Great Exuma, they found a half-finished festival site in a construction quarry dotted with disaster-relief tents, bad food, no running water or portable toilets, and a slate of cancelled performers. The situation dissolved into chaos quickly, attendees struggled to return Stateside as social and traditional media erupted with schadenfreude mockery of the shambles of an event, and McFarland’s astoundingly-scaled crimes of fraud and misreporting would land him in prison.

Fyre makes this all abundantly clear and entirely wacky and entertaining. There are countless mad details dropped by the cadre of half-bemused, half-ashamed interview subjects from whom Smith cobbles together the festival narrative. There’s the initial intended site for the festival, a private Bahamanian island with half-feral pigs and no infrastructure at all that was once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Flown to the site by a pilot who learned to fly (and to perform dangerous zero-g drops for the amusement of McFarland, Ja Rule, and their entourage) from Microsoft Flight Simulator, the Fyre team shot a gauzy, enticing promo video featuring famous supermodels frolicking on the beaches. The clip attracted notice on social media alongside Jerry Media’s orange-tile Instagram event announcement post that “disrupted” the feeds of numerous top influencers (including Kardashian dynastic daughter Kylie Jenner, who commands a ludicrous quarter-million-dollar fee for such a promo post). But despite the buzz it generated, the promo’s brash mention of the countercultural Escobar association broke a specific stipulation of the island’s owners, who immediately pulled their agreement to lease its freehold for the festival.

Settling instead on the more-populated Great Exuma, McFarland and crew set a date less than four months from the New Year’s announcement, which also happened to coincide with a regatta weekend that is Great Exuma’s busiest tourist time of the year. A casually pragmatic local fixer and traumatized, nearly-bankrupted local restaurant owner give a local view of the chaos and lack of fiduciary compensation for workers, who considered kidnapping organizers and holding them for ransom just to make something for their time and effort. The detail that most illustrates the over-the-top lengths that McFarland and the organizers were willing to go to have the festival go forward – holding the event even in a diminished form was their sole hope to recoup the investment that they had made – has also become the defining viral moment of the Fyre Festival documentaries: a gray-haired male veteran event producer admits to being fully prepared to perform fellatio on a Bahamanian customs agent in order to get their shipment of booze cleared to enter the country.

Primed for the larger sweep of Fyre Festival’s failure by Fyre, moving along to Fyre Fraud, the Hulu documentary directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, is even more eye-opening. Fyre Fraud might be less blessed with wild, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details of savage greedy weirdness, but it is a smarter, more nuanced, and quietly, self-righteously outraged film from which no one involved in the event escapes unscathed. Although Fyre Fraud paid Billy McFarland for an interview to be used in the film, they use the material gleaned from this sit-down to comprehensively expose him for a shameless grifter and pathologically-dishonest confidence man, not only in the case of Fyre Festival but in prior ventures like Magnises, the over-inflated metal credit card for status-obsessed millenials that he came up with, as well as in shoddy ticket scams carried out while on parole for his Fyre-related fraud charges. McFarland is a fast-talking and convincing grifter but also one epically foolish enough to run a huge con fully in the public eye, where he wouldn’t be able to hide from what he must have understood would be its inevitable embarrassing unraveling. This film also reserves pointed criticism for Jerry Media, whose involvement in the Netflix doc becomes an evident pre-requisite for sparing them any such criticsm in that film, as well as painting McFarland’s earlier ventures – especially Magnises – as essentially legitimate before he jumped the legal shark with Fyre Festival.

Fyre Fraud also makes a stronger case for Fyre Festival as an illustrative, symbolically-charged moment in the Late Capitalist zeitgeist in the United States. It shows how McFarland ingratiated himself with wealthy venture capitalists and corporate titan mentors (including at least one charged with massive securities fraud), how he inflated projections and financial reporting at every company he founded, how he sold false bills of goods to nearly everyone who crossed his path. McFarland is presented not as an abberation but as an entirely predictable and even encouraged creature of America’s new Gilded Age of tremendous accumulated wealth, sharp income inequality, and exploitative rip-off capitalism. It likewise connects Fyre Festival’s buzzy pre-event marketing profile to the #FOMO-focused experience consumption of millenials locked out of traditional displays of affluence by the wealth-hoarding of the aging 1% elite, to the forced-cheer positivity-selling fabulism of the social media influencer image presentation, and to the magical thinking, creative-class economic insupportability, and consequence-free assumptions of white American privilege. It does not notice, nor really does Netflix’s Fyre, the disturbing neo-colonial implications of how black Bahamanians (the literal descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean) were made to labour long hours for no pay in the service of white leisure and profit.

Moreoever, Fyre Fraud registers, quite pointedly, how this all went down in the first months of the presidency of Donald Trump, a self-promoting grifter-elite capitalist par excellence whose ostentatious image of wealth is his prime selling feature in the public eye (besides, of course, his virulent white nationalism and generalized cruelty to others). Fyre Festival, of course, is not Trump’s fault (nor was it Vladimir Putin’s, one supposes), but what is clear by the end of Fyre Fraud is that the same confluence of forces produced both American disasters. The hard-sold expectation of wealth and prosperity ended for Fyre Festival attendees in the self-same disaster shelters that greeted citizens rendered homeless by destructive hurricanes. As on-the-nose as the metaphor may be, this extreme contrast of promised luxurious comfort and delivered bare-subsistence is the animating socioeconomic contradiction of Trumpist America. If only his regime would end with as few desperate victims as Fyre Festival ultimately claimed, but one ought not to hold one’s breath.

Film Review: Chappaquiddick

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Chappaquiddick (2018; Directed by John Curran)

What was it that the Kennedys meant to America? Did they leave a real, tangible mark on American politics, society, and culture, or was the brief, flaming-out ascendance of their heavily-compromised brand of masculine-coded New England brahmin liberalism in the 1960s of simple (or not so entirely simple) symbolic value? The romanticized patina of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, ended with assassin’s bullets in Dallas in 1963, was referred to with puffy chivalric non-irony as Camelot, and it’s arguable that the achievements of JFK’s administration were quite comprehensively eclipsed by camera-friendly appearances and the hindsight mythos of his martrydom (they were also outdone by the much more important legislative advancements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s succeeding administration, although both Democratic presidencies were fatally compromised by the expansion of the Vietnam War). Essentially, reality swamped by fantasy, in a manner that reflects, in a rudimentary funhouse mirror way, the complete devastation of reality at the hands of fantasy of the present presidential moment.

John Curran’s Chappaquiddick captures the moment at which the hard pitiless difficulty of reality – random, amoral, and unconcerned with justice or legacies or human intent or emotional fulfillment – most finally and most irrevocably caught up with the Kennedys, when the boundlessly consuming ambitions of the clan at last ran out of spare male scions upon which to lay the mantle of hopeful power. Over a weekend in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew set first foot on the moon in a vindication of JFK’s inaugural speech pledge to put an American on the lunar surface as an aspirational image of national courage, spirit and ingenuity, his younger brother Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off a dike bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, leading to the death by drowning of his also-slain brother Robert F. Kennedy’s former staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Ted Kennedy’s confused and shambolic response – he did not report the incident until 10 hours later, seems to have tried to suppress some details and positively spin others at several points, and later clownishly showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace that he clearly did not need – deepened a PR crisis that erupted in the U.S. media once the glow of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind faded from the headlines. Although Ted later ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1980 (losing to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who then lost the White House to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan), the Chappaquiddick incident was widely understood to have cost Ted Kennedy any hope of ever ascending to the highest political office in the United States.

The careful, procedurally-minded, step-after-step approach of Chappaquiddick shows effectively how poor the judgement of Ted Kennedy and his immediate circle was in the aftermath of the incident (which, of course, showed literally fatally poor judgement in the first place). Kennedy cousin and close advisor Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) acts as the exasperated voice of moral reason, while the imperious family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern) – physically reduced by a stroke and months from the grave but still as unbowed and unscrupulous as ever – raspily urges his last surviving son to craft an alibi and summons a cadre of canny suits (including Clancy Brown as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara) to cover up and spin the situation as much as still may be possible.

Chappaquiddick notes that Edward Kennedy went on to four distinguished decades in the U.S. Senate (where he likely leveraged more influence on the direction of the country than he would have in four or eight years in the White House), and it treats his martyred elder brothers (not only John and Robert but eldest brother Joseph, Jr., killed in action in World War II) and their political and personal legacy as a model to which he could never hope to live up to. Indeed, while the script (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is careful not to even hint at any sexual impropriety between Ted Kennedy and Kopechne (which was always forefront in the rumours and innuendo about the incident), it characterizes the Senator as being hopelessly weighed down under the pressure of the expectations of his greatness.

The crash on Chappaquiddick Island, this film suggests, was the final instance of Edward Kennedy crumbling under those expectations of his family, his country, and above all of his iron-willed father. In the scenes leading up to the crash and flashing back to before it happened to reveal additional details, director Curran and lead actor Clarke portray Ted Kennedy as being not so much drunk on alcohol (though maybe he was also that) but mentally and physically disoriented and exhausted by self-doubt and despair at the thought (perhaps the certainty) of failing to live up to those expectations. Kopechne is intelligent and sympathetic (we have patriarchy to thank for having needy man-children like Kennedy and not capable women like her as natural assumed leader material), and attempts to comfort, or steady, or understand this weak man who is supposed to be a great one. That effort sucks her into his vortex, and costs her life.

“I’m not gonna be President,” Clarke’s Ted Kennedy utters to Gargan as he returns from the crash site to seek his friend’s aid. Clarke is careful to imbue the necessary weight and sadness in his character’s voice as he says this, but surely there must have been a sore temptation for him to express a note of relief as well. One core premise of Chappaquiddick, made explicit in Clarke’s final scene with Dern’s wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, is that Edward Kennedy never wanted to be President, whether or not Mary Jo Kopechne’s death made that impossible. The mythic Kennedy curse is invoked, but maybe the curse of Edward Kennedy and his elder brothers was one of inheritance, not merely of their difficult father’s character (or, more psychologically compelling, as a result of that difficult character) but of a patriarchal masculine hero complex (perhaps more firmly inculcated into the younger three after the eldest’s war hero demise) that refused to release them from its domineering grasp for even scant moments of respite.

This male hero complex, a cultural inheritance of the sort of chivalric knighthood romance that was being invoked with the Camelot moniker, is still often lionized by traditionalists and conservatives as a catalogue of lost virtue. But we know from the #MeToo moment of our culture, and can see from Chappaquiddick‘s case study example, that these conceptual frameworks of male power and superiority not only preclude emotional self-examination and psychological honesty in a manner damaging to men and to those around them, they also compel immoral (or at least self-interestedly amoral) conduct in those powerful men when the fanciful assumption intended to justify those codes is that they should compel moral conduct instead.

One ought not to suggest that John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated because they adhered to this code, but their younger brother’s troubles as re-created in Chappaquiddick can be traced straight back to it, and are. Hardened by self-righteous anger, Helms’ Joe Gargan confronts Ted Kennedy at one point during his messy, disheartening response to the crash that, after all, killed another person, telling him that he is not a victim. But Ted Kennedy, like most men reared in his time, is a victim, though not in the way that Gargan is thinking of.

Chappaquiddick feeds into the narcissism of focusing on male suffering when it is in truth eclipsed by the suffering of others with the misfortune not to be important men, but it also subtly tracks, so deep in the subtextual background that it could easily be missed, that this narcissism (a trait not alien to the Kennedys, whatever other positive things might be said about them) can also be debilitating, a peculiar species of slow-poison curse. There is a tension of surface and depths, fantasy and reality, political spin and bare human tragedy, in Chappaquiddick. As in the case of the real-life incident as well as in the case of the Kennedy political legacy, that is a tension that is never, and inherently can never be, satisfactorily resolved.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews