quick film review: rise of the guardians

There seems to be an excess of guardians in Hollywood these days, which should serve as a reminder not to confuse the animated Holiday-themed Rise of the Guardians with Zach Snyder’s gorgeous, but shallow, war-themed effort, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hule. Another aid: although both dance to similar rhythms, it’s Rise of the Guardians that succeeds in delivering enough visual novelty and earnest characterizations to deliver a familiar hero’s journey with heart, humour, and surprisingly effective moments of threat and menace. The inventively realized lands of the films’ heroic guardians, at least those with lands to call home - Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy – range from lush to surreal and benefit from an attention to detail that often inspires the sense of wonder so valued by the film’s characters. And the characters are conceived, designed and voiced with an elegant mix of whimsy and panache, a combination that elicits an immediately favourable visceral reaction. A biker-like Santa Claus voiced by Alec Baldwin with a Russian accent dual wielding sabers when not carving magical toys out of ice? Very cool, as is the diminutive and silent Sandman whose expressiveness is mediated via symbols that form in sand above his head. The bunny is funny, even with an inexplicable Australian accent, and the tooth fairy is appropriately sweet and lovely.

The protagonist is literally as well as figuratively cool, an amnesic youth who is chosen by the Man in the Moon to become Jack Frost and, in dire times, to finally assume his place as a guardian of the world’s children. He is the sort of likeable chap whose innate nobility struggles to burst through the eclipsing effects of self-doubt and the nefarious influence of the film’s boogeyman (smoothly voiced by Jude Law)  – think of Darth Vader’s attempt to seduce Luke to the Dark Side of the Force. It might be a (tempting) stretch to see in the film, which aggregates author/illustrator William Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood series into a single story, a celebratory fable of paganism pitted against the dark age fearfulness of Christianity. But wishful, and arguable, politics aside, the film is first and foremost a rousing celebration of those lovely universal sentiments so colourfully expressed through the pageantry of holidays. Rise of the Guardians is that wonderful treat, a film addressed to all ages, without condescension towards adults or treacly indulgences for the kids.


tragedy, history, repeat

The massacre in Connecticut should require no adjectives to describe its obvious moral terror, and a preface to my comments I will categorically declare my sympathy and compassion with the grieving families of Newtown. With that , however, I must take issue with the reaction of people who have no direct connection to the unequivocally saddening tragedy, beginning with the hypocrisy of people who scarcely seem to muster any outrage when this sort of thing happens elsewhere in the world. My objection stems from the various people I've encountered who expressed their heartbreak and emotional devastation at the event. Violent tragedies happens on a regular basis around the world; why does this one merit special emotional upheaval? I'm not suggesting apathy or indifference. I'm merely pointint out the moral deficiency of selective empathy. How many, I wonder, were ravaged by Anders Breivik's numerically worse massacre in Norway, an unconscionable crime that seems to share similar characteristic as the crime in Newtown? How many people give thought to the victims of the Assad regime in Syria, or the victims of violence in Afghanistan? At the heart of our reaction to the tragedy are questionable assumptions.

First is the notion that the loss of children's lives is a special class of egregious crime. Yet, do we not all have our lives ahead of us? Why is it more tragic for society to lose a child than an adult? The supervaluation of children leads to a corresponding devaluation of adults, whose lives are somehow perceived as less precious. If we value life, should we not reject such agist moralism? Why should the experience and, hopefully, wisdom of age be any less a loss to the world than the potential of youth?

Second, in a fearful, reactionary society that confuses being armed with being secure, the notion of a rational discussion of the place of guns in society is all but hopelessly muddled. Blame goes to the NRA, of course, and its relentless grip on policy. But , crucially, the problem is one of the reasoning error that equivocates gun control with gun bans. How many times does it have to be explained that the purpose of gun control is not to deprive responsible individuals of weapons to defend themselves or to hunt, but to balance 2nd amendment rights with the need for social safety and preserving the public good? The 9th amendment, it's worth remembering, states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” And surely the right to enact public safety policies by supporting responsible gun ownership falls within the realm of other rights “retained by the people.” We have technology to aid law enforcement, such as etching serial numbers on bullet to help track the chain of ownership. We can implement policies to reduce the likelihood of irresponsible gun owners – whether criminal, pathological, or psychologically troubled – from coming into possession of weapons. We can hold gun manufacturers, those crime profiteers, accountable for manufacturing and selling their weapons without discrimination. We can point the finger to the NRA, which is not a voice for sane gun ownership but a smut peddler of gun fetishism. And, of course, we can turn our attention towards achieving the social justice and benevolence that reduces the likelihood of people turning their suffering into acts of evil.

The President said, “We can't tolerate this anymore.” I ask: why did we tolerate it at all? An argument can be made to ban guns, particularly their manufacture. After all, it is a mathematical fact that criminals and terrorists, not to forget ordinary individuals involved in domestic disputes, will have fewer opportunities to perpetrate gun violence if there are fewer guns in existence. Nevertheless, in deference to the possibility that some situations legitimately warrant private gun ownership (and, of course, the 2nd Amendment), I would not advocate for a total ban. Restrictions, however, are another matter. No military weapons for private citizens, for example. Limits on the number of firearms and ammunition an individual can possess. Stronger background checks. None of these are revolutionary ideas, except to the radicals of the NRA.

Will history repeat itself? It remains to be seen whether the grief engendered by this tragedy will cascade into definitive action.



Warning! Spoilers!

It was all going so well. Building on the grittier, grounded Bond of the Timothy Dalton years and the relatively modernized sensibilities of the subsequent Pierce Brosnan era, Casino Royale and it’s awkwardly-named sequel, Quantum of Solace, were poised to deliver not only a Bond for our times, but perhaps the definitive cinematic Bond. Gone, at last, were the zany gadgets, scenery-chewing villains, outré plots of world subjugation, and sexual innuendo that, more often than not, suggested masculinity still waiting to grow into adulthood. In their place: sensible but no less formidable foes plucked from today’s terrorist and corporate threats, and a Bond whose cunning, brawn, and burgeoning charm are the tools of choice above gizmos. And, of course, Daniel Craig with his inevitable comparisons to Steve McQueen.

When Sam Mendes & Co – which includes veteran Bond screenwriters Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan – announced their intention to return Bond to the “classic” era, at least by way of astral projection, I admit, in hindsight, to indulging expectations derived from the so-far excellent re-imagining of a cultural icon. Casino Royale offered a winning start with a surprisingly personal Bond story – delivered in a context of international crime, terrorism, and espionage that made the topic of finances seem awfully exciting. Quantum of Solace may have soured some fans and divided critics, but I was gripped by the frighteningly credible threat of an organization exploiting the geopolitics of water scarcity for the purposes of amassing money and power. The story successfully evoked the paranoia that comes from an organization with its own intelligence capabilities, network of operatives, mysterious power brokers at undisclosed levels of the group’s hierarchy, and necessary aversion to flash and theatricality – precisely the sort of threat intelligence agencies such as MI6 are intended to detect and defeat. 

I fully anticipated that the handsomely filmed Skyfall would complete Bond’s evolution from blunt instrument to vengeful machine until, at last, he could relax into the persona of playboy agent; ever deadly, but always receptive to the finer pleasures of the high-life. Bond could re-assume his place as the World’s Most Interesting Man, a title currently held by John Goldsmith on behalf of Dos Equis, with a turbulent psyche and conflicted morals smoothed over by carefully manicured hedonism. And wetted with a shaken martini. But while Mendes & Co make the film an homage to Bond’s golden age, stuffing the film with enough amusing references for a Bond museum, they also revive the franchise’s chauvinism, this time amplified into forthright misogyny. 

I can understand Bond’s aversion to anything more than fleeting romantic liaisons on account of his tragic affair with Vesper Lynd – but does he have to be an asshole? It’s depressing enough that, in a scene tinged with colonialist condescension, Bond fucks and forgets a pretty (read: exotic)woman without even politely dispensing sweet nothings or common post-coital courtesy. When another beautiful woman – a victim of sexual trafficking and slavery whom Bond also beds in a creepy sequence –is mercilessly executed by the film’s villain in a sadistic version of William Tell’s apple trick, the best Bond can do is coldly quip about spilled scotch. Sean Connery would never be so crass or mean. Therein lies the difference between the Bonds of yore and Skyfall’s Bond; past 007s may have only rarely loved women on a spiritual level, but they certainly loved women on the level of aesthetic, sensual and, to be fair, consensual gratification. We could understand why women longingly sighed for Bond; he offered not only sex, but good-humoured romance with no strings attached. Craig’s Bond, however, doesn’t even possess the aesthete’s appreciation of pleasure, let alone the effortless charm that lends itself to seduction, rendering his post-Vesper liaisions little more than outbreaks of redirected aggression. 

The past chauvinism of the franchise, tempered by the fact that Bond’s affairs were between consenting adults, is here manifested as disturbing hostility and dismissiveness. Consider the introduction of a female agent named Eve, a kick-ass sort played with moxie and humour by Naomie Harris. When a job goes wrong, resulting in Bond’s apparent death, she is sent scurrying back to headquarters to have her fitness for field-work reevaluated. Bond’s advice when they reunite? Not all people are fit for field work – an opinion confirmed when Mendes & Co have her choose to take an administrative position instead of returning to field duty. And there, in quick, is Miss Moneypenny’s origin story within the reimagined Bond universe; a promising field agent who ends up a secretary…but since the decision is contrived as voluntary, the patriarchy’s wish for willingly submissive women is fulfilled and excused. 

It’s demeaning enough to have the women stay home while the men fight the war, but even worse when Judy Dench’s M – a formidable force in the Bond universe and quite possibility the franchises’ most brilliant casting decision – is reduced to a damsel in distress and surrogate mother. I get it: she’s an old lady, though Judi Dench can never be old to me. As the head of MI6, however, with enough personality to power a metropolitan city for a year, M’s feebleness comes across as a jarring, unlikely contradiction. The film half-heartedly tries to give her some spunk and ingenuity in the climactic confrontation, only to reward her with a cheap, unworthy death saddled with the villain’s mother issues and a tarnished career legacy. 

There’s no denying the film’s kinetic energy, however, or the few delightful bon-bons plucked from the franchise’s most iconic elements. Like a roller coaster, the film succeeds in leaving thinking brains far beyond bodies exhilarated by the rush of adrenaline. There are a few genuinely human moments, such as the welcome reintroduction of Q branch via an improbable museum encounter between Bond and the fresh quartermaster played by Ben Whishaw. The scene is one of the film’s best, as two generations meet, size each other up via witty repartee, and come out sparkling with the promise of a beautiful new friendship. But scenes with any hint of humanity, including promising glimpses into Bond’s sad childhood, are marginalized between extended action scenes that have only the thinnest application of plot to glue them together. Divorced from any semblance of narrative context, most of the action and fight scenes are thrilling in and of themselves, marking a return to the classical stunt choreography and practical special effects that, these days, have been replaced by CGI. The opening sequence, involving a chase that culminates with a train and construction equipment, is tense and exhilarating. Just don’t give in to the taboo of asking about collateral damage; thinking about the innocent lives put at risk, not to mention the property damage, is bad form for an action movie. Other scenes of destruction, ranging from large-scale to larger-scale, fare worse by unintentional evoking disbelief. One in particular, involving a train crash reminiscent of the Universal City studio tour, is partly brazen. Why is that train empty during rush hour? And if Mendes & Co had populated the train, wouldn’t the death toll and number of injuries be horrific? Given the superficial plot that is neatly, and entirely, summed up as a rogue agent’s revenge on M for a past wrong, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the details are muddled too. Also, note this: screenwriters Neil Purvis and Robert Wade are the same folk who gave us the invisible car in Die Another Day. Perhaps they missed the critical influence of their partner for the previous films, Paul Haggis.

Most action movies exhibit cracks in their plausibility but have enough momentum to race forward. This is partly true of Skyfall. Until the perversely hilarious end, that is, when it becomes clear that all that effort, what one could rightly refer to as storm and fury, serviced a con. Just as The Dark Knight Rises pranked viewers into believing the franchise celebrated Batman when, subversively, it took apart his mythology, Skyfall ends up signifying nothing. James Bond, once the hero’s hero, is here punctured by one the grandest Pyrrhic victories on screen in some time. After an entire film whose events are almost entirely and single-handedly orchestrated by Javier Bardem’s vengeful hacker villain, Bond takes charge and delivers a killing blow of his own only to simultaneously fail in preventing the end-game; M’s death. The prank in all of this? MI6 is blown up and hacked (repeatedly), a humiliation capped by the death of its head, and Bond, after spending most of the movie’s duration sulking, is restored to full Bond-hood in a celebration of failing upwards. And audiences are rewarded with a franchise reset to an earlier era that no longer has to consider the complex realities of the 21st century, let alone the nuances of the human spirit. 

Between the irony and the misogyny, however, I have so far failed to mention the film’s villain, a blond-haired fop who, as conceived by Mendes & Co, amounts to Hannibal Lecter homoeroticized for the unfortunate sake of a joke. Bardem is too good an actor to deliver a bad performance, and in this capacity he doesn’t disappoint; his Raoul Silva oozes every bit of quirky malice a cartoon supervillain requires. The sheer preposterousness of his brilliance – his computer skills defy MI6’s supposedly best-of-the-best Q branch – and ability to manipulate even the smallest events as part of his grand design is matched only by the sheer banality of his motive for revenge. Resolving his evil into psychological instability with suicidal tendencies and mommy issues doesn’t add layers to the characters. It highlights the malleability Mendes & Co exploit to suit an agenda that is devoted to style and aversive to substance. In any case, we’ve seen Silva before in the Bond franchise, only done with greater conviction and acuity, and less camp: he was called Alec Trevalyan and played by Sean Bean in GoldenEye. In Skyfall, Bardem’s Silva merely merely proves that the only threat worthy for

The good news is that, like Doctor Who, the Bond universe is not burdened with an excessive interest in continuity. Like the good doctor, the menu of different Bond actors and approaches to Ian Fleming’s creation means there can be a Bond for everyone. The bad news is that, also in keeping with the BBC’s revival of Doctor Who, the Bond revival with Craig does involve an undeniable connection between films. Just as Quantum of Solace’s injection of moral awareness into Daniel Craig’s Bond elevated Casino Royale in retrospect – by providing a psychological trajectory for the character to follow – Skyfall has the inverse effect of degrading the entire series. It is, to some extent, the same depreciation I experienced with Nolan’s Batman trilogy after watching The Dark Knight Rises. Where the latter, however, amounted to the disappointment of missed opportunities, Skyfall amounts to the outright repudiation of the past films. The significant franchise achievements of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace seem much less worthy of praise knowing that they culminate in a profoundly dislikeable asshole Bond and in a franchise return to cartooning .


the dark knight rises...but not very high

Be warned! Here there be spoilers...

The third and, if Nolan is to be believed, final film in his Batman trilogy is arguably as satisfying an end as one could hope for – provided one relinquishes ambitions stoked by The Dark Knight and an allegiance to past interpretations of the character. Owing its narrative kernel, structure, and impression to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises brings Bruce Wayne full-circle to the origins of his caped persona in a film that’s smarter and brawnier than the average action movie but also derived from the the genre conventions Nolan & Co expressly rejected in The Dark Knight. Hence, Gotham City is once more under threat of being exploded by agents of the melodramatic League of Shadows, and it falls to Bruce Wayne to dust off his armour and re-engage with the city he abandoned. Apart from an over-the-top opening aerial scene in which terrorists mutilate a plane in mid-air as part of a scheme to kidnap a scientist (and, unintentionally, audience credibility), the film convincingly pops the corn at a gripping pace that leaves implausibilities and nit-picks for the post-credits autopsy.

Although Gotham City remains a characterless amalgamation of grand US cities, a consistent weakness throughout the trilogy, Nolan’s production team delivers stunning industrial design in the forms of Batman’s costume, gadgets, and vehicles, including an intimidating flying version of the tumbler called the Bat. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is safe in his envy of Batman’s beautiful toys in Burton’s vision – more or less. If engineering ever matched aesthetics in its capacity to drop jaws it would have to be in the impressive technology Nolan’s Batman wields.

In keeping with the grounded production design, Nolan’s nominally realistic approach to the material delivers gritty urban action that fascinates without drawing on our culture’s easy fetishism for violence. It is curious, however, that his staging of spectacle such as the collapsing stadium creates a cerebral rather than strongly visceral impression of shock, an impression that achieves its effect yet nevertheless keeps emotions at a safe distance. In this regard, the film achieves an all-too-even tonality, rarely expressing outrage or other great emotion.  Nolan’s self-restraint is commendable for events that, handled by other directors, risk becoming amplified to histrionic excess but comes with the price that some events remain too understated to make a connection with audiences.

Counteracting the tendency towards a flattened affect , thankfully, is Michael Caine, who returns as Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate parental figure. He imbues the film with its most genuine human emotion. It is somewhat unfair to single Caine out, however, since series regulars Morgan Freeman, as technologist extraordinaire Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman, as the put-upon Commissioner Gordon, respectively bring bemused compassions and world-weary gravitas to the film – that is, a measure of humanity distinct from Christian Bale’s grim Wayne. Among the newcomers, Tom Hardy as the masked Bane makes for a towering villain, physically commanding and possessed of a certain wit, whose flair for the theatrical is underwritten by the sustained promise of controlled but volatile savagery. Nolan & Co aimed to present Batman with both a physical and intellectual threat, and their conception of Bane works effectively in this regards. Hardy exudes menace and intelligence in equal measure, transcending the limitations of his face mask to deliver a worthy antagonist ever-so-slightly deflated by an undeclared origin concept. Also effective, if low-key, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop who runs hot but honestly towards an intriguing plot twist, and Marillon Cotillard as a Wayne Enterprises executive pushing the reclusive Bruce to use his fortune and company for noble purposes.

But what, we desperately want to ask, of a certain feline femme fatale? Wisely, Anne Hatheway’s sharp rendition of Catwoman steers clear of Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic portrayal, setting aside the latter’s erotically charged menace in favour of an urban Robin Hood portrayal. Yet while Hatheway has the charm and intensity for the role, she lacks support from a script whose divided attention fails to fully take advantage of everything the character, arguably the most interesting addition to the ensemble, has to offer.

An underused Catwoman, however, is only a symptom of a film that delivers a thriller plot largely stripped of the thorny sociological challenges stirred up in The Dark Knight. The film’s weakness: a failure to logically explore the consequences wrought by Commisionner Gordon and Batman’s decision to whitewash Harvey Dent’s reputation. Although we are presented with the personal costs of choosing to hold Batman responsible for Dent’s murder spree as Two-Face, paralleled by Alfred’s decision to withhold a letter to Bruce from Rachel Dawes explaining her love for Dent, we are not given an account of the cost extracted from Gotham’s citizens. Commissioner Gordon, an honest man, predictably suffers from both the tragic fate that befell Dent as well as the injustice inherent in blaming an innocent man for crimes he didn’t commit. Bruce, his ability to function as Batman undermined, becomes a recluse with nothing to cling to other than the mistaken belief that he could have found happiness with Rachel had she survived the Joker’s machinations. Yet other than the mention of a Harvey Dent Act, the direct product of Gordon and Batman’s whitewashing that is instrumental to clearing Gotham of organized crime through draconian limitation of criminals’ civil rights, it is far from clear what price Gotham had to pay for its reduced crime rate. At the very least, one would expect that a reduction in criminals’ civil rights would spill over into a reduction of all civil rights, one whose very toughness on crime earned by relaxing safeguards sweeps the innocent as well as the guilty. What if, reasonably enough, the Act had resulted in the police force adopting Batman’s vigilante methods as a systemic policy, effectively institutionalizing extra-legal methods? Illustrating the debate between security versus freedom, presenting Gotham as a police state would have raised a deliciously complex ethical scenario further enriched by the topic of the individual as vigilante versus a legal institution. It is in this dichotomy that the link between superheroic vigilantism and fascist thuggery, raised by Watchmen and sustained by some comic book critics, could be explored as the politics of scale; what works for a lone individual may not work so well as a social paradigm. And then, naturally, after establishing the fragile status quo the film would throw in a grenade, namely, by exposing the city’s duplicity and, consequently, tearing down Dent’s heroic image.

The nature of the threat posed by Bane – an external force assaulting the city –largely prevents The Dark Knight Rises from fully confronting the aftermath of The Dark Knight, a narrative effort that requires introspection. Equally deflating is Nolan & Co’s lack of attention to the people of Gotham themselves except as a flock of sheep to be shepherded and protected. Without an exploration of how larger events influence the people who provide the major characters with their rationale for action, the film leaves questions raised by The Dark Knight unresolved and unexamined. When Nolan & Co finally toss the grenade into the fray, the end result is good PR for Batman, who is now free to resume his heroic role untarnished by Dent’s crimes, and good for inciting criminals to stage a prison break. It is, however, ultimately without significance.

Bane’s character concept is problematic both in general and in terms of his terror reign over Gotham, especially considering the view by some critics that the film is a “fascist epic” which, as self-described poet/lyriscist/philosopher bard Phil Rockstroh states, portrays “members of an Occupy Wall Street-type popular insurgency as boilerplate, comic book villains who rise from the city's underbelly, compelled by murderous grievances, to inflict a reign of chaos, reminiscent of Terror-gripped, late 18th Century/ early 19th Century France, on the city's economic elite.”  Yet here’s the rub for this perspective: at no time does Bane ever evince a sincere belief in the populist, Occupy Wall Street rhetoric he spouts. It is simply a means of manipulating Gotham citizens into a frenzy until such time as a nuclear bomb can be detonated to destroy the city. Aside from the fact that Bane’s motives are tied to the nebulous aims of the weakly-conceived League of Shadows introduced in Batman Begins, Bane’s efforts are also aimed towards the psychological torture of Bruce Wayne/Batman, whose death Bane wants to achieve only after forcing Wayne to watch the destruction of everything he loves and believes in. Only Catwoman espouses views in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street, but her character, as with her politics, are set aside in a plot that resides in the physical survival of Gotham rather than its sociopolitics, ideology, and very identity as a civic body.

Despite Harry Knowles profound disappointment that The Dark Knight Rises over the film’s lack of fidelity to the comics, Nolan & Co’s vision of Batman does share a similarity to previous incarnations in films and comic books. And that common denominator is this: Batman is typically pitted against extraordinary foes, thereby creating space of operations distinct from the space occupied by the police and ordinary citizens. There are certainly many smaller, more intimate stories that deal with street-level crime and the personal lives of various Gotham individuals within the comics canon, but for the most part Batman is pitted against a menagerie of grotesques to the point that the crime noir aspect of the character is diluted. This is another reason why the charge of fascist sympathies leveled against Nolan & Co. is empty, because Batman’s actions are the actions of an individual against another, not a manifestation of systematized/institutionalized policy.

As for the lack of faithfulness to the comics, Knowles does have a point in his doleful review at Ain’t It Cool, although he invites the rejoinder that if someone wants comic book Batman then he/she should read the comic. More important than individual details such as Alfred and Bruce’s falling out – an absolutely no-no according to Knowles – is the overall impression Nolan & Co’s create of the character, which does diverge significantly from the comics and Burton’s vision in the only other Batman movies that count. Despite attempts to extrude a cerebral dimension from the character subsequent to Batman Begins, in the form of Batman’s detective abilities, we are never offered the professional Batman who operates with a steely, steadfast resolve that is as moral as it is intellectual and physical. The excellent Mask of the Phantasm, for example, offered both suspenseful mystery and riveting drama in one of the best Batman films. We are given instead a reactive, volatile Batman, who begins the series as an anguished individual, continues as a tormented reactionary, and ends up bitter and reclusive only to pull back into the role of tormented reactionary when recalled to action. It’s enough to consider that Nolan & Co actually succeeded in subverting the Batman mythos by presenting us with a character who never achieves stability. There is the suspicion that Nolan & Co don’t truly believe in their Batman. For evidence, consider the film’s thematically weak ending. Unlike The Dark Knight, which gives us a chance to contrast Batman and the Joker when the two antagonists finally share a moment’s discussion, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately reduces any potential for ideological conflict to mere physical confrontation. Even then, however, Nolan & Co undermine Batman’s ideals – the morals that actually distinguish him from fascists such as his no-guns no-killing standard – by having Catwoman come blazing in at the last moment and unceremoniously shooting Bane to death. Her quip about being uncertain about Batman’s refusal to use guns amounts to low-brow mockery of a principle that deserves to be taken seriously.

If that’s not enough to view Nolan & Co’s Batman as a character to be pitied, however worthy of  respect risking his life to defend against physical threats, consider that only one character’s perspective on Bruce Wayne and Batman becomes validated in the film: Alfred’s, whose belief that Bruce Wayne would be better off leaving Gotham to find his happiness is proven correct at the end. Suggesting that the best Batman is one who doesn’t exist, what remains for Gotham is a city – guided by Commissioner Gordon’s example – that has developed a dysfunctional dependence on a vigilante incapable of driving the policy changes necessary for meaningful civic evolution.

The Dark Knight Rises is an interesting and often exciting interpretation, albeit one that counters expectations, and entertainingly realized on many levels. In the end, however, when I want my Batman served authentically gritty and noir, my preference remains with my favourite printed story, which surpasses even the legendary Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory: Dean Motter’s seamless and superlative Batman: Nine Lives.


the role of ethics in marketing/advertising

An assignment from a marketing ethics class I'm currently taking...

How do ethics play a role in the marketing and advertising strategies of a company?

The predictable answer is that, ideally, the role of ethics in marketing and advertising is to enable the creation of a trusting, mutually-beneficial relationship between a company and its customers – a relationship that ultimately drives a company’s financial success by reciprocally delivering value to customers.  However, the question as framed implies that ethics is a separate, detachable component – an optional subset, in essence – of marketing and advertising. This historically persistent distinction has been the underlying factor in the operations of companies who, in an economic utilitarian manner, have evaluated business decisions on the basis of consequences for financial growth (and the accumulation of personal wealth) rather than societal, ecological, and humanitarian considerations. Money becomes the end result of a business process rather than one of several possible means of achieving greater goals.

By attempting to retrofit ethics on an existing business model, a meta-ethical quandary is created whereby the use or rejection of ethics in itself becomes a cost-benefit proposition. Asking how ethics can play a role in business thus misconstrues ethics in which right actions should be undertaken precisely because they are right actions and not because of any instrumental value they can offer independently of their rightness. (Obviously, the challenge is defining what constitutes a right action at the outset.) When instrumental value becomes the prime motivator, with or without the disincentive of punishment, the ethical quality of a business or individual can only be as strong and durable as the methods used to enforce morally appropriate behavior. This is evident in the cyclical nature of business in which ethical lapses with catastrophic results prompt more stringent regulations and oversight only to loosen over a subsequently uneventful period of time. Regulations are then repealed or weakened, often under the guise of promoting economic growth, thereby setting in motion yet another catastrophe that prompts, once more, demand for stricter regulations. For an example, consider recent events in the banking industry.

This is not to reduce the question merely to a problem of virtue ethics in which the challenge entails defining moral character, although that is a critical problem. Designing ethical social structures that nurture moral behavior while discouraging immoral behavior is certainly an important consideration. In this respect, structuring marketing and advertising strategies within a specific and measurable ethical framework is reasonable and desirable. However, if we accept that thoughts influence behavior then it is necessary to question the psychological segregation of ethics (e.g. through our use of language) from other human activities such as business, especially considering how easy it is to forego moral actions when economic survival is threatened. A better question, then, is:  what kind of business practices can be derived from any given ethical perspective? Also: what are the defining qualities of moral agency in an economy that uses business to further ethical goals rather than the reverse? Finally: how do we organize society, and the business practices within it, to enable individuals to develop the ethical skills necessary to participate in an ethical economy?

Whether ethics is interpreted as the ground of a business practice or its shepherd, there is no question that its role remains to serve as a necessary arbiter for a company’s marketing and advertising strategies. The reasons for this are, in practice, both intrinsic (the right thing to do in-and-of-itself) and instrumental (financially beneficial). Nevertheless, the ultimate role of ethics should be not to have a role but to instead blur the distinction between itself and other activities whether economic, social, or interpersonal.


Smoke but No Fire in Scott’s Prometheus

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but the point should be debated in regards to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science-fiction almost 30 years after Blade Runner. A splendour to behold, from the panoramic views of desolate Icelandic terrain to the imaginary landscape of a planetary moon with the unromantic designation of LV-223, Prometheus achieves the epic visual presentation one associates with the grandest of science fiction and fantasy films. Every scene is lavish with thoughtful design, whether in the muscularity of the titular spaceship, the organic morphology (both biologically and technologically) of the alien race dubbed “Engineers,” or the creature design. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is rich and atmospheric. Performance-wise, Michael Fassbender just about carries the film in his pocket in his role as an inconsistently characterized android with a duplicitous agenda and ambiguous relationship towards humanity.  It’s all beautiful smoke, but where’s the substance?

Some fuss has been made about the film’s narrative ambiguity. Though certainly not perplexing in the mode of Stanley Kubrick, the ambiguity is earned fairly. The narrative offers a credible sense of mystery by leaving obscured much about the Engineers except for facts that directly impact the literal aspect of the story, and using whatever answers are offered to set up new questions. Yes, the invitations has been issued for a sequel, but the film accomplishes enough that whatever direction the series takes – in a potential follow-up possible titled “Paradise”  – will build on Prometheus instead of charting the same territory.

So, no, a lack of answers is not the reason why the old syllogistic adage is wrong and the film lacks fire, a mortal wound in a film so intimately vested in the myth of Prometheus’ theft from the gods. It’s the lack of science and scientific reasoning, in a film ostensibly framed as science fiction, that reduces Prometheus to a false alarm. As if Scott and his screenwriters, Lost’s Damon Lindelhof and Jon Spaihts, had never read science fiction let alone familiarized themselves with how scientific research is conducted, Prometheus gives us a scenario of often astonishing incompetence.

Beginning with the scientists, Prometheus gives us a geologist unable to tell the difference between natural and artificial formations, a biologist without curiosity about alien life forms until the moment the narrative demands a grisly sacrifice, and assorted crew members who serve no discernible purpose. What little scientific method there is consists of reading computer screens. The only facsimile of science occurs at the beginning of the film, when archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave painting  that would make Erich von Daniken proud, and even that is little more than the sort of stumbling around any amateur adventurer can do.

Next comes the method, of which is there is none. One would expect an expedition to an unknown, potentially dangerous planet to involve strict protocols to preserve the researchers’ safety while uncovering new data using the best tools 2093 has to offer– robot probes, procedures for handling life forms both sentient and otherwise, extensive documentation – that is, a methodical process of investigation. But despite the offering of gadgets like robotic surgical pods and little robot spheres that can map terrain on their own very quickly, this is a primarily a film that gives us an idiot removing his helmet the moment his sensors detects breathable air, and a scientist who rejects weapons among the equipment manifest on account of being on a “scientific expedition.”

Do Scott and co really imagine that this is how a trillion-dollar voyage to another planet would be carried out, by a defenseless spaceship filled with unarmed scientists who blunder around? What are we to think of a script that succeeds in having characters get lost in relatively simple tunnels despite having access to maps and guidance from the ship? I half expected Scott to cut away to the two technicians from Cabin in the Woods, gleefully punching buttons on a console to orchestrate a sacrificial ritual for the appeasement of an elder god audience. No such luck; the only explanation for a poorly conceived scenario populated by incompetent and often outright stupid characters stems from the unmarried marriage counselors (to borrow a phrase from Charles Schultz) who wrote the script.

The film’s most notable act of intellectual dishonesty, as if implausibility wasn’t enough, is that while the script asks big questions it settles for small, unexamined answers. There is no debate or discussion about the questions, the answers, and the significance of either beyond the banal reevaluation of human origins as extraterrestrial in nature. Prometheus doesn’t feature scientists flinging evidence in support or refutation of the various scientific hypotheses that arise from the archaeologists’ discovery, or arguing the implications of challenges the body of evidence that favoured human evolution from primates. That the film stops short of providing definitive answers is not the problem, provided that we can share in the characters’ thrill of puzzling out the mystery and pondering the possibilities. Problematic is that the film’s protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace with strength and vulnerability worthy of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, demonstrates a markedly anti-scientific mode of reasoning: in the absence of evidence, her conception of knowledge is informed by what she chooses to believe. Instead of accepting the unknown as unknown, she emphasizes the film’s equivocation of truth and wishful expectations, with the only nod towards the false equivalency emerging when the expectations are fulfilled in a predictably brutal fashion.

In regards to the film’s implications in terms of the human condition, Prometheus makes the mistake of forcing a simplistic religious perspective on a non-religious paradigm of human origins despite the ill fit. As if centuries of theology, philosophy, and science have no bearing on the characters or issues, all we get is the view that the created somehow must derive the meaning and purpose of their existence from their creator. Imagine the problem, then, when discovering that the creator is not the burning bush but aliens with sinister secrets. But again, don’t expect the characters to engage in any meaningful debate as one would expect from people confronted with an awesome, unsettling revelation. The extent of the film’s shallowness extends to the wasted casting of Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron, both of whom play important characters that could have imbued the narrative with significant momentum had they been given the necessary screentime to dramatize the film’s subtextual concern with the fear of death.

There are irritations, such as the easy exploitation of female anatomy for body horror – a predictable extension of the not-so-vaguely sexual terror implicit in the phallic-shaped creatures, the oral penetration method of infection, and unnatural procreation that marked the Alien films. Yet Scott is a masterful director, so the objection only comes after the scene has passed and the mind can assert itself over the harrowing, visceral queasiness of the expedition inevitable succumbing to horror. The same can be said of the film as a whole; grandly cinematic and relentlessly captivating during its running time, but whose effect is too ephemeral to leave anything behind other than intellectual bankruptcy. Beautiful smoke from chilly embers.

A housekeeping note: For anyone wondering about the connection with the Alien films: there is indeed a strong link which marks Prometheus as a prequel of sorts. The film’s revelations provoke a reevaluation of the Alien mythology, but since it has no bearing on the narrative of any of the Alien films, the link isn’t a necessary one to understand.


a sad conclusion about doctor who from series 6

Series 5 of the popular Doctor Who revival, hereafter to be referred to as New Who, ended on a slightly ambivalent note; enthusiasm for Matt Smith’s hyperkinetic embodiment of the 11th doctor, frustration with his companions (i.e. Amy Pond), and an exhilarating feeling of disappointment with Steve Moffat’s vision as showrunner. Exhilarating disappointment  – an oxymoron? Hardly. Watching Series 5 –and, now, Series 6 – is like eating candy and eventually recognizing that it has no nutritional value whatsoever. The sugar rush is a thrill for a while, but eventually must yield the way to more substantive and mature appreciation. Or rejection.

Perpetuating the flaws that have marred New Who since its inception – notably grandiose plotting with delusions of narrative coherence – Series 6 adds in a few of its own, beginning with an amplification of a significant irritation from Series 5: the relationship between Amy Pond and Rory Williams. Thankfully, we have finally moved past Rory’s status, in Amy’s eyes, as side-dish to the Doctor’s main course. Yet after a season in which Amy has the hots for everyone’s favourite Time Lord only to jettison it all in a season-ending marriage to Rory, the coupling still fails to convince. We accept it only because the plot requires us to accept it, and because Arthur Darvill is the series’ unsung star performer in a role that blends the sensible and the vulnerable with hefty doses of bravery and bad-assery.

Far crueler to the Doctor’s companions than the conviction of their marital status is their relationship to the Doctor, namely, as appendages. Although the Doctor cares greatly for them, there is never the sensation of a two-way relationship in quite the same way the David Tennant’s Doctor enjoyed with Donna Noble or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor with Rose Tyler. Perhaps the most honest acknowledgment comes when – spoilers! – the Doctor leaves Amy and Rory behind with the recognition that he was selfishly feeding off of Amy’s fangirl adoration. Much in the same way New Who feeds off the adoration of its uncritical fanbase.

All that could be dismissed as glitch rather than aggravation provided New Who’s fundamental structure, wobbly at best under Russell Davies’ guidance, had improved with Moffat in charge. Yet despite Moffat’s ability to crank out plots that take advantage of time travel’s convolutions, the plots remain stubbornly prone to magical resolutions and pandering scenarios. Telling stories from the school of plotting that demands escalated stakes, the writers long ago reached the dead end of positing the ultimate stakes – the erasure of reality itself – and repeating the same universe-destroying outcome as the challenge the Doctor must overcome.

More fundamental still is the show’s refusal to embrace its science fiction character, preferring instead to dwell in the arbitrary logic of fairy tales. Result: high concept stories are reduced to mere melodrama or yet another monster-of-the-week scenario, with the concept providing a backbone nobody cares to notice is broken. Consider “The Girl Who Waited,” an episode set on a planet quarantined from a deadly and incurable 24-hour disease. Through a medical facility capable of sustaining co-existing time streams running at different speeds, the dying can stretch their final day to last the lifespan of their loved ones. Into this fascinating idea comes a medical facility incapable of distinguishing human biology from other biologies, and an army of robots ostensibly intended to provide medical care but, in true Who fashion, display a sinister shark’s array of needles in their heads. (The xenophobia that is rampant in Doctor Who, manifested in an endless parade of cool but ultimately malicious entities is an on-going drag for a series that otherwise celebrates adventure and the search for universal wonders.) While the drama inherent in trapping Amy in a different timestream from Rory and the Doctor is compelling, the cavalier treatment of the episode’s core concept underscores how the writers are willing to jettison narrative integrity in favour of manipulating audience emotions. When magic is draped in science-fiction trappings, the cognitive dissonance that results doesn’t lend itself to credible narratives. Concepts are thrown around like wet noodles at a wall, sticking only out of sheer production will power and not because any of it actually makes any sense.

This is on par with the show’s disregard for continuity and consistent worldbuilding, in the sense that each plot idea – each new villain’s assault on Earth – seems to exist without consideration of past episodes. Hence, we have a planet Earth whose core was formed around a malevolent race of half-humanoid half-spider beings, which evolved a race of underground-dwelling reptilian humanoids, and subsequently was subject to an occupation by Silence so hidden that even past incarnations of the Doctor were unaware of it. Add in Torchwood, and we are given a race of ridiculously powerful fairies who also inhabit the Earth. Nevermind the fact that apparently all these beings have never interacted; Doctor Who’s anything-goes approach to worldbuilding, quirky in Classic Who but amplified in New Who, has reached the critical mass of absurdity.

The sad conclusion: New Who is no longer skilled fiction, if it ever was, but fan fiction – a comic book soap opera that panders to audiences rather than demonstrate artistic integrity. I’ll keep watching, if only because there remains a certain infectious entertainment value to the show, but I can’t say I have much respect for it. Not when there are other shows, like Merlin, Eureka, Sanctuary…that manage to have excellent characterization, clever show premises, and a solid grasp of narrative storytelling.


an invitation to stay at the Cabin in the Woods

The setup sounds like the start of a groaning joke: 5 attractive teenagers walk into a forest one day to spend the night in an isolated cabin…In the reels of a typical horror film, it’s a formula for slaughter. But Cabin in the Woods springs from the efforts of  frequent collaborators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and the result is a curious hybrid; a horror film for both fans and antagonists of horror fiction populated by interesting characters and monsters wittily drawn from the genre bestiary. As Whedon tells Total Film,
It’s basically a very loving hate letter…On some level it was completely a lark, me and Drew [Goddard, director] trying to figure out what the most fun we could have would be. On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies…The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had sung a little too far in that direction.
And so, polishing up Whedon’s star after the mess that was Dollhouse, here’s a film focused more on character and plot than on lingering sequences of gore and suffering framed by flimsy scenarios. The clever premise – the film’s setup is really part of a bigger plot orchestrated by mysterious technicians in a high-tech underground facility – simultaneously exploits and undermines the narrative mechanics of horror/slasher films. Of course we are being played, but we are not being played for fools. Evidence: an ending that would amount to the usual cheap twist of the knife if Whedon and Goddard didn’t build up to it and grant their characters the awareness to be active participants in the plot’s resolution. Instead of falling victim to the infamous last genre shot demonstrating the illusory nature of safety, the survivors face (with as much calm as one could reasonably expect) consequences that emerge from their own deliberate choice in an essentially no-win scenario. 

Although events brim with playful irony, the narrative doesn’t escape the elemental cynicism of horror fiction in which humanity is not deemed worth saving. Cabin in the Woods differs from the usual horror, often bleak to the point of banality, by justifying the characters’ cynicism and bringing us to the unstable point that we can sympathize and, perhaps, uncomfortably agree with their climatic decision. That Whedon and Goddard do so with effective black humour makes the film that much sharper in its dismantling of horror film expectations.

Yet the film’s critique of horror’s formulaic destruction of innocents for audience entertainment is ultimately confined to the form and presentation of horror fiction rather than its substance. Far from being a deconstruction of the genre, Cabin in the Woods owes more to a clever bon mot at a cocktail party than a searing academic indictment. There’s no denying the film’s entertainment value, a quality helped immensely by violence modulated to avoid exploiting the characters’ suffering, and the point is well taken that horror as a genre has of late forsaken storytelling in favour of a pornographic obsession with bodily destruction. Missing, however, is a critique of horror’s metaphysical structure and fundamental assumptions. Beyond the question of why horror is fodder for entertainment – especially given how horror fiction is, by nature of being fiction, entirely optional – horror’s fear of death, mistrust of knowledge, and narrow focus on the survival of the strongest and most violent –  are never called into question. Forget, then, the horror genre’s pessimism as manifested in the predictable trope ending, the aforementioned last shot that reinforces a perspective that good can never truly stand its ground against evil, let alone triumph. It is in these elements – violence as entertainment joined with a fear of death and the unknown – that the horror genre should be critiqued. 

As it is, we are guided into cynicism through scenes such as the film’s most jarring, when the technicians obliviously celebrate a victory with their colleagues while the television screen behind them shows one of the teenagers enduring a savage, relentless beating. The callousness of the technicians, consistently revealed through the jaded, smarmy way in which they manipulate the teenagers to their deaths, makes it hard to feel much sympathy for their goals, however worthy. The end result is a film whose most notable strength is successfully putting audiences in a visegrip, with sympathies torn between the teenagers and the technicians.

Interestingly, there is the seed of a counterpoint to horror’s essential character – if you want to remain spoiler free, beware. After revealing that the teenagers’ death is America’s ritual to stave off the return of apocalyptic elder gods, and the world’s last hope after the failure of other rituals around the world, the glimpse of Japan’s ostensible “failure” remains unexamined for the insight it could offer. When we consider the violence intrinsic to the American ritual – the teenagers are to be slaughtered according to the technicians’ engineered scenario, and their option for survival is to resort to violence in return – the gentleness of the Japanese scenario is striking. In it, a group of schoolgirls defeat an evil ghost reminiscent of Samara from The Ring, not through a violent exorcism or bloody sacrifice, but by cheerfully placing the ghost’s spirit to rest in a frog. The ritual presumably fails because the ghost is supposed to kill the girls to satisfy and entertain the sleeping elder gods. What Cabin in the Woods fails to accomplish as a critique is questioning horror fiction’s tendency to reduce humanity to either victims or perpetrators of evil, with violence as the only mediator between suffering and the causes of suffering. Alternative methods of interpreting and confronting evil, as suggested by the Japanese ritual, are never considered.

For all that Cabin in the Woods amounts to criticizing politicians for their clothes but not their policies, it remains a brisk, engaging riff on horror storytelling. As strange as it might seem, the film is the closest I’ve ever seen a horror film come to being a crowd-pleaser. 


the dim shadows of tim burton's "dark shadows" - THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Whenever Hollywood adapts a television series, fan base reaction follows a familiar alliterative pattern of despair, dismay and disdain. Despair at Hollywood’s lack of originality. Dismay at the potential ruination of a beloved show. Disdain for the studios’ mercenary motives. The list of failed adaptations is long and certainly aggravates the allergy to adaptations. But the conclusion shouldn’t be a moratorium on future attempts. In principle, a feature film offers the creative opportunity for modernizing and distilling television series that, however loved, might be otherwise dated or bloated from content parceled out in episodic format. Such an adaptation, done properly, could serve equally well as a gateway to its inspiration while offering its own parallel narrative. That most adaptations fail stems from the simplest of incompetentcies: An inability to grasp a television series’ essential character and confusing pandering for storytelling. Despite Hollywood’s repeated failures, the dream stubbornly remains that somewhere, sometime, a filmmaker will take a much-loved television series and give it a worthy cinematic treatment. 

This adaptation of the cult gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, alas, is not that worthy effort...

Read of the rest of my review of Dark Shadows at The Front Page Online.


Goth, Bellydance, and a Morbid Outlook - THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Laura McCutchan is one multi-talented lady; dancer, club promoter, DJ, and,  of course, editor of the best Goth magazine out there, Morbid Outlook. As she works towards relaunching the 'zine's website in honour of its twentieth anniversary, I interviewed her via eMail. Read all about Morbid Outlook, Goth culture, and bellydancing at The Front Page Online:

Goth, Bellydance, and a Morbid Outlook: An Interview with Laura McCutchan


america and the problem with defining fascism

Fascism is like pornography in one respect; we (usually) recognize it when see it, but damned if we can actually define it. Reading the entry on fascism at Wikipedia is an exercise in mental contortionism, and the opening sentence that attempts to encapsulate fascism as a “radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology” is hardly descriptive. Part of the problem, of course, is that fascism has taken on many idiosyncratic forms in the various countries that practiced it. Yet it strikes me as an admission of defeat when, despite its variations, an essential core ideological character can’t be identified. For example, consider the website Who Makes the Nazis?, whose efforts are oriented towards identifying fascist elements within “various 'transgressive' (by their own estimation) musical subcultures.” In describing their mission, they write (emphasis in bold is mine):
To demonstrate the fascist nature of the ideas it is necessary to consider many aspects of fascism - it's history, it's different branches, and it's ideology and development, for example. It is necessary to show that there is no 'fascist minimum' (a succinct definition of fascism that would make it easy to define ideologically), and to dispel some key misconceptions about fascism that are used to provide cover ("X cannot be a fascist because they are gay / have a Jewish partner / are not a member of an openly fascist grouping").
That’s a remarkable statement, begging the question as to how you can plausibly identify fascist infiltrations in society, whether in musical subcultures or other social groupings, when you can’t decisively distinguish a fascist ideologue from a non-fascist. This is especially problematic when, as WMTN argues, fascist elements operate cryptically, that is, there is a “deliberate effort on the part of a number of pro-fascist thinkers to work surreptitiously in the area of culture with the aim of 'normalising' some of the cultural, social and aesthetic views of fascism, thus creating a periphery out of which a future fascist political movement might recruit.”

And so, America, and the question as to whether or not the country is sliding into fascism. Sara Robinson, in a piece originally published at CommonDreams.org, offers her belief that yes, America has degraded into fascism. In making her argument, she draws on definitions of fascism offered by historian Robert Paxton:
Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline.
...a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Far be it for me to challenge an expert in the field of fascism and history, but nevertheless, I don’t find these wordy, imprecise definitions particularly helpful. More helpful is the definition from the source of fascist ideology: Italy. Drawing from the Wikipedia entry, the original Italian fascism was characterized by the following:

  • A strong, imperial, militaristic nationalism.
  • Belief in political and military violence as necessary towards achieving human progress, social solidarity, and national unity.
  • The division of peoples into superior masters, who deserve to rule, and weak inferiors who deserve to be conquered.
  • Corporatist economics “whereby employer and employee syndicates are linked together in a corporative associations to collectively represent the nation's economic producers and work alongside the state to set national economic policy.”

Using Italian fascism as the foundation for a definition of fascism that is inclusive of its non-Italian forms, it’s possible to achieve a workable definition. Before offering it, however, it’s worth noting what such a definition should accomplish:

  1. Distinguish fascism from other political ideologies.
  2. Distinguish fascism’s method and rationale from other methods and rationales for totalitarian rule, such as communist/socialist and theocratic models. 
  3. Provide criteria that enable us to consistently identify fascism outside of its historical context in Italy, Germany, Spain, and other countries that have, at one time or another, empowered fascist regimes.

To this end, I propose the following definition:

Fascism is a military-capitalist complex whose power is realized in an authoritarian state maintained by conventional methods of political control (e.g. secret police, military-enforced martial law, etc.) as well as social control in the form of transcendental collectivist/corporatist politics of identity in which elite group identification is created and reinforced by the marginalization and oppression of non-elite identities in an atmosphere of politically-correct psychological and physical violence.

From this, we can identity sibling categories:

  • The state immediately preceding a fascist state, a proto-fascist state is one in which individual elements of a fascist state are present, but not coherently joined. An example would be Germany, early in Hitler’s ascension to power.
  • A crypto-fascist state is a fascist state in practice but not in appearance. By implication, the concealment of a state’s fascist characters is intentionally hidden to foster acceptance and legitimacy in an era of international law and human rights.
  • A pseudo-fascist state is a state that is fascist in appearance but not necessarily in practice. This is an admittedly strange and perhaps less-than-useful classification, since surely there must be some substance that gives rise to the appearance of fascism. A possible example might be Western Democracies that deploy the functions of a police state. While the governance might be democratic, law enforcement and national security might align more closely to fascist methods. The conclusion is that a pseudo-fascist state also pose a substantial risk to free societies, although the risk might be harder to identify amidst those social elements that are not fascist. It might be reasonable, then, to view a pseudo-fascist state as an incomplete fascist state.

What are we to make of the United States? Is Sara Robinson correct? Do share your thoughts below. I'll revisit the question at a later time.


filmmakers need your help!

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Thank you everybody who has pledged and supported us thus far, and thank you everybody for putting up with our all out blitz over the last month. One work week left, lets make this upcoming weekend a celebratory one!!!

Check out this website for the teasers, and consider pledging to help fund the project! 


lost in china mieville's the city & the city

In The City & The City, author China Miéville asks us for an act of faith; suspend disbelief towards the book’s implausible premise of two cities coexisting in the same topography but separated by the selective perception of its residents. Each city is, for practical purposes, its own domain with distinctive cultures, customs, governmental structures, and so on. To be in one city means to “unsee” the other, a process taught to each city’s residents from birth and strictly enforced by a mysterious authority called Breach that forbids residents of one city to see the other without going through legal channels. As one would expect, there are challenges to this arrangement, particularly when it comes to traffic, to which Miéville responds by positing a sufficiently unconscious form of seeing that lets residents from each city avoid bumping or crashing into each other without actually breaching. This unconscious seeing-but-unseeing even extends, remarkably, to walking over or around people having sex.

As far as concepts go, its malarkey whose potential for clever commentary on the nature of perception is undermined by the sheer inertness of the idea in Miéville’s narrative. Far from being an exploration of how such an arrangement between cities could be possible from a psycho-social standpoint, Miéville allows the concept to settle into the background as a fait accompli whose origination is never explained, whose history is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of insufficient data, and whose emergence from the whirlings of the human mind is left unexamined. While we are given a sense of how the separation between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma works in practice through the perspective of protagonist Tyador Borlu, an Inspector in Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad – crosshatched areas, for example, in which both cities physically overlap and entail a higher risk of breaching, or the irony of being physically close to someone in geographical terms but metaphysically apart in terms of city boundaries – it is never credible, especially given that Miéville situates Beszel and Ul Qoma in our real world. Critics like Abigail Nussbaum see in the novel a deconstructive effort that upends fantasy genre tropes, which is as fair a reading as any, but the deconstruction proves to be rather limp and the upending is strictly derived from reader expectations, not from Miéville’s text.
At one point, a key character succeeds in occupying neither city, putting him out of reach of the police and militia officers pursuing him from each city as well as Breach, who only intervene when the citizens of one city illicity recognize or interact with the other city. Other than a few indications that this feat is accomplished through ambiguous body language similar to the one used by Breach avatars, Miéville never delves into the mechanics of such ambivalence, a study that would be especially valuable given his steadfast restraint from indulging magical or supernatural explanations. So what then is being deconstructed? The dichotomy presented by the two cities is contrived and of a purely psychological nature, but Miéville insists on treating the situation as a kind of mythology stripped of mysticism. His propensity for telling us about the dichotomy through Borlu’s narration rather than demonstrating it to us renders the novel a shallowly cerebral affair, as there’s no challenge in creating a dichotomy, fabricating a phenomena that straddles both poles, and presenting the result as a “deconstruction” of the dichotomy. Considering that deconstruction operates at the stress point of oppositional concepts – life/death, writing/speech, etc. – invoking a loaded word like deconstruction is far too glib for what Miéville accomplishes with his text, namely, mere juxtaposition.

Compounding the problem is Miéville inability, or unwillingness, to offer concrete descriptions. Ms. Nussbaum praises this as an effort to disorient the reader and manipulate impressions of the city through Borlu’s necessarily limited perspective, but to me the impression is of a writer who relies on lazy associations with real-world analogues and ersatz linguistics. Again, we are often told by Borlu that the cities are different, that residents from each dress different, eat differently, and so on, yet Miéville never offers enough description for readers to form a concrete image of each city. If anything, the muddled impression of the cities undermines the premise of citizens who see their own city but not the other, a problem given that the novel’s otherwise real world setting easily allows for outsiders to view the concatenation of the two cities without perceptual filters. Perhaps by denying us that objective perspective Miéville can be said to bring us into the mindset of the cities’ residents, but the lack of descriptive details also means that we can never draw the necessary contrast between the cities that would be necessary in order for us to unsee along with Borlu. That is, Miéville is big on telling but short on showing.

In a sense, we are forced to take on the perspective of outsiders to the city, who even within the book find the whole situation freakishly bizarre, even nonsensical, without any guidance. Why and how the residents would continue to maintain such a system would be the stuff of a fascinating novel. What difference, for instance, would there be in the lives and mindsets of unificationists as opposed to committed segregationists? Alas, Miéville focuses his attention on a murder-mystery that fails to impress even when the narrative brings in the possibility of yet another city, the interstitial power called Orciny, The investigation of an American archaeology student’s murder and its connection to a broader conspiracy is languid and lacking in suspense; no surprise given how the novel has to divide its attention between explaining both the plot of the investigation and the contextual rules in which Borlu carries it out.

As much Miéville is in command of his writing, his execution is ultimately questionable. The characters’ f-bombs are as awkward as the book’s improvised linguistics, and the whole thing is written in a jerky, clipped style that frustrates as often as it appeals. Overly stylized writing masks deficiencies in character development; Borlu, like many of the characters, is rather superficial, useful for the procedure of solving the mystery but otherwise bereft of personality and biography. A murky distinction between characters is a common consequence of Miéville’s writing and a further drain on whatever enthusiasm the book could generate for its unconventional narrative agenda. However, despite all that and especially in spite of book jacket quotes affirming comparisons to Kafka and Orwell – Miéville lacks both Orwell’s polemical directness and Kafka’s existential machinations – The City & The City nevertheless holds the mystique of an ambitious project, however unsuccessful. There’s enough, perhaps, in that mystique for curious readers to justify picking the book up from the library.

For an alternative perspective, you can read the aforementioned Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the book at her blog, Asking the WrongQuestions.

Also, if you like what you read please consider "following" this blog or subscribing for posts via eMail. Comments are also welcome and appreciated! Let's discuss!


quick review: my week with marilyn

Much ado is made of Sir Laurence Olivier’s surliness towards Marilyn in My Week With Marilyn, but the reading is unfair to Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and symptomatic of the obsessive worship ladled on the actress. As portrayed by Michelle Williams in a script based on memoirs by Collin Clark, Marilyn is a talented but undisciplined actress whose work ethic consists of arriving late, flubbing scenes, and perpetually deferring to the acting coach who clings to her like a security blanket.

 It’s arguable whether or not we’re expected to side with those characters in such awe of Marilyn they excuse her unprofessional behaviour, using those moments when her talent is constructively unleased as a glossy rationale. The film’s directorial leanings, tethered to its character’s reverence for Marilyn, certainly strives to include viewers in the genuflections. But for my part I’m with Olivier in putting Marilyn’s star power in a critical perspective. That perspective is further supported by Michelle Williams’ performance, which is certainly evocative and possessed of greater power than Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Margaret Thatcher. Credible as a source of fascination, the portrait of Monroe that emerges from Williams is of a damaged and damaging woman who lacked control over her sexual charisma, and the persona that emerges from it, unless focused through the lens of a camera. Although too innocent to be intentionally malicious, this version of Monroe acts as libido’s wrecking ball. That the film is willing to excuse the collateral damage, whether in the way she ultimately leaves the film’s protagonist or her lack of professionalism, is a symptom of the film’s inability to maintain a biographical detachment from its subject. The result is a superficial film, compelling for its performances but glib in its psychology and narrative.


the cultured and the free

David Brooks recently observed that:

Free market beliefs and socially conservative beliefs require each other, so long as those socially conservative beliefs are traditional, not theological. I’m for traditional values, with government playing a small role to support them. I get worried when some politician begins trying to legislate his faith’s version of Natural Law. 

To a qualified extent, I agree that it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic, though I’d argue that it isn’t a necessary correlation. Dynamic capitalism requires a coherent social order to help guard against its savageries — tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest. But I’d disagree with the desirability of social paternalism, and suggest that there alternatives to the chauvinism of a paternalistic model of social order and its attendant authoritarianism. Furthermore, spiritual public square need not be religious in nature, as amply demonstrate by, for example, Amercian (Secular) Buddhism.

I’d also go further and argue that capitalism requires a legal system backed by force – anarcho-capitalism, the great fetish of Randians, would be laughably faulty if so many politicians didn’t take it seriously – or else all those property rights, trademarks, and profit-generating schemes wouldn’t be possible. Thus, the desirability of capitalism as an economic system is questionable as well.
As a matter of general principles, however, Brooks looks in the right direction: culture must, indeed, take up the mantle of social order, especially in the absence of institutionalized economic or governmental directives, which is what free market idealism aspires to. The proviso is that cultural authority must be viewed with as much as suspicion as governmental or corporate authority, especially when it becomes rigidly traditional. This, of course, harkens back to the idea of societies’ instincts towards conservation and progression.

…and all this leads to the fundamental crucible I think of as the “Anarchist Problem:” how do you organize society without resorting to authoritarian models of governance?  The fake anarchists of the GOP and the Tea Party are quick to advocate small or no government when it comes to economics, but equally quick to rally behind government efforts to intervene in private lives (e.g. gay marriage, women’s reproductive health, end-of-life care and euthanasia). Hence the charge of fake anarchism: if you want to talk about society with minimal or no governmental structure, then you have to take on the entire scope of the problem, not just the self-serving and convenient bits. This means addressing the problem of corporate power over consumers and workers in a capitalism system as well as the function of social institutions like churches; government is only part of the problem.

If that isn’t enough, one should be wary of simply dismissing anything related to the government as being problematic solely because it is governmental in nature. After all, we receive tangible benefits from the public sector, such as roads and fire fighters. This highlights the importance of distinguishing the executive power of government from its administrative function.

In any case, I’m reading more from David Brooks than he puts in. And, as he certainly isn’t one of those conservative disciples of cognitive dissonance that seem to have infected the GOP en masse these days, I would not lump him into the category of plastic anarchist. Quite simply, his column highlights the direction in which the discussion needs to move into if we’re ever to resolve some our most pressing problems. It’s heartening to find a hint of a common ground across the ideological spectrum. If only more intellectuals and pundits were as amiable as Brooks.


review - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director Geoff Ritchie’s first attempt to set afoot the game of re-tuning Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist of an action-buddy movie proved entertaining but unworthy of the Great Detective, an impression unchanged after a second viewing and the benefit of time. The effort to draw on previously marginalized aspects of the character, though interesting, presented a confused vision that indulged the worst tendencies of Hollywood spectacles: much loudness, little substance. Despite the undeniable chemistry of the film’s leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and an attractive production, the film delivered not a compelling revision but an exaggerated blockbuster confection filled with overtorqued action, overcooked humour, and a plot better suited to an episode of Scooby Doo. That it was nevertheless more entertaining than it deserved to be speaks to how well-made the film was; the problem rested in translating Ritchie’s vision of the character into a faithful script.

Picking up where the first film left off, with Moriarty coming out of the shadows to become Holmes’ direct antagonist, A Game of Shadows achieves the successful tuning Ritchie aims for.  In part, that success is due to Jared Harris’ marvelous interpretation of Moriarty, a seemingly innocuous college professor who conveys a malicious criminal intelligence not through bombast but through softly spoken words. But the bulk of the credit goes to the script by Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney, which successfully achieves in tone and balance what the previous film, written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, could only hint at. Action supplements rather than overwhelms intellect in this film, and genuine drama underlines the comical elements, resulting in a Sherlock Holmes we can credibly accept as both master detective and action hero, along with a Watson who is both an eminently worthy comrade-in-arms and a good bloke in his own right. The thrilling, high-stakes cat-and-mouse plot delivers on the intense struggle between two equal but opposing minds, while delivering fun little moments highlighting the enduring, though somewhat chafing, friendship between Holmes and Watson. 

A genuine and all-to-rare pleasure is how women in the film aren’t relegated to the status of distressed damsels, but are courageous, clever, and valuable participants in the narrative. Noomi Rapace, who memorably played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, plays a gypsy who, despite being relegated to a supporting role, nonetheless commands attention and displays a fierce streak of womanly independence that demonstrates that “supporting” need not be “subordinate.” Also refreshing is Watson’ wife Mary, smartly played by Kelly Reilly and presented as a sharp who stands her own ground. A valuable player as Holmes works the game against Moriarty, she is not given the thankless task of fretting over her husband, but allowed to contribute in the intellectual effort to defeat the criminal mastermind. Where the trend in Hollywood is to demonstrate gender parity by presenting women capable of violence equal to that of men, Ritchie and his screenwriters here offer a more functional equivalence. 

All in all, a superior effort…and a far more convincing perspective on the Great Detective than even Steven Moffat could achieve in his ill-conceived 21st Century Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock.