Film Review: “Avengers: Infinity War” and the Perverse Fantasy of Annihilation

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks mulling over Avengers: Infinity War, what I thought of it, and I think it is saying about and to us. Though I haven’t really figured out for sure what I believe, I’ve got enough to at least sketch out the broad parameters of an argument. So, here goes.

Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron and the way in which it can be understood as a melodramatic myth for our current era, in which the processes of climate change that we have ignited threaten to destroy us. Ultron, as the product of human engineering, is the essence of this fear congealed into a single figure and he ultimately seeks to trigger a cataclysm to wipe out humanity, which is averted just in time to prevent absolute catastrophe. The film ultimately proposes that it is not too-late for collective humanity, though it teases us with the possibility that it might be (hence the melodramatic affect it produces).

While Thanos is not driven by the same robotic logic as Ultron, he is just as ruthlessly determined to see his own vision brought to life, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. His goal, however, is (in the macro-level) to save the universe from its own rapacious consumption. In Thanos’s vision of himself, he is a savior but also a destroyer, and one term is not possible without the other. In many ways, Thanos seems to exhibit exactly the sorts of egomaniacal tendencies we have observed in real-world politicians. Indeed, his argument that he alone can fix the problems afflicting the universe and that his decision to wipe out half of all of humanity is a necessary act is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s claim that only he could fix the intractable problems facing a broken country.

The terrifying thing about Thanos is that, like it or not, the film really is about him. Brolin brings to the role a measure of both gravitas and charisma that draw us toward him, even as we recoil at the horrors that he perpetrates and the relentlessness with which he pursues his genocidal goals. The fact that so much of the film’s narrative is scattered–split among the various Avengers and Guardians–ensures that it is Thanos’ particular narrative thread that holds together the most coherently and cohesively.

Once again, the Marvel universe channels our anxieties and deepest dread about the anthropocene onto a singular figure, though admittedly one whose powers are such that he cannot be defeated in the normal ways. As Hollywood films typically do, they posit that humanity is beset by forces outside of itself, that the catastrophe that will result in the deaths of billions of people is something so vast and beyond human comprehension that it can only be apprehended through the actions of an individual. That is, essentially, the paradox at the heart of the anthropocene, which the superhero films of the 21st Century seem uniquely poised to capture.

Yet there is also a perverse pleasure in indulging in Thanos’s fantasy solution to the problems afflicting the universe. If manmade climate change and the host of other problems afflicting contemporary subjectivity (and politics) remain intractable and difficult to solve via traditional policy solutions, a film like Infinity Wars allows us to indulge in the idea that yes, indeed, these things can only be fixed by a superhuman figure like Thanos. There is, then, a sort of perilous utopian logic at the heart of this film, one that allows us to give in to our innermost self-destructive fantasies at the same time as it provides us a way out, a way of disavowing that moment of sacrifice. I might even go so far as to suggest that Thanos is the epic hero twisted into a new form, one that commits atrocities in the name of a greater good and that must nevertheless be stopped.

Of course, the truly heart-wrenching part of the film comes when Thanos succeeds in his efforts and literally half of the universe is wiped out, including several members of the Avengers, and the film has a curiously pessimistic conclusion. The downbeat nature of the ending is, of course, a bit of a teaser, as it is almost certain that it will prove temporary and our beloved heroes will somehow be restored to the mortal plane. However, beneath that certainty, I think, there lurks a darker, bleaker awareness that even our superheroes–the ego ideal that we all desire to be–are not immune from the destruction that lurks at the edge of our collective unconscious. What’s more, it also reminds us that, while heroes may return from the dead, that is a privilege denied outside the realm of fiction.

Just as importantly, I do think that the MCU, more than perhaps any other cultural product of recent memory, expresses our collective sense of never-ending catastrophe. It’s hard not to feel that we are enmeshed in a perpetual cycle of bad news and global crises that can never be fully resolved. Though we know that the Avengers will continue in some form, they will have to confront another set of issues in the future. Their work is never done, and this begins to wear on the bodies of the superheroes. As a friend recently pointed out to me, even Cap has begun to show the signs of strain, his face bearing witness to the strain of always having to defend the world (and the universe).

In the end, Avengers: Infinity War is utopian Hollywood entertainment at its finest. It forces us to experience both the pressing problems of our current historical moment and provides (temporary) solutions to those problems that highlight their ultimate intractability. Once again, an Avengers movie has held up a startlingly clear mirror to our own world, forcing us to confront the monsters that haunt our collective imagination.

Who could ask for more than that?

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World Building: “The Song of Princes” and the Fall of Old Korray

The following is an extract from Alexias Korenas’ A History of the Korrayin People, Their Customs, and Legends. Compiled roughly 200 years ago, it remains the definitive work on the Korrayin people.

Among the Korrayin, there is no tale more sacred nor terrifying than the Fall of Old Korray. It is related in full in an epic text known as the Song of Princes, and while no complete copy has survived to be investigated by either Imperial or Haransharin authorities (that we know of), enough pieces have been recovered that we can relate the events that took place in at least some detail.

It is said that Old Korray was a land such as had never been seen since the dawn of the world. Larger by far than the distant Middle Kingdom, more lush and verdant than the continent upon which the Anukathi dwell, and far more civilized than any culture in Aridikh, Old Korray was the envy of the world. Indeed, dignitaries from the world’s powers came to the court of their High King–the Melkh, as they called him–to offer their alliances, their daughters, and their riches. Old Korray was, then, the center of the world, the axis around which the other great powers of the world revolved.

The first sign that all was not well began, the Song asserts, when the 29th king of the Uzurite House, Shavid, died in a tragic accident, leaving his numerous sons to squabble over the inheritance. Four of them quickly rose to the top: Kilab, Ethream, Elishua, and Avnon. They at first attempted to divide the kingdom among them, but it was inevitable that they should start to feud among themselves, each seeking to reclaim all of the patrimony for himself. Soon all of Old Korray was torn apart by war.

That war was arguably the most terrible event the world had seen, not to be rivaled until the civil war that brought down the reign of the Old Ones here on Aridikh. There were many great and terrible deeds committed by all sides during those dreadful years, but the end result was that Old Korray was soon an irreparably fragmented kingdom. No House, no matter how small, was able to avoid being pulled into the orbit of one of the Princes. Nor, for that matter, was the royal family, whose ranks were decimated as assassinations and battles flourished.

In the seventh year of the conflict, so the chronicle tells us, the Darkness fell. Perhaps, had the Korrayin not been involved in a feckless war with one another, they might have been able to resist the tide that swept them away, but as it was it took each army one by one. Finally, pushed to the sea, the four brothers–the last of their House–decided to set aside their feuding for the good of their people (a bit too little, too late, it must be said). They commandeered the great ships at the harbour city of Kivala and set sail with their followers. It is hard to say now how many perished as the Darkness overtook Korray, but it is clear from the Song that far more were left behind than were able to be taken in the ships. Truly, it was a dark day, and it haunts the Korrayin to this day.

Some speculate that it was an invading army from either the Middle Kingdom or the Old Ones of Aridikh that were responsible for the collapse of that mighty kingdom and the flight of the Korrayin. It is possible that such a strong attack might have been transformed by the myths and legends of a people into an abstract concept. However, it would have taken a truly mighty army to overcome the Korrayin, even divided as they were.

In my own professional opinion as a trained historian, it is far more likely to have been some sort of natural disaster. The lands to the west, what little we know of them, are reputed to be extraordinarily volatile, and so it seems to me likely that a great volcanic eruption is the source of the myth of the Darkness.

It is also unclear just how much time the Exiles spent on the seas, but it was probably no more than a matter of months. They soon spotted land, and when they came ashore they found a continent almost as prosperous as their own: Aridikh. They landed in the north of what is now Haranshar, very near the border of what is currently called Korray. They quickly found, however, that the mountains just to the west (what we now call the Mountains of Korray) were more hospitable for them, and they began their colonization efforts there. Some few, however, did move southward into the desert regions of Haranshar, where they remain to day.

Thus, as uncertain as many of the facts are surrounding the fall of Old Korray, it is certain that the incursion of the Korrayin onto Aridikh triggered the titanic series of conflicts that brought about the demise of the Old Ones. They landed in their great boat -and immediately set about marrying and conquering the various kings and queens of the Old Ones. Some of these had already established contacts with the Korrayin in their own country, and so the solidification of such alliances was only natural. Of course, by the time of the landing, the first cracks in the Hegemony of the Old Ones had already begun to show, so it was to be expected that a sudden influx of new peoples would exacerbate existing conflicts. And so it proved. Within a generation the Old Ones were mostly gone, and it would not be until the rise of Karyush the Great that the continent of Aridikh would once more find unity.

Since the subsequent history of the Korrayin is recounted elsewhere, I shall end by noting that the priests of Korray, regardless of what faith they follow, continue to hold the Song out as a warning and a promise. An entire body of prophecy has also sprung up, proclaiming that one day a Meschach, a saviour, will arise to unite them and lead them to conquer the continent of Aridikh, restoring them to the greatness that was once theirs.

Such things are, of course, laughable, considering how divided the Korrayin remain and how few of them there are compared to either the Imperials to the west or the Haransharin to their east. Still, one cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to those myths.

But since such things are better left to the Alchemists and their stargazing, I shall end this part of my chronicle here.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) and the Puncturing of Hegemonic Masculinity

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite classic Hollywood directors. All of his movies–from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard–crackle and snap with an energy all their own. Wilder had a keen eye for searing away the patina of conformity and niceness of American culture to lay bare the hypocrisy and rot beneath. While at first glance a comedy like The Seven Year Itch may not seem to have the same bleak outlook on the American psyche as some of his earlier films, lurking beneath the surface of this film, however, is an awareness of the fundamental shortcomings of postwar American society.

The film’s ostensible protagonist, Richard Sherman is a middle-aged man in a thoroughly middle-class life: he has a wife, a son, and a gray-flannel suit type job at a publishing house. Unfortunately, he’s miserable, his house is a prison, and all romance is gone from his marriage. After his wife and young son go to Maine to escape the New York summer heat, a bubbly, vivacious, and very blonde young woman (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs, and he immediately sets out to seduce her and inject some new vivacity into his humdrum existence.

This being a Billy Wilder film, it’s almost too clever for its own good. It moves with an almost frantic pace, thanks in part to the twitchy, spastic energy that Tom Ewell brings to the role of Sherman. In fact, his performance verges on neurotic, in that he constantly twitches, grimaces, and indulges in fantasies that have no bearing in actual lived reality. Indeed, the juxtaposition of his fantasy self–as a sex-god who is irresistible to women–with his very plain real self highlights just how delusional he really is.

The Seven Year Itch also turns its razor-sharp wit on the fictions and myths that structured postwar American life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sherman has, on the surface, embraced everything that hegemonic American culture had dictated was “normal,” from the 9-5 job, a wife and son, etc. However, 1950s middle-class domesticity and the bread-winner role have left Sherman thoroughly alienated and disenchanted. He is surrounded by the trappings of midcentury consumer culture, but rather than providing him fulfillment, they become a prison and often cause him physical harm, as when he twice trips on his son’s roller-skate. His apartment is also full of the clutter of a consumerist culture, each piece of clutter highlighted by the film’s vibrant color palette.

What’s more, the older model represented by his boss Mr. Brady is no more satisfying. He is a gruff, rather blustering older man who feels even more entrapped by his years-long marriage to his wife. While Sherman wants to return to his wife and possibly find respite from the corrupting influence of the city (and nubile femininity), Mr. Brady embraces the freedom and even intimates that he might pursue an adulterous encounter while his wife is up north. Though the scene is obviously played for laughs, it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter.

Thus, I would argue that The Seven Year Itch punctures the myth of midcentury hegemonic masculinity. It ultimately becomes not just a prison for the male subject, but a dysfunctional ideal that he cannot fulfill and which encourages him to destroy the things in his life that should matter: relationships with his wife, his child, and even what could be a great friendship “The Girl.” Men in this world are chronically unable to articulate their feelings in any meaningful or sophisticated way, and even the last shot of the film shows Sherman still fumbling about, a complete mess right up until the end.

Understandably, many modern viewers of the film find its gender politics disgustingly regressive, I think this is a rather reductive reading. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that a surface reading does support the idea that this is a deeply misogynist text that treats its female star as largely an object for the male gaze, something to be fetishized and largely ignored as an agent. However, there is also something disruptive about Monroe’s character, and the fact that she seems so blissfully unaware of the effect she has on men suggests that there is far more to her than meets the eye, a force that resists attempts to control her.

The Seven Year Itch ultimately reveals that beneath even the most seemingly misogynistic comedy lies a kernel of subversion.

Screening History: “Troy: Fall of a City” (2018) and the Critique of Epic Masculinity

The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times in numerous forms: poetry, literature, film and, of course, television. Moving, tragic, and exhilarating, this narrative has produced works of great genius and lasting power (The Iliad) but also, unfortunately, some rather lackluster interpretations (Troy). Now, we have Troy: Fall of a City, a joint venture between Netflix and the BBC. More family drama than epic per se, the series nevertheless provides a stirring, at times even heart-wrenching, experience of this eternal myth.

One of the first things that struck me about this new retelling of the ancient myth is the impact that the medium of television has on the way in which the story is told. Whereas epic films tend to focus on huge battles, sweeping vistas, and larger-than-life heroes, television dramas focus more on personal relationships that nevertheless have enormous political and historical consequences. Thus it is that Fall of a City, while populated by the requisite heroes of antiquity–Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, Hecuba–manages to paint them as individuals with well-rounded personalities rather than archetypes. These are deeply-flawed human beings caught up in events and emotions that they cannot control but which will have a momentous impact on their world.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Paris who is the center of the narrative. Portrayed by a strikingly handsome Louis T. Hunter, the Trojan prince raised by shepherds is a far more charismatic, and heroic, character than he traditionally appears in modern interpretations. True, he is quite pretty, but it is a more traditionally “masculine” sort than, say, Orlando Bloom, who brought a signature softness to the role. As a result, Troy paints this Paris (who it prefers to refer to as Alexander) in a more martial light. Far from sheltering under Hector’s blazing military glory, Alexander forges his own destiny, even stepping into his brother’s shoes when the former meets his agonizing death at the hands of Achilles.

Though Paris commands most of the attention, the series also adeptly fleshes out the struggles, both physical and emotional, of the other major players in this drama. What’s more, it imbues them with a deeply resonant emotional impact, so that the deaths that we know are coming–and, of course, the inevitable fall of Troy itself–are incredibly wrenching. If you don’t shed tears when Hector meets his fate at the hands of Achilles, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Because it has more running time through which to work, Troy reveals the competing and yet mutually-reinforcing causes of antiquity’s most famous conflict. While of course Paris’s taking of Helen (here portrayed as willing on her part), is the stark to the tinder, it is made clear that there have long been resentments and jealousies on the part of the Greeks, particularly Agamemnon. And, of course, there are also the gods, who periodically interfere with the affairs of humans, often to work through their own contentious relationships.

If this series proves anything, it’s that sometimes television is better at bringing out the fundamentally human drama at the heart of the ancient stories. Eight hours of running time allows us a significantly greater investment in these characters and their relationships, whether that be the psychologically complex Helen (a refreshing change), the deeply loving relationship between Hector and Andromache, or the tempestuous (but physical and sexual) relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. And, while we’re at it, let me just say how absolutely thrilled I was to see an Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers rather than as “cousins” or some other, equally infuriating euphemism.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Troy works more in the idiom of the tragic than the epic, at least as these have taken shape within modern media. These are characters determined to make the best decisions that they can, even though each are condemned to follow a path they cannot shape to their own ends. Even the gods, who supposedly have more power than their mortal counterparts, seem unable to affect the course of the prophecy that has already foretold the doom of both Paris and his city.

Furthermore, Troy strips away the patina of legitimacy that typically adheres to Greek epic heroes, so that although Agamemnon, Menelaus, and even Achilles and Odysseus all exhibit exactly the types of behaviour that we have come to expect from our epic heroes, their violence remains coded as deeply sociopathic. Even Odysseus, arguably the most sympathetic of the Greek heroes, lies and deceives in the service of what he deems a higher purpose, even as he recognizes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are the worst that Greece can produce. Their lies are largely for their own gain, regardless of the cost to others. Achilles is ultimately deceived by his fellow Greeks into launching an all-out assault on the Trojans, an action which leads almost directly to his death at the hands of Paris.

As such, Troy is also a critique of the deeply violent and aggressive epic masculinity that has characterized epic films since at least Gladiator, a critique I’ve noticed in a number of ancient world films produced in the last couple of years. This ambiguity about the value and social function of epic heroism punctures even the end of the film, for while the Greeks have emerged victorious, theirs is a pyrrhic victory, a fact rendered explicit by Odysseus’ craggy, sad visage staring off into the distance at the very end. Any savvy viewer knows that almost of all of them will find their lives irrevocably marred by their actions.

All in all, I enjoyed Troy: Fall of a City for what it was, not for what I attempted to force it to be. Rather than holding it up to the standard of the epic–with its grandeur, its battles, its vast scope–I accepted this as a television drama. As such, I think it has much to tell us about how our expectations of epic heroism have changed and how disenchanted we have become with an ancient model that seems curiously out of touch with the modern world.

Screening the Bible: “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018)

Much as I love films that partake of the biblical epic tradition, I have to confess that these days I go into any new quasi-biblical-epic with a fair amount of trepidation. All too often, the attempt by filmmakers to be “devout” ends up hamstringing the films. They become not only spiritually toothless but cinematically boring (and sometimes downright dreadful). Thus, I went into Paul, Apostle of Christ with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to encounter a passably entertaining film.

In terms of quality, Paul is a more prestigious and polished production than this year’s Samson, which showed definite signs of a shoestring budget and an independent Christian studio. Paul, produced by Affirm Films, an imprint of Sony, clearly had a bigger budget, more talented stars, and better writers. As a result, it just feels different, in the sense that it feels like an actual movie rather than an illustrated bible story (it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the latter; it’s just that I want more bang for my buck if I’m going to go to the cinema).

Though at first I thought it was odd that the film chose to focus on the last years of Paul’s life rather than on, say, his conversion or his travels with Luke, gradually I sort of accepted this is part of the film’s purpose. Paul is far more interested in the spiritual struggle he undergoes in the last days of his life, as he is recounts to Luke his own deeply vexed relationship with Christianity. The nuanced and emotional performance that James Faulkner gives renders Paul a deeply complex figure, one haunted by his earlier persecution of faithful Christians.

These flashbacks are executed with moving grace, and the sequence depicting the stoning of Stephen is particularly emotionally rich and wrenching. It is clear that this incident in particular weighs on Paul’s conscience, as the camera dwells with an almost alarming fetishism on the drops of the martyr’s blood splashing onto the stones. This earlier Paul was also no respecter of age, and it is heavily implied that he was responsible for the death of children. Faulkner’s gravelly voice and raw-boned physique captures, I think, the essence of a profoundly spiritual man struggling with the man that he was and who he attempts to be.

While I’m not Jim Caviezel biggest fan, he does bring a certain noble grace to his portrayal of Luke, and it is fortunately not quite as heavy-handed as his portrayal of Christ. It was actually rather refreshing to see Luke and Paul remembering their time on the road together, traversing the Empire. His evangelist is a man driven by both a sense of duty to the new faith as well as a personal loyalty to his friend and mentor, and Caviezel manages to capture that.

I’m still on the fence about the Roman commander Mauritius (played by Olivier Martinez). The actor is passably good, but the miraculous healing of his daughter is a bit too neatly done. Perhaps if the film had been strictly about his crisis of faith I would have been more convinced, but unfortunately this part of the film feels remarkably underdeveloped and not as emotionally resonant as it should be. This is especially striking, given that one would think that a miraculous healing would be a profoundly spiritual moment in a film, but alas, it rings rather hollow.

This lack of resonance is something that mars most of the film. Unfortunately, because Paul is in prison, Paul the film has to pay attention to several other plot threads that are not nearly as interesting. I’m still not quite sure why it is that so many of the more recent biblically oriented films try to beef up their biblical accounts with exactly the wrong sort of extraneous material. Instead of focusing on the trials and tribulations of Roman Christians (as this film does), I would have rather had more screen time devoted to Paul, perhaps the incidents that led up to his imprisonment by Nero. But, alas, that is not the film we got, and that is unfortunate.

In terms of its formal characteristics, the film relies more on tight framing than the vast, wide-angle shots we typically associate with biblically-oriented films. Nor does it rely on CGI. As a result, the film works much more as a personal drama rather than as an epic, and that is actually a good thing. If you don’t have the ability to make a big-budget spectacle, you should at least play to your strengths, make the most out of your actors and the sets that you can afford. Paul, fortunately doesn’t try to do to much, and that is one of its main strengths.

In essence, Paul is about the struggles of early Christians to persevere, despite the historical forces arrayed against them. The end, which shows the community fleeing Rome, is a strangely ambivalent one. While clearly the Christians will one day rise up to supplant the imperial power that has so ruthlessly persecuted them, the film prefers to project that day of victory into the future. As a result, the ending leaves us as spectators suspended on a moment of perilous possibility.

All in all, Paul was an entertaining film, though a rather staid one. I don’t know that it has much to offer either the truly devout or those who are more earthy in their film tastes, but it does gesture toward the possibility of producing biblical films that are not epic either in scope or in execution. However, if the Hollywood studios continue to try to make these kinds of films–or if Christian filmmakers do–I hope that they at least try to give their audiences some bit of credit. Just as importantly, I hope they turn back to the book that supposedly is the source for their narratives. If they do so, they might just find enough material there to make a film that is entertaining for both devout and secular audiences.

What a true miracle that would be.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)

Recently, I decided to give the film How to Marry a Millionaire another watch. It’s an important film in Hollywood history and, as a scholar of classic Hollywood, I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about this particularly important period of film history. I’m sure glad I did, because I LOVED this film.

It’s all too easy these days to adopt a camp perspective on classic Hollywood films, to laugh at rather than with them. However, in my view How to Marry is one of those gems that really does age fairly well, and it’s quite easy to find yourself laughing with the jokes. If you don’t find yourself laughing out loud, then I think you might have something wrong with your sense of humour.

Part of what helps the film to age so well, I suspect, is the extent to which it is the women who motivate the action, drive the narrative, and dominate the screen. Oh sure, William Powell puts in a nice turn, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Bacall, Grable, and Monroe. In one particularly revealing sequence, each of the women dreams about their futures with their respective suitors, showing the extent to which each of them is determined to carve out a future on their own terms. You want each of them to find the wealth and emotional happiness that they desire.

Speaking of William Powell…there’s something almost tragic about the fact that Schatze chooses the young, foppish, and not very charismatic Brookman rather than Hadley as the man with whom she wants to build a life. I mean, come on, it’s William Powell, the man who played the Thin Man! How could one not fall in love with his urbane charm, his dazzling wit, and that old-fashioned handsome (if slightly weathered) face? Of course, though, I get it. This is postwar America, and Powell, and his character, are relics from an earlier era that have to be shunted aside to make room for the new crop of young men.

Of course, each of the female stars manage to overwhelm any scene in which they appear. Though Grable is fine as far as she goes, for my money the real entertainers are Bacall and Monroe, the former because she brings her signature bite and sass to this gold-digger role and the latter because, beneath the fluffy, buxom exterior one can still sense a fierce form of intelligence. As I watched this film, it occurred to me (not for the first time) what a tragedy it was that Monroe didn’t often get to play parts that really challenged her and, more superficially, that she didn’t get to wear glasses more often. For my money though, Bacall will always be the best thing about any movie in which she appears. That voice…it does it for me.

Visually, the film is stunning, putting both the widescreen and the Technicolor to full effect. The New York portrayed in How to Marry is a utopian world of sumptuous fabrics, snappy dialogue, witty banter, and simple, sheer beauty. Given that the film was shot in CinemaScope, it’s easy to see how it wishes to immerse the postwar spectator in a glorious, glittering world of affluence and romance. The opening and closing of the film heightens this sense of presence, including both an orchestra and curtains, both of which suggest that one is sitting watching a play rather than merely observing what is going on in another room.

At a deeper social level, How to Marry a Millionaire testifies to a culture still unsure what to make of the status of women. While the hegemonic gender norms that dominated the 1950s were already settling into place, American society still struggled to accommodate female desire. It’s worth noting that two of the three marry men who are incapacitated in some way, either because of financial misfortune or physical incapacitation. The final scene of the film has Brookman revealing his vast wealth to the gathered cast, the sight of which causes the women to faint (disappearing from the frame), thus allowing them men to literally have the last word. While the film attempts to recuperate the endangered masculinity that it has put on such conspicuous display in this final scene, these unruly women are not so easily tamed.

In the end, it truly is the women who own this picture and who show us, in 2018, that the 1950s were far less stable than we remember.

Queer Classics: “Love, Simon” (2018) and the Epistemology of the (Digital) Closet

Once upon a time, if you were to look for a mainstream gay teen romance, you would have to look outside the Hollywood system to the indies. Even there, you’d be hard pressed to find a film about queer teens. If there is one thing that has been off-bounds for mainstream film, it’s the idea that anyone under the age of 18 has a sex drive, and this is even more true for the scandalous idea that teenagers might know they’re queer when they’re teens.

Fast forward to 2018, and a relatively small-scoped film called Love, Simon appears to have opened that door to representation.

Simon is your average, middle-class teenager in 2018. He lives with his affluent, accepting parents and a sister that he actually likes. He also harbors a secret that he’s gay. When he comes out to a fellow student whom he knows only via e-mail, he inadvertently sets the stage for a scheme by one of his fellow students to blackmail him with the potential releasing of his sexual secret to the entire school. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, things work out in the end, and Simon ends up uniting with his e-mail beau.

No matter how many times I watch a Hollywood romance, I always find myself choking up at the end. Perhaps, in this case, it’s because I wish that was how my own youth had been, or perhaps because I wish that there had been those kinds of films around when I was growing up. So, when I see two young queer people finding emotional fulfillment at the end of a film (with no baggage attached), I can’t help but feel myself moved by it and to see it, in the aggregate, as a good thing. And, if I’m being completely honest, it simply felt good to see a queer teen romance end happily and fulfilled.

Though of course the love story is the most important component of the film, it is also a meditation on the ways in which digital technologies–and the increasingly interconnected world they have made possible–continue to inflect and change the ways that young queer people interact with one another. Indeed, it is one of the structuring conflicts of the film. Simon’s entire way of being in the world of romance is mediated through technology–first the e-mail (sent on his very expensive Mac), then his repeated alerts on his iPhone, and of course the social media platform that unites the entire school. Simon, and his friends and classmates, must continually navigate the fraught territory of social media, with all of its perils and pitfalls.

What really stood out to me as I watched the film, however, was how much it illustrates that Sedgwick’s theory of the closet still holds true. For those not familiar with this concept, it is essentially the idea that the closet maintains a structuring presence in the life of any queer person. No matter how accepted we are in mainstream culture, no matter how much queer rights have been gained, there is always the reality that, as long as we remain wedded to a homo/hetero binary way of looking at sexuality, and as long as the hetero is assumed to be the norm against which the homo is measured, queers will have to go through the confessional act of “coming out.” Every new person we meet, every new social encounter we have, engenders the question “Do I tell them who I really am?”

This epistemology constitutes the entire plot of Love, Simon. Even in 2018, when it is has become so normal for young people to be open about who they are–and indeed to challenge the categories that have been used to make sense of sexual identities for the last 40 years–the old structures have proven surprisingly enduring. If we truly lived in a world that no longer organized itself around the homo/hetero binary, then Simon wouldn’t be rendered susceptible to his classmate’s blackmail (he threatens to expose Simon’s sexuality on the school’s social media platform). Instead, Simon, like queer people throughout the era of the closet, finds his identity split between his private and public selves, with social media as the hinge between these two spheres.

When his mother tells him that he looked like he was holding his breath, she sums up exactly how the closet works and how it feels to be in it, always and every day. The injunction to come out, the very fact that one has to come out in the first place, is the essence of living in the shadow of the closet. It’s important to remember that there are many (many) queer people who struggle with that part of their identity, who have to make a daily decision about whether or not they are going to reveal their true selves to others in their life. In that sense, Love, Simon is the perfect sort of Hollywood fantasy, one which shows the ideal way in which coming out happens.

It’s easy to dismiss Love, Simon as the worst sort of homonormative, teenage-angsty sort of film. The ending leaves us no plot thread unresolved, and as a colleague of mine pointed out, the ferris wheel sequence fits queer romance into a Hollywood model. Yet, I’m not sure I agree. There is a brief but revealing moment when Bram (the e-mail beau) asks, “Are you disappointed it’s me?” It’s unclear what he means when he asks this question, but I suspect that he’s asking if Simon is disappointed that it’s the black Jewish boy rather than the other more “normative” characters that have periodically flitted into Simon’s life. Let’s not forget that it’s still pretty radical to see a queer interracial couple appear in a major Hollywood studio film.

And that, ultimately, is the great cultural good of a film like Love, Simon. Sure, those on the coasts may not find the film as radical as they might like–and some might even find it downright regressive–but for me, I am glad that a film like this exists. And I’m glad that today’s queer kids will, at last, be able to see themselves up their on the big screen.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “It’s a Miserable Life” (S2, Ep. 4)

Despite the sporadic nature of my updates to this series, I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent going forward. I’ve still got quite a few episodes to cover, after all. So, onward we go into season two.

In the fourth episode of the second season, the girls confront the malice and profound misanthropy of Frieda Claxton, their neighbor who does everything in her power to ensure that the old oak tree on her property is cut down by the city in its efforts to widen the street. When Rose loses her temper during a meeting of the City Council and shouts at Mrs. Claxton, the old woman dies on the spot, and the four women ultimately decide to pay for her funeral.

What is most striking about Mrs. Claxton is that she is unrepentantly misanthropic. Unlike the four stars of the show–who spend much of their time committed to social good–she straight up doesn’t like people. While the show doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing (quite the opposite, in fact), it is refreshing to see a woman who doesn’t make any bones about the fact that she doesn’t feel the obligation to be nice to people just because that’s what she’s “supposed” to be like. Fun fact? She is basically what my Mom is going to be like when she gets to be that age.

The real highlight of the episode, though, is the scene at the funeral home, in which the four women have to contend with Mr. Pfeiffer (the “p” is not, in fact, silent). The scene is pure comedy gold, from Sophia’s threatening to give the funeral director a punch in his “pface” to the girls attempting to get the cheapest funeral and casket, since none of them really want to invest that much money into honouring a woman that none of them liked. The sequence also contains a sly reference to the popularity of The Cosby Show and indeed the centrality of television to the lives of those who lived in that far-off time before DVR. The whole thing is, quite simply, a hugely hilarious bit of comedy.

What I really like about this episode is that it shows us that Rose truly is a good, decent person. Sure, she has her moments when she lets her anger burst out inopportunely. However, her genuine devastation at the lack of attendees at Claxton’s funeral reveals how deeply Rose feels about the world around her, how she is determined to believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is something good in the heart of even the most despicable person.

Indeed, this episode (like so many) contends with the incontrovertible fact of death and its increasing proximity. As mean as Frieda Claxton was, Sophia points out, she still deserves at least a measure of a funeral. Though she claims it’s good luck to pay for the funeral of someone you hate, one suspects that there is a recognition on Sophia’s part that death waits for all of them, and that it might be in all of their interest to save up some goodwill with the Almighty.

Next up, we come to one of my very favourite episodes, in which Dorothy’s gay friend comes for a visit.

Film Review: “Annihilation” (2018) and the Radical Dissolution of the Self

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.

The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.

At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.

The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.

What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.

The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.

Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.

Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.