28 February 2017

When Facts Don't Matter, Make Them Laugh

Debates by their very nature are contentious. Political debates probably more so than most. Just tune in to a UK House of Commons debate sometime. But the current political climate in the US has devolved to a particularly low point. Families gatherings have turned into lugubrious affairs. Facebook purging, defriending those on the opposite side of the political spectrum en masse, has become the new form of sociopolitical snubbery. Our entire culture has veered sharply adversarial.  You're either with us or against us.

Especially frustrating is the apparent inconsequence of facts. It's difficult enough to persuade someone to your point of view, it's practically impossible when you can't even agree on the foundation of the topic. Debating, for instance, which smartphone is superior with someone who repudiates their very existence would be pointless. No line of argument is stirring enough to sway one way or another. So how is it that we find ourselves in this current historical moment, the era of alternative facts. How did opinion become lord over fact? How did facts become so irrelevant?

New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert recently reviewed a book, The Enigma of Reason, by two cognitive scientists who try to explain the phenomenon.  Human minds, you see, are very tricky things. Once we make a decision, usually formed by an oftentimes erroneous initial impression, we selectively gravitate to those groups whose views align with ours, amplifying the rectitude of those views while increasingly marginalizing opposing ones. It's evolutionarily advantageous. But here lies the danger of silencing opposing views. The more you're exposed to that which only supports your way of seeing things, the more hostile you become to those who don't. You're either with us or against us.

Consider our current President, who like a feudal lord, demands absolute support of his every word, action, impulse. Anything less than fawning approval is perceived as a traitorous attack. Suddenly the debate isn't a debate anymore. It's two sides speaking completely different languages. When adversaries can't even agree on basic facts (ie. whether it's raining or not), there is nothing to debate. All that's left is the hurling insults and epithets.  

Logically speaking, how to combat the repudiation of basic facts? Restating the facts won't work, that has become glaringly obvious. Name-calling won't either. The only viable tool against willful ignorance is laughter. Laughter and empathy. Laughter is the ultimate truth serum. Empathy to understand. Consider the recent Saturday Night Live skit of Melissa McCarthy impersonating White House spokesman Sean Spicer conducting a White House briefing. The genius of it: only slightly exaggerating what a typical session looks like. No restating of facts or figures. No name-calling or accusations of channeling fascist dictators. Just pure laughter. Laughter doesn't lie.

Comedy, satire, mockery. Not in bad taste or demeaning, but shining a bright risible light onto hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and insanity. Laughter is involuntary.  We can't control what we find funny. Some things just make us laugh. And laughter cuts through bullshit like a sword through tallow. 

12 September 2016

Resisting Interpellation

Since Philip Roth's sudden retirement announcement a few years ago, there has been a flurry of activity to film his literary work.  Besides Indignation, the anticipated adaptation of Roth's classic American Pastoral, directed and starring Ewan McGregor, is opening next month. Indignation, like past Roth adaptations, elides over much of the source material avoiding the pratfalls of overcomplexity. An enthralling complexity on the page, but shambolic when crammed into a two hour cinematic window. 

Philosopher Louis Althusser described the method that a society subsumes its subjects into its ideology, or the mainstream, through social interactions, institutions, and traditions, calling it interpellation. It's a language, and set gestures and rituals that signals to individuals that they are all part of the same society, a method of collective conformity. Capturing Roth's distinctive intensity, director James Schamus thoughtfully crafts a study of the consequences of resistance against being interpellated in early '50s America. Shot slowly and methodically, the film peers into the past with a comically grim lens.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, an auspiciously gifted high school scholar in postwar Newark, New Jersey. His talents win him a scholarship to a college in rural Ohio, and in a reminder of parlous times, it gets Marcus off the hook of being drafted and sent to Korea. A growing list of war dead in the close-knit Jewish communityincluding Marcus' cousinhas left his parents both unnerved and grateful their boy has seemingly been saved from a similar fate.

In spite of Marcus' prodigious talents and the praise heaped upon him, everyone in Marcus' life pushes him to belong somewhere.  His father and roommates are bewildered that a young Jewish man of such potential and promise balks at joining the campus' sole Jewish fraternity. The self-possessed dean of the college insists Marcus attend weekly chapel service, even in the face of Marcus' citations of Bertrand Russell in his spirited affirmation of atheism. 

The thing is, Marcus doesn't want to join any fraternity and mandatory attendance at a religious service goes against his entire being. In fact, Marcus is not interested in much unrelated to his literary studies and one Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), whose bare ankles and WASPy countenance Marcus first notices at the library. But even the companionship of a confidante is precarious in this world. The relationship is besieged by biting social judgements with lasting consequences.

Indignation shares many of the same themes as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both main characters are beset by forces way beyond their control, both insist they've done nothing wrong nor harmed anyone. But where Serious Man's Larry Gopnik is fully interpellated, belonging to the synagogue and respected in the community, Marcus Messner wants nothing to do with any of it. Marcus wants to forge his own ideology, to master his own destiny. Something '50s America was not quite ready to accept.  

18 April 2016

Iggy's Night at the Opera

There are rock 'n roll acts. There are legends. There are rock legends. And then there's Iggy Pop. 

Forget what you may think about aging rockers from the '60s & '70s riding a nostalgia wave to a golden parachute. Iggy self-financed the new album, Post Pop Depression, with Josh Homme. The resulting tour has two legs with thirty nine stops in North America and Europe.  Iggy doesn't half-ass anything, and definitely not something as important and vital as a rock concert. Iggy and his band brought everything they had in Philadelphia April 15, and the crowd, we couldn't get enough.

The Academy of Music is a peculiar choice for an Iggy Pop concert, the first man to conjure up the stage-dive playing a Vienna opera house.  The accommodations were quite luxurious, resulting in a lot of fish-out-of-water visuals as Iggy's longtime punk fans filed in. The show began with five minutes of afrobeat tribal drumming that crescendoed into the ostentatiously adorned velvet curtains opening to four-man band dressed in matching red and black tuxes blasting the unmistakable beat of Lust For Life.

Pushing sixty-nine years old, Iggy came out skipping wildly -- adorned in suit pants and jacket but no shirt -- immediately taking complete control of the crowd.  By the time he hit Sixteen the jacket was off and Iggy was in his classic shirtless form.  At no other musical concert, save for perhaps saxophone virtuoso Sonny Rollins, did I experience an artist have everyone in the crowd hypnotized, fully in awe of his raw power and artistic prowess. 

Iggy was a total maniac. He leapt upon a large man during Some Weird Sin knocking the guy off his feet. Iggy quickly jumped up roaring, "Rock & Roll!" During Nightclubbing, he sauntered over to a stack of speakers, looked them over for a moment, and started in on humping them with sincere seduction. Watching Iggy I sensed a total freedom, a rock 'n roll euphoria that might have originated decades ago, but its power and affectation is timeless and eternal.

Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, Matt Helders, Matt Sweeney, and Troy Van Leeuwen, were tight, raw, and loud.  Watching them have a ball playing behind Iggy made the festivities that much more raucous. They played practically the entire catalogue from Lust For Life and The Idiot, notable exceptions being Dum Dum Boys and Tiny Girls.  Interestingly, Iggy stayed away completely from his Stooges oeuvre, out of respect for the deceased members? Perhaps, but he didn't touch Kill City either, and James Williamson is still alive and well. The playing was fresh and urgent, the volume loud and guitars set on dirty.  Iggy crooned, shrieked, chanted, and cursed.

Iggy unleashed his tornado of sex, rock 'n roll, and the unbridled joy of perfect freedom: he spent entire songs in the crowd, touching people, letting them touch him. He commanded, "Turn that fucking spotlight off of me, turn the fucking house lights on. I wanna see everybody! Because I fucking said so!" He danced, he twirled, he spit, he flung the microphone around, he led everyone in a manic "Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck" chant.

Before closing with a rousing version of Success, Iggy sneered, "It's my fucking night at the opera, baby!"  It certainly was; I'll never look at opera with the same eyes again.

14 February 2016

Being Valentin on Valentine's Day

There is no shortage of strange and hilarious stories revolving around Valentine's Day.  The day of love merits such distinction.  But the Feast of St. Valentine of Rome presents an entirely peculiar set of circumstances for someone named Valentin.  In commemoration of the day, I'd like to share some of my favourite anecdotes I've experienced over the years.

PrefaceI indirectly use VD on a regular basis as a pronunciation reference when introducing myself. "Valentine without the 'e' at the end." During one introduction recently, before I had a chance to utter my usual epigram, someone suggested I use the line. Quickly she inquired, "That never occurred to you?"

Between 2006-2010 I was single and would invariably find myself at Club Charles every Valentine's Day.  It didn't matter who I ended up speaking to, upon introductions there would be a demand to examine my driver's license.  Of all days, nobody believes a random stranger they meet on VD will be named Valentin, it seems too absurd even for coincidence. Without exaggerating, the examination of my license during these episodes is as scrutinous as a TSA agent's. I get requests to see my license on VD to this day

The most common question I get every day of the year, not just VD, is was I born on VD? Nowhere did this most risibly play out than one year on my actual birthday, which is in late March. A good friend, Ben, invited me to Rocket To Venus for a drink to celebrate. Walking up to the entrance, we see two young women whom Ben knows.  Ben introduces me, "This is Valentin. It's his birthday today!" One of the ladies responds with genuine interest, "Oh cool! Were you born on Valentine's Day?"

The peculiarities do not relegate themselves to my bachelorhood.  On the VDs during which I am involved, the waiters and waitresses have always greeted me with a huge smile and wink upon returning my credit card after dinner. As if the very concept of a person named Valentin out with his girlfriend on Valentine's Day was just too dippily perfect not to smile over. That's the best deduction I can conjure.

Without a doubt, the loveliest part of being named Valentin on VD is every year I get a call or text from my Mother expressing her love and affection. I'd get the same from my Grandmother before she lost her wits.  When I was younger they'd even get me gifts. It made me feel undeservedly special, but I welcomed and enjoyed it all the same. Valentine's Day is a day that elicits rueful laughter for some and romantic yearning for others, but any reason for love is the best one. 

02 January 2016

The Merciless West


For Pike Bishop, the hardened leader of a gang of outlaws in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 epic The Wild Bunch, even criminals must adhere to some set of ethics. When a double-cross is suggested, William Holden snarls, "When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal - you're finished! We're finished! All of us!" Without some semblance of honor, all hell will break loose.

Hell breaking loose is precisely what happens in Quentin Tarantino's masterful The Hateful Eight. Easily his best picture since Kill Bill, Hateful distinguishes itself from his previous two revenge fantasies in that the good and the bad are not nearly so viscerally defined.  Nazis and slavedrivers are just about the two most reviled archetypes in the American imagination.  But in Hateful, the "good" guys are only identified as such because their atrocities are only slightly less odious than those of the really bad guys. The result is a supremely taut Western mystery that's hilariously clever in only the way Tarantino films can be.

The eight in the title refers to the eight characters stuck in a mountain inn riding out a blizzard in postbellum Wyoming.  Kurt Russell plays John "Hangman" Ruth, a bounty hunter determined to bring uncouth Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to nearby Red Rock to hang.  John Ruth is filled with paranoia that he's walking into some kind of trap to free his prisoner, but it slowly becomes clear that a conspiracy is clearly in play.  Samuel L. Jackson plays a fellow bounty hunter and former Civil War hero with an extreme "proficiency at killing Johnny Reb." Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern round up the superb cast.

Filmed in ultra Panavision 70mm, Hateful produces some of the best cinematography of Tarantino's oeuvre. Shots of a stagecoach ambling through the high Rockies while White Stripes' "Apple Blossom" plays is a particular delight. The wide 70mm format gives the actors room to really stretch their legs with their facial expressions, nuanced glances, and subtle mannerisms. A suspenseful Western wouldn't be worth its salt without a cavalcade of suspicious glares and piercing gazes. Coupled with a tense score from Ennio Morricone, Hateful firmly places itself within the Western film tradition. 

The three hour running time passes quickly as the usual chatty Tarantino script drives the narrative rather than digresses as we find out about the characters' backstories, which are equal parts disturbing, hilarious, and bizarre. Although others may lazily call this a Tarantino fantasy, that assertion would be mistaken. The old West was a harsh and unsparing place. Peckinpah understood this, and so does Tarantino. During a massacre scene, a dying beautiful young woman reaches up to grab the hem of the coat of the man who just shot her in a seeming plea for terminal comfort. The man gives her a warm look and then shoots her in the face to finish the job, her hand stuck gripping the bottom of his coat. This was the old West. Raw, merciless, and inexplicably brutal. The film makes reference to this when Samuel L. Jackson's character is outed for an indiscretion he incredulously asks the aggrieved John Ruth in only the way Samuel L. can, "What, did I hurt your feelings, John Ruth?" As if anyone can spare the luxury of feelings in such a morally bankrupt world.

But Tarantino's most consummate stroke is his exploration of American race relations.  On one side you have Samuel L. Jackson's Major Marquis Warren who supposedly has a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln and John Ruth.  On the other is Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Lost Causer. The animosity between the two sides is explosive and deadly, but they soon find themselves facing a common lethal foe, and inadvertently find each other somewhere neither thought possible: on the same side. The parallels to today's racial strife cannot be ignored. Don't worry, Tarantino hasn't gone political, he's just gone societal. White America and Black America has a chance to come together if their common goal is truth and justice.

Tarantino touches upon something in Hateful that sets it apart from some of his earlier work. The concluding scene, which follows a truly howl-worthy climax, is the most profound of his venerated career, devoid of any hints of irony or cheekiness, but full of hopefulness and regret.

23 August 2015

Crime and Punishment

Woody Allen's late career has been marked by incongruity. Not only in the quality of his films but within the films themselves. There are highs (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and lows (Whatever Works), and the films themselves are airy and shot beautifully while thematically being quite dark and cynical. In his latest reimagining of a classic philosophical narrative, Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a drunken philosophy professor whose aimless nihilism is confronted with a Dostoyevskian dilemma. Emma Stone plays Jill Pollard, a diaphanous and idealistic student who becomes dangerously enamoured with Lucas' fatalistic apathy, misinterpreting it for romantic suffering. 

Phoenix goes against tradition of other Allen's leading men by avoiding mimicry of Alvy Singer, the protagonist of Annie Hall. Instead, Phoenix's brooding grunts and naturally slurred speech reflect a character that has crumpled under the weight of life and its harsh realities. Suddenly, Lucas (Phoenix) sees a chance at redemption and more crucially, revitalization. Overhearing a sad, although unrealistic, tale of a single mother and cruel judge, the aimless, depressed philosophy professor channels his inner Raskolnikov and convinces himself he must murder the judge, saving the poor woman from a terrible fate.  

The film's initial lightheartedness disabuses the audience into thinking this is all just a fantasy, something naughty to awaken the curiosity of the disaffected and moribund professor. But quickly the tone turns very dark. What seemed like a trifle is made urgently real. Echoing his '80s Bergman influenced period, particularly his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen again challenges the traditional notions of guilt and redemption, and how they are subverted.  

Irrational Man is not a masterpiece and probably not even one of his better later works, due mainly to problems with execution. It's quite clumsy in its climax and denouement, as if Allen thought after creating the characters and coming up with the initial conceit that the rest would work itself out on its own. But it does leave the viewer contemplating how our concepts of the "greater good" seem to conveniently align with our selfish motives.

19 April 2015

One Season and Better Call Saul Is Already Superior to Breaking Bad

How's that for a click-bait headline? But it's true.  I've made it no secret that I am not head-over-heels enamoured with Breaking Bad as everyone else seems to be.  But it's also true that after one season of the fascinating Better Call Saul my appreciation of Bad has increased, as without it Saul would not exist. 

I admit to what is probably an unfairly harsh bias towards Bad. But I maintain that Saul is the show that more deeply explores the human condition, shining a spotlight on the inherent moral quandaries and choices that face us all.

Jimmy McGill -- Saul Goodman's  predecessor self -- is a small-time hustler out of Chicago who inadvertently gets himself into some trouble with the law that only his powerful attorney older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean in a strong dramatic turn), can make go away.  In exchange, Jimmy swears to go straight and accepts a job as a mailboy in his brother's large law firm in Albuquerque. 

Jimmy may be a little crooked, but he also has a strong moral center, tenacious work ethic, and he indeed stays clean.  Bob Odenkirk plays him as the kind of guy you'd instantly like if you met him at a bar but of whom your wife would instantly disapprove when you invite him over to watch the game. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the show's creators, deftly portray a man who straddles the unspoken morality line, sometimes leaning good, sometimes leaning bad.  It is this ambivalence that connects him to the audience.  When Jimmy is good, we applaud his, and ostensibly our own, moral righteousness.  When he does something bad or morally questionable, we're co-conspirators, sharing in Jimmy's post-scam high. In the worldview of Vince Gilligan, everyone is guilty of something. 

Beyond its darkly comedic take on moral relativism, Saul surprisingly delivers moments of profound tenderness.  The show smartly brought back Jonathan Banks' henchman extraordinaire, Mike Ehrmantraut. His backstory is both predictable and tragic; a riveting scene with his daughter-in-law about his son's -- and her husband -- death is powerfully affecting.  Another scene with Jimmy matter-of-factly explaining, "My brother thinks I'm a scumbag, and there's nothing I can do to change his mind," elicits tremendous sympathy and clearly plants the seed that leads to his metamorphosis into the unctuously corrupt Saul Goodman.

Where Bad brought horror and loathing, Saul brings subtlety and doubt.  And that probably, finally, explains why I prefer the latter so much.  I've never been much of a horror fan.