“Game of Thrones” and the Essos Problem

Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  I’ve been a devoted viewer of the show, and I’ve read all of the books in George R.R. Martin’s series several times.  Indeed, it is precisely because I have read the books and loved them so much that I find Game of Thrones unsatisfying in one particularly vexing respect:  its portrayal of the continent of Essos.

Beginning from the first season, the HBO series has brought an immense amount of complexity to the various corners of the Seven Kingdoms (including, most recently, Dorne).  Yet when it comes to Essos, the vast continent that stretches over huge swathes of the eastern part of this world, the series has struggled to portray it as anything other than vaguely exotic; indeed, the most compelling part of the portrayal of Essos remains the small images of the various cities that emerge during the opening credits.

The unfortunate tendency to generalize Essos emerged in some form as early as the first season.  For example, the Magister Illyrio is, in the novel, an enormously corpulent man who indulges in all the numerous pleasures the city of Pentos has to offer; in the series, he is a seemingly normally proportioned man.  This flattening tendency was made even more obvious in the second season, when Dany finally arrives at the exotic city of Qarth.  In the novel, the city has a rich and vibrant culture, with various forces–such as the warlocks, the Pureborn, and the Tourmaline Brotherhood–all vying for control.  In the series, however, this is reduced to something at once more banal and more ridiculous, as the wealthy Xaro conspires with the warlock Pyat Pree to have himself declared King of Qarth.  This storyline, to me at least, felt so incredibly forced and trite that it made the cheapening of the Qarth storyline in general that much more disappointing (and I, for one, was happy when it was finally over).

For a more recent example, take Meereen, the vast city that Daenerys Targaryen successfully conquered, setting free its vast population of slaves.  In the novels, the city, like others along Slaver’s Bay (such as Yunkai and Astapor), is ruled by vicious nobles who often attempt to outdo one another with the outlandishness of their elaborately coiffed hair, while religious figures known as the Graces provide the spiritual element of the city. In the HBO series, gone are the hairstyles and the Graces, replaced with hopelessly banal, vaguely ethnic nobles who have little to no characterization.  A similar problem haunts the portrayal of Volantis (visited by Tyrion and Varys in Season 5), which gets just a passing glimpse before the characters move on (though, to be fair, the show does at least allow the viewer to see the ways in which the slaves of the city are branded according to their occupation).

One must wonder why, with an enormous budget and a great deal of creative control over the material, the writers and producers would so consistently homogenize the people and civilizations of Essos, when bringing them to the screen would add yet another layer of complexity and visual delectation.  Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the simmering orientalism that underpins so much of the series (including the portrayal of the Dothraki).  Why spend time painting the people of the east with anything remotely resembling complexity when you can just tar them all with the same generic exoticism (since that seems to be what the audience expects?)  After all, isn’t it really the men and women of Westeros that really matter to the story (note my heavy doses of sarcasm).

I also suspect that part of it is the central problem posed by Dany’s storyline.  The series and the novel have both struggled with how to make her more relevant to the Westeros-centric stories that form the heart of the narrative drama, with middling success.  While her recent escape from the fighting pits atop the formidable dragon Drogon seems to suggest that we might at least be seeing her story move in some interesting directions.  Hopefully, the show will take this opportunity to portray Essos with a little more complexity and depth.

But, to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Three (1961-1966)

Welcome to the third and final part of my series for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, in which I explore the declining period of the biblical epic, which saw the death of the genre on the big screen until its resurgence on film (and on television) post-2000.

As the ’60s began, it must have seemed a good time to be making epic films.  While some of the 1950s films had not been as successful as had been hoped, the fortunes of the genre did not seem all washed up just yet.  When Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings emerged in 1961, it offered the first major Hollywood studio film to explicitly show Christ’s face since DeMille’s similarly titled The King of Kings in 1927.  Ray’s film situates Christ’s life and teachings in the context of the Roman conquest of Palestine, granting his film a topical urgency and also allowing for a feeling of a world that is, indeed, on the brink of profound political change.  Yet even in a film like this, one can already see the writing on the wall, not least in the fact that the philosophy of bigger and better was beginning to flag, as can be seen from the nakedly derivative marketing.  If you see a similarity between these enormous letters and those used to market Ben-Hur, that is most likely because they are almost identical, an indication, it seems, of some measure of studio uncertainty on how to contend with the ever-increasing desire for the new and the spectacular.

Theatrical release poster for "King of Kings."  Note the similarities to the poster for "Ben-Hur" (also released by MGM).

Theatrical release poster for “King of Kings.” Note the similarities to the poster for “Ben-Hur” (also released by MGM).

1961 also saw the release of the darker Italian film Barabbas, about the career of the Jewish insurgent pardoned so that Jesus could be crucified.  The character, portrayed by Anthony Quinn, positively seethes with existential and political angst, as he struggles to come to terms with his survival at the expense of another.  The film shows signs of its European origins, a sign that the epic form was not isolated in the U.S., as well as an indication of the growing influence and popularity of European art house films.

Given the perceived fiscal viability of the genre–especially considering the flagging fortunes of most of the major Hollywood studios–it would make sense that Fox would decide to engage in its own form of oneupsmanship with its grandiose production of Cleopatra.  Unfortunately for Fox, costs for the picture began to balloon, due in no small part because the entire project had to be moved from England to Italy (which required the construction of a second set of sets), as well as numerous other difficulties (including, so the press reported, trouble with the star Elizabeth Taylor, who engaged in a salacious affair with married co-star Richard Burton during production).  While the film was the top grosser of the year, it’s enormous budget ensured that it was a loss for the studio.

The crushing weight of spectacle in "Cleopatra."

The crushing weight of spectacle in “Cleopatra.”

Still, not all was quite lost (or at least it was thought not), as several other epic films went into production.  George Stevens, the man who had made so many memorable westerns, embarked on his devotional life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told.  However, a combination of factors, including a Hallmark card aesthetic (to borrow a phrase from prominent critic John Simon), a distracting panoply of cameo appearances–including one by John Wayne as the centurion at Christ’s crucifixion–and an enormous budget fairly guaranteed that this film would not recoup its losses.

If Stevens’s outing was a religiously devout picture, Anthony Mann’s film The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964,  was far more bleakly secular in its outlook.  Mann’s film is self-consciously a “thinking man’s epic,” far more cerebral in its approach to its subject matter, the eponymous fall of one of the western world’s most formidable political powers.  However, while the beginning voiceover suggests that there were many causes, the film’s narrative suggests otherwise, pinpointing the corruption of Emperor Commodus (itself, the film suggests, the product of his illegitimacy and gladiatorial paternity).  However, the ending is truly one of the most despairing and despondent of the mid-century epics, with hero Lucius (Stephen Boyd) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren) leaving a flaming conflagration as the city, and the empire, goes up for sale to the highest bidder.

The ending conflagration of "Fall of the Roman Empire," with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

The ending conflagration of “Fall of the Roman Empire,” with echoes of an atomic expulsion from Eden.

While The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Greatest Story Ever Told are typically seen as the definitive end of the genre’s mid-century flourishing, one other film of this type deserves mention:  John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning.  Released in 1966, the film chronicles the events of the first 22 chapters of Genesis.  While not enormously successful at the box office, the film was at least somewhat well-received by critics and features some noteworthy performances by Huston himself as Noah, George C. Scott as Abraham, and Ava Gardner as Sarah.

It is perhaps fitting that many of these films take as their subject the decline of the great powers of the ancient world:  the meteoric rise and catastrophically fast fall of Cleopatra, the crumbling of Roman imperial glory, even the loss of innocence entailed with the Fall out of the Garden of Eden.  In terms of the film industry, this was indeed the decade that saw the definitive end of the classic Hollywood studio system, as the impetus to produce bigger and better product eventually became too strenuous to be sustained (as can be seen with the bloated budgets of Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told).  In the culture at large, political shocks reverberated throughout the early-to-mid 1960s, with the prominent assassination of JFK serving as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and of the melancholia of dreams unfulfilled.

Perhaps it is precisely because these films take the fall of grace and power as their subject that so many of them fumbled so spectacularly at the box office.  Their predecessors in the genre, ambivalent as they often were, frequently attempted (with various levels of success) to disguise that ambivalence and overcome it through the triumph of narrative resolution (often of spiritual transcendence).  A film such as Fall of the Roman Empire, however, is even more bleak than Spartacus, with its ending conflagration and the flight of both Lucius and Lucilla as they abandon the city, and the empire, to its own internal corruption.  Cleopatra, likewise, ends with its heroine’s suicide and the potent knowledge that her death, and that of Antony, will usher in the era of Augustus, a man of substantially smaller stature and heroic grandeur than his enemy (at least as portrayed with such hysterical and fey flair by Roddy McDowall).  The biblical epic, it seems, found itself both too topical and not topical enough.

After The Bible:  In the Beginning, the biblical epic seemed to vanish from the production slates of Hollywood, moving largely to the international sphere and, in more limited fashion, to the television miniseries.  International films such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and miniseries such as Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Masada (1981) took up the slack, providing periodic returns to that halycon age.  However, it wasn’t until the release of Gladiator in 2000 that the ancient world truly returned to the public consciousness in a much more conspicuous and consistent way.  The films that followed, such as Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), and 300 (2006), as well as the television series Rome (2005-2007) and Spartacus (2010-2013) began a cycle that continues to the present, as with the films Noah (2014), Exodus:  Gods and Kings (2014) and the miniseries The Bible and its successor A.D.:  The Bible Continues.  While it is debatable whether any of these texts reach the heights of the genre at its apogee, they nevertheless indicate the continuing desire for and relevance of the epic form.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my three part chronicle of the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  It has certainly gone down in film history as one of the most representative genres of the middle of the century.  While it is very easy to dismiss these films as campy, even ridiculous by our current standards of realism, I hope I have shown how these films, despite (or perhaps because of) their over-the-topness, actually sought to make sense of the chaos and terror of the aftermath of World War II and the heightened tensions surrounding the Cold War.  The biblical epic, in all its hyperbolic glory, still stands as one of the foremost emblems of Hollywood’s golden age.

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Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part Two (1956-1960)

Welcome to the second part of my entry in this year’s Classic Movie History Project Blogathaon.  Today, I’ll be writing about what can be thought of as the apogee of the 1950s biblical epic, when the genre reached the height of its maturity with the release of such monumental films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960).  

These, for the most part, are the films that one identifies as almost synonymous with the genre of the biblical epic (though, to be fair, only one of them is biblical in the truest sense, i.e. being based, however loosely, on a biblical text).  It is rather surprising that, in the almost two decades that the genre remained a fixture in Hollywood, a four year span should produce such high-ranking films that in many ways solidified, at least to some degree, the genre’s importance as a cultural product of mid-century American cinema.

And yet, perhaps it is not so surprising, considering the power of the stars and the directors in these productions, for if there were ever two stars that exemplified the traits of heroic/hegemonic masculinity, they would have to be Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, both of whom became almost synonymous with the image of an epic hero in the grandest, most classical sense.  Not for nothing was Heston termed an “axiom of the cinema” by the controversial French playwright Michel Mourlet. Yet while these films seemingly trumpet the advantages of traditional hegemonic and epic/heroic masculinity, they also seem to contain an awareness that the world that these men manage to save or to challenge ultimately has no place for them.  To put it another way, the heroic destiny that makes these male heroes such an essential part of their worlds also precludes their ability to be included in the world they have set out to create.  Thus, while Spartacus fights to create a world free of slavery, he ends the film as another of Crassus’ crucified victims, his body spreadeagled and on display for the edification and suppression of any others who might try to lead a similar revolt against Roman might.

Kirk Douglas' Spartacus on the cross.

Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus on the cross.

Moses, likewise, bears the brunt of the power of his unmediated access to God, his body bearing witness to the divine power that exists beyond the power of cinematic representation to bring it into the realm of the visible.  It is, rather, Moses’ countenance, particularly his hair, that shows the signs of his encounter with the divine, showing that even such a rugged man as Charlton Heston must find himself humbled before a force that cannot make itself seen, only felt.  Even an axiom, it seems, with, in Mourlet’s words, its perpetually pent-up violence, must acknowledge its own subservience in the face (or at least the presence) of the ineffable, terrifying, and wrathful God of the Old Testament.

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Charlton-Heston-as-Moses-001 Top: Moses as he appears before the wrathful and vengeful Ramses in his Egyptian youth. Bottom: Moses after his encounter with the equally wrathful and vengeful Hebrew God.

Further, while Ben-Hur allows its hero to survive, it does so only because he has been so ruthlessly subjected to the breaking of his own historical agency, first through Messala’s manipulation and then, increasingly through his shadowy interactions with the Christ (who never appears within the film’s frame).  The film constantly oscillates between subjecting Ben-Hur to physical degradation–as with his time spent as a galley slave–and allowing him to the chance to overcome and rise up from his subaltern position.  When he ultimately abandons his quest for vengeance and the destruction of Rome–though only, it should be pointed out, after the death of Messala–and the film ends, it is clear that he has finally given in to the will of the recently crucified Christ.  The eternal presence of this man from Galilee promises a measure of succor for the anguished Ben-Hur (recently reunited with his own family), and an absolution from the necessity of historical agency.

Heston's Ben-Hur sits uneasily at the intersection of agency and abjection.

Heston’s Ben-Hur sits uneasily at the intersection of agency and abjection.

All three films are haunted by the grim spectre of death.  While the heroic conventions of the genre try to focus attention on the epic hero, these films often, perhaps unintentionally, reveal the masses of dead bodies that lie in the wake of the hero’s quest and his grand destiny, whether that be the slave army of Spartacus, the drowned Egyptians left in the wake of the Hebrew Exodus, or the drowned slaves and mangled body of Messala that Ben-Hur leaves in his wake as he struggles to fulfill this destiny.  While these films want to ignore their collective bodies, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the road to historic greatness is paved with the bodies of the dead.

Further, these films continue to express at least a measure of ambivalence about the presence and power of the divine, especially as that relates to the masculinity of the epic hero.  Of course, this tension within the genre was not new; films such as The Robe, with its well-nigh hysterical performances of masculine conversion, had already tapped into the uneasy fit between hegemonic masculinity and the process of religious conversion.  In these latter films, likewise, the male hero ultimately finds himself caught in something of a contradiction:  in order to fulfill his destiny, to become that which history has ordained for him–whether that be as a leader of the sect of Christianity, as is suggested will happen with Ben-Hur, or whether it will be as a leader for the Hebrews, as with Moses–he must in the process give up that which makes him a man.  For the hegemonic male hero must, ultimately, submit to the will of another in order to fulfill his destiny, and these films, in the end, seem somewhat at a loss as to how to contend with that submission.

All three of these films were tremendous financial and, in some cases critical, successes.  Ben-Hur went on to win more Academy Awards than any film preceding it, including Best Picture.  In many ways, then, the last part of the ’50s and the very beginning of the ’60s can be seen as the apogee of the Hollywood biblical epic, the period of its fullest aesthetic flowering, when its tremendous critical and financial success indicates that it was part of the cultural consciousness in a way that would not be true in just the next few years.  These films can been as a cultural barometer, revealing an American culture struggling to make sense of its place in history, to contend with the threat of uncontrolled destruction (represented by the ubiquitous threat of the bomb) and thus the end of history by looking back to moments of similar struggle, strife, and immense political and social change.  Yet the epics of the apogee, so seemingly full of unadulterated triumph, also seethe with barely repressed anxieties, suggesting that the intractable representational challenges posed by the ancient world are not so easily contained.

While the three films discussed above certainly stood out from among the other offerings of the genre, they were not the only ones produced by the studios.  Indeed, 1960 was something of a banner year for the biblical epic.  Besides Spartacus there were also The Story of Ruth (a CinemaScope production from Fox that was well-received by the critics), as well as Esther and the King (also from Fox, in conjunction with Raoul Walsh Productions), and the preceding year also saw the release of the Big Fisherman (based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the author of The Robe).  The Story of Ruth and Esther are particularly notable in that they, unlike many of their fellow epic films, focus on the points of view of their female protagonists, something rarely seen in the genre since its early days (e.g. Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, which not only included the name of their female protagonists in the title, but also allowed their characters to have at least some sort of influence over their narratives).  While these films may not have become canonical in the same way that their male-centered counterparts have, they are nevertheless salient reminders that the epic form can be used to tell the stories of women as well as of men.

In the third installment, which follows the fortunes of the genre from 1961 to its definitive end in 1967, I look at such films as King of Kings, Cleopatra, and Fall of the Roman Empire.  If you’re of a mind, feel free to check out this third and final part of this series here, as well as the first one here.

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part One (1949-1955)

Welcome to the first of my three entries for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, focusing on the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  Today’s entry will focus on the rise of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and ending with the rather lackluster films that characterized the genre’s output in the middle of the decade.

When Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah in 1949, the film no doubt looked like something of a throwback to a much earlier period in classic Hollywood.  The biblical epic had, in the past, been quite popular, particularly in the silent era and in the 1930s, when DeMille made such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both of which highlighted the director’s signature ability to blend a moral message with sin and sex.  And Samson and Delilah delivers more of the same, with the fleshly bulk of Victor Mature’s Samson easily seduced by the sumptuous and sensual Hedy Lamar’s Delilah.  The ancient world emerges in DeMille’s film as a site of terror and unbridled desires and while the film strenuously attempts to tame this world through its moralizing, it also acknowledges that the vagaries of the sexual unconscious are not so easily brought under control.

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The “voluptuous enslavement” of Victor Mature’s Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s sensuous Delilah (I borrow the phrase from the fine monograph, “Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema.”

DeMille’s film ignited something of a renaissance of the genre and the studios, still reeling from the Paramount Decrees (which mandated that they divest themselves of their theater chains, thus removing a crucial source of revenue), saw the epic as a chance to rejuvenate their lagging financial fortunes.  Both Fox and MGM released epics in 1951 (David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis, respectively), which took on very different moments of antiquity, with the former focusing on the tumultuous and dangerous romance between the biblical King David and the latter narrating the love affair between a bellicose Roman soldier and a Christian maiden, all under the vindictive aegis of the mad emperor Nero.

The epic creates a particular vision of the world of antiquity as a world of fleshly and sexual excess and, while this might seem to be just another way in which mid-century America could excite itself while also taking comfort in the soothing balm of a moral message, I would argue that this emphasis on sex also serves a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgment of the terrifying power of history to elude all our attempts to make sense of it.   These films betray a profound ambivalence about both sexuality (which, while pleasurable, also contains danger and the spectre of death) and about the thrust of history and the narrative drive toward containment.

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM's "Quo Vadis" (1951).

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM’s “Quo Vadis” (1951).

Further, these early entries of the genre express a deep ambivalence about the period of antiquity, which emerges as both the place where the miraculous and timeless presence of Christ (and, in some films, God the Father), still seems possible, even as it remains steadfastly opposed to the secular presence of the human and the political.  Even Quo Vadis, which seems to be the most unambiguous in its celebration of the triumph of Christian morality over Roman licentiousness, ends with the legions of Galba marching into Rome, their phallic military glory and thorough secular worldliness a pointed counterpart to the otherwordly presence of such figures as the aged and beatific Peter and the other Christians who lose their lives in the course of the film.  Thus, while the converted Marcus hopes for a more permanent world and faith,  the chaotic elements of the film, ranging from the legions that open and close it to the riotous citizens that topple Nero from his throne, suggest that the world of the flesh will remain flawed and tainted by the corporeal bodies of secular history.

These films, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge the contradictory temporality that Christ occupies.  Since, at this early stage in the genre’s resurgence, Christ does not yet make a physical appearance, he must remain instead at the edges of the frame and the narrative, a potent force for historical change yet also unrepresentable precisely because He also supposedly represents the timeless, that which exists beyond the borders of the film frame and the terrifying world of antiquity, whether that be the ancient Levant of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba or the corrupt Rome of Quo Vadis.  

Given the enormous financial success of these outings, it should come as no surprise that the studios, in their usual rush to capitalize on trends, should want to go bigger and better.  Cue 1953’s The Robe, Fox’s chosen showcase for their widescreen technology of CinemaScope, which featured a curved screen that was wider than it was tall, all in an attempt to create a more profound sense of immersion and, according to the industry press at the time, participation on the part of the audience.  The film features Richard Burton as tribune Marcellus Gallio and Victor Mature as the Greek slave Demetrius as they both encounter the earth-shattering presence of Christ.  Marcellus is ultimately martyred by the mad emperor Caligula, while Demetrius survives to carry the Gospel forward.

Theatrical release poster for Fox's "The Robe" (1953).

Theatrical release poster for Fox’s “The Robe” (1953).

Following the release of The Robe, the genre continued to maintain its presence in many Hollywood studio production schedules, though the films released in the mid-1950s didn’t attain quite the heights of their predecessors.  Fox released Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, in 1954, while Warner Bros. released The Silver Chalice, based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, in the same year, as well as Helen of Troy in 1956.  Even relatively minor studios got in on the action:  Columbia released Salome in 1953 (using it as a vehicle for star Rita Hayworth), Universal (recently elevated to the ranks of the majors due to the Paramount Decrees) released Douglas Sirk’s The Sign of the Pagan in 1954, and United Artists released Alexander the Great (starring the perennially tortured and histrionic Richard Burton) in 1956.

These various iterations of the genre can in some ways be seen as an attempt by mid-century American culture to come to terms with the terror of history (a term I borrow from both religious theorist Mircea Eliade and from historian Tefiolo F. Ruiz), represented most poignantly by the nuclear past and the threat of a nuclear future oblivion.  These films attempt to both contain the past and its terrors–the death and martyrdom that lie in the wake of the relentless march of Christian victory, or the unbridled desires that bring entire diegetic worlds to their knees–through narrative devices as well as through the promise, however illusory, of the ability to participate, to gain agency, in the workings of the great moments and individuals of history.  Further, these films also suggest that the ancient world, as dangerous and troubled as it is, in many ways offers a contradictory and perilous utopia, a place of plenitude, excess, and emotional transparency, even as it is also the a site of danger and punishment, where the divine will of God (itself often as inaccessible visually as the workings of history with which it is often conflated in these films) can demand the life of those chosen to reveal His will.

Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I explore the apogee of the genre, with such classic (one might even say iconic) films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), before we move into the genre’s fall in the mid-1960s.

Weekly Rant: Charleston, SC and the Terror of History

Since news broke on Thursday that a young white man had killed nine black men and women in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, I have struggled to make sense of this tragedy.  I have pored over articles in my preferred news outlets, including Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic.  While those pieces were helpful in collecting and concretizing my thoughts and helping me to make sense of my tangled and raw emotions, I also found myself still struggling, as if something, some crucial bit of understanding, hovered just out of reach.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the overwhelming weight of history that this incident represents, centuries of exploitation and terrorism, in which the lives of people of color have been systematically devalued and rendered invisible.  How can one person contend with, let alone psychologically and emotionally process, such a mountain of misery?

While I do not, in any way, want to diminish the importance of the ongoing, if still stilted, discussion of mental illness in this country, I want to emphasize my firm and profound belief in the absolute necessity of contending with the terror of this country’s history.  I mean this in multiple (and interconnected senses):  the well-documented terror that white culture has inflicted on people of color, whether it be the Ku Klux Klan or The Birth of a Nation, police brutality and use of unnecessary force or the matter-of-fact slaughter of innocents in a place of worship.

Yet what troubles me the most about this whole incident in Charleston is precisely how unexceptional it is.  This is a state, after all, that has refused to take down the Confederate flag (which is, no matter how you spin it, a signifier of racial violence and oppression) from the grounds of its state house, as well as a region of the country that fought tooth and nail to keep people of colour from equal access to everything from education to elected government, and in many cases continues to do so (though largely through more obfuscated means).

Further, the American South is a region that continues to fetishize and enshrine the vestiges of its antebellum past, often either without acknowledging the ways in which the glories of that past were built on the back of ruthless exploitation or ensuring that that exploitation is rendered quaint or somehow excusable.  What remains understated, however, was the way that the romanticizing of that past was in large part responsible for the terrors that were unleashed after Reconstruction was abandoned.  Thus, while the South is the place where this all comes to a head, it is important to not commit the equally grievous sin of writing the North a blank check, for it was precisely those in the North who turned a blind eye to the horrors unfolding in their southern neighbors, with white northerners more interested in rapprochement with their racial counterparts than helping or aiding the afflicted people of color.

And yet, one might wonder:  why, in the face of so much violence, does mainstream, white American culture still find it difficult, if not impossible, to contend with that past?  Why is it so much easier to pretend that we live in an eternal present, where atrocities committed by people with racial hatred worn proudly on their sleeve can be explained by anti-religious animus or by mental illness rather than by an acknowledgment of the systems of power and the weight of history?  Well, it is precisely because really engaging with history is, indeed, terrifying.  To confront the terror of history face to face is to recognize so much else:  complicity in oppression, an acknowledgment that the American dream is a myth and a lie, that sometimes the acts of an individual are circumscribed and embedded within systems of power that are hard to comprehend in their totality.  It is far easier, then, to simply boil things down to the actions of a lone wolf, an entity that can be locked up with any deeper, more probing questions shunted aside.

This is one of the many reasons that I take my social justice-inflected pedagogy so seriously.  If I can allow at least one student to gain a more nuanced understanding of how race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. have complicated and violent histories, then I can hopefully do my part to ensure that the horrible events that have  At the same time, however, I also recognize that many of my students, and my colleagues, will probably remain in the bastions of progressive thought and relative safety (the Northeast, the West Coast, and the larger cities in the South and Midwest).  However, it is precisely the not-safe spaces, the South, Appalachia, the rural reaches of the Midwest and the Northeast, that desperately need the presence of critical thinkers and educators.

Only by forcing an acknowledgment of the deep problems and terrors of history can we ever hope, however faintly, for a better, more just, more peaceful world.

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Film Review: “Jurassic World”

I have to confess:  I was unashamedly excited about the release of Jurassic World.  In fact, they had me at the sight of that Mosasaurus eating the dangling shark.  And, given my expectations, the film didn’t disappoint.  While not nearly as brilliant nor as terrifying as the original, I still found Jurassic World to be an intensely entertaining action film with enough pop culture philosophy to give me something to think about while I was watching.

The film takes place in the same universe, and on the same island, as the 1992 film, with the original park largely abandoned and a newer, glossier, and fully function park now in its place.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of drumming of financial investments, while Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is a raptor trainer and expert.  When the incredibly intelligent Indominus rex–a genetically created dinosaur–escapes its enclosure, it sets off a chain reaction that seals the fate of several people on the island, including park owner and John Hammond disciple Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the chief of security.  Meanwhile, both Claire and Owen attempt and succeed in rescuing Claire’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins).  In the end, the I. Rex is defeated by the combined efforts of the humans, the T. Rex, and one of the raptors, before being definitively devoured by the park’s resident Mosasaurus.

At times, the film seems to struggle with the legacy of its predecessor.  Though it largely ignores both The Lost World and the more reductively titled Jurassic Park III (leading to this particular author to refer to it as a “selective sequel”), the original film looms large.  The founder John Hammond is alluded to (including in the name of a building), the sweeping and triumphant John Williams score is often in evidence, Zach and Gray stumble on the ruins of the original park (where they manage to jumpstart one of the old jeeps) and, perhaps most notably, it is the T. rex and a Velociraptor, the original villainous dinosaurs, that manage to take down the I. rex, the most visible and dangerous sign of the park (and the franchise’s?) increasingly hubristic ambitions.

Further, it is precisely its allusions to its predecessor that threaten to undermine the stakes that this film raises.  All told, Jurassic World is much less terrifying than Jurassic Park, precisely because it takes place in a fully-fledged theme park with all of the resources that such an institution can command.  Despite the truly frightening I. rex and its chaotic reign of terror, as well as the dive-bombing pterosaurs–which are inadvertently released when the Indominus careens into the aviary–the body count of fully-fleshed-out characters is actually relatively small compared to the original.  What’s more, there are few moments in the film where it feels as if everything could fall to pieces; the closest is when the I. rex manages to establish itself as the alpha among the raptors.  Yet even then we are never made to feel as if the main characters, nor indeed most of the hordes of people currently visiting, will not escape.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this mass of human bodies that keeps us from ever truly feeling a sense of genuine fear or existential angst.

To give credit where credit is due, however, it is worth dwelling for a few moments on what makes the Indominus rex (despite its silly name, which even Owen Grady mocks), such a terrifying creation.   In many ways, the Indominex Rex emerges as a terrifying female id that the film struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to contain.  From the first sinister images of the baby I. rex clawing its way out of its shell to the chilling revelation that she ate her sibling, the film seems intent on showcasing a specifically gendered dangerousness to this genetically modified dinosaur.  What’s more, her confinement and lack of socialization ensures that she does not possess a fully refined sense of her own place in the food chain, and it is even hinted that human DNA may be part of her make-up, given that she begins hunting for sport rather than for food (after all, humans are one of the few species that does so).  In that sense, she is like so many other inscrutable (and therefore dangerous) feminine energies that haunt the horror film.  Who could ever forget the monstrous mother of Alien or the radioactive maternal MUTO in the most recent Godzilla?  Or, for that matter, the “clever girl” Velociraptor in Jurassic World?  Clearly, the blockbuster cinematic imagination remains haunted by the dangerous undisciplined power of the feminine.

In that sense, she finds her human counterpart in Claire, whom the film also seems intent to punish for daring to be so focused on her career rather than on her family (for instance, she cannot say with any certainty how old either of her nephews are).  A key component of this transformation is her growing realization that the dinosaurs are actually animals rather than mere assets, an illumination brought home when she encounters a dying Apatosaurus (which, by the way, is probably the saddest animal death since Little Foot’s mother died in The Land Before Time).  The film seems intent on bringing her back into the fold of the traditionally feminine and maternal, by showing how her nephew’s endangerment (and the death of her assistant) is due in large part to her being too busy to properly care for them.  Again, however, we have to give credit where credit is due, for it is ultimately Claire who releases the T. rex and thus triggers the ultimate battle that vanquishes the I. rex and saves Owen, Zach, and Gray.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure how seriously I take the film’s avowed criticism of our current obsession with with making things bigger and better.  Nor am I entirely comfortable with its rigorous heternormativity and almost frantic recuperation of the nuclear family (everyone is reunited at the end, and Owen and Claire walk off into future happiness).  Still, there is something profoundly wonderful about the film’s final scene, in which the triumphant T. rex roars out its triumph over the ruined park, a potent reminder of the limits and the destructive potential of human hubris.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Rebel Without a Cause”

When it comes to classic Hollywood, some directors and some films stand out from the others as truly defining a particular era.  When it comes to the 1950s, certainly, few films have attained the iconic status of Rebel Without a Cause, and both the director (Nicholas Ray) and the star (James Dean) are some of the most recognizable names from this particular decade of Hollywood filmmaking.  And such accolades are certainly deserved, for even if Ray had never made another film, and even if Dean had not already starred in East of Eden, this film would certainly have solidified their reputations in the film canon.

At the formal level, the film is marvelously shot, with lush colors (provided by WarnerColor), as well as sophisticated cinematography.  Ray’s love of canted angles is on conspicuous display throughout, so that the image often conveys a sense of dislocation and unease, a feeling often heightened by the close framing of many key scenes (itself a significant move, considering the film was shown in CinemaScope, a widescreen process well-known for its deeply curved screen and enveloping proportions.  One can only imagine that sense of anxiety the combination must have created for those fortunate enough to see it in this format).  The film also features a rich color palette, with red one of the signature colors, ranging from Judy’s garishly red overcoat and lipstick in the beginning scenes to the famous red coat worn by Dean’s character Jim.

Of course, Dean well deserves the accolades he received (and continues to receive for his performance), as perhaps no other actor could convey the mingled anguish and apathy afflicting the post-war generation of young people (and, one could argue, the American populace as a whole).  From his strangled vocal intonations that sometimes erupt into cries of emotional agony at the cultural and social milieu in which he finds himself, with parents who seem to not know how to give him what he needs and a group of teens who care little for the welfare of one another.

As with so many films of the 1950s, the threat of nuclear oblivion is never far away, though it becomes particularly evident in the scene at the planetarium.  As the curator drones on, his dry observations about the nature of the universe are brutally interrupted by his suggestion that the end of mankind, and of Earth as a whole, would be of little concern to the great vastness of the rest of the universe.  After all, isn’t this little planet we inhabit just a dot compared to everything else that stretches into the infinite?

In keeping with Ray’s sophisticated cinematographic imagination, the scene is punctuated by vivid imagery as lurid colors splash across the screen and across the watching teens, a potent reminder that their angst and ennui are part of a larger culture struggling to come to terms with its own significance or lack thereof.  For a culture facing the possibility of the end of all things, even a film seemingly all about teen angst carries vestiges of the nuclear imagination, and the film can thus be seen as another iteration of the era’s film culture attempting to work through, or at least comprehend, the threat of annihilation.

Though this film is best remembered for Dean’s performance–and the added pathos that it was released after his untimely death–Mineo’s Plato is an equally compelling and tragic character.  His obvious longing for Jim, a longing comprised of sublimated desire for a father and, I would argue, a queer longing that exceeds the pop Freudianism that permates the film, is one of the most haunting aspects of Rebel.  Mineo exudes a certain fey quality that makes him endearing and pitiful at the same time, a marker of the conflicted position that many young queer teens of the time no doubt felt as they struggled to find their place in a culture that seemed determined to either ignore them altogether or render them into something pathologically terrifying (the ’50s produced such infamous films as Strangers on a Train).

The tensions that undergird the film find their ultimate release with the death of Plato that ends the film.  Ray directs this scene with great finesse, allowing an alternation between heightened intensity and heartbreaking serenity.  Judy’s quiet placing of Sal’s missing shoe on his foot is full of understated pathos, a mute reminder of this crazy world that has produced these tragic teens.

Spy Film

Film Review: “Spy”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

If there is one actress working today who deserves the title of comic genius, it wold have to be Melissa McCarthy.  From a supporting character in Bridesmaids and a successful role in television as Molly in Mike and Molly, she has become a powerhouse, able to carry a number of films on her own.  Among these I would count Spy.  Although the film stars some truly exemplary comedic talent, it is McCarthy who really makes the film special, bringing her own particular charisma to the role and in the process offering a potently feminist challenge to the spy genre (long one of the most chauvinist of film genres).

The plot, as you might expect, follows a pretty traditional spy thriller scheme.  Susan (McCarthy) is a brilliant tactician and CIA agent; the only problem is that she’s stranded in the basement giving expert advice to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the sexy man-spy who gets to do all of the exciting stuff (and with whom Susan is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love).  When he is (supposedly) killed during a mission, Susan takes it upon herself to undertake his mission, in the process adopting a number of different (and increasingly hilarious) disguises that serve to desexualize her and render her ridiculous.  Eventually, however, she proves pivotal to the success of the mission–to find a nuclear bomb and prevent it from falling into the hands of a terrorist group–as she thwarts the efforts of both go-between Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) and mob boss Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who makes the perfect icy foil to McCarthy’s earthy wackiness).

One of the things that makes McCarthy such a refreshing voice in comedy is that she is not only razor-sharp with her comic timing and delivery (though she has some of the best of both of any actress since Betty White), but also unafraid to use her body in every conceivable way to gain the laughs.  Watching Spy, one gets the sense that McCarthy is one of those fortunate people who is completely comfortable in her body, which I think explains the seamless grace with which she handles even the most absurd of the costume changes in the film, as well as her undeniable sex appeal as she finally eschews the silly outfits in favour of more traditionally glamorous attire.

What really stood out to me, however, was the ending.  It would have been so easy for the film to slip into the expected heterosexual closure, with Susan’s unruly feminine energies safely contained by Fine’s masculine persona, but instead we see Susan walking into the sunset with her best friend Nancy, choosing a girl’s night with her instead of a dinner with the man she loves. Now, I’m not saying that in order for a film to be feminist it has to completely disavow the romantic ending, but I for one found it refreshing to have the two female leads privilege their friendship at the end.

While McCarthy definitely steals the show, I have to give credit where it is due.  Allison Janney is her usual, bitingly witty self as Susan’s superior Elaine Crocker.  Jude Law is his usual suave self, and Jason Statham offers a marvelous caricature of traditional spy/hegemonic masculinity.  And while Peter Serafinowicz’s Aldo is creepily sexual, it is often quite difficult to take him seriously, so that his libido becomes a source of mockery rather than any genuine sexual threat.  In other words, Spy not only celebrates the fiery intellect of women, but sends up the exaggerated (and always faintly ridiculous) male posturing of the spy/action genre.

I normally don’t go see comedies in the theater, preferring to horde my graduate stipend for films that are really going to blow me away with their intense visuality (yes, I admit to being one of those people go goes to see blockbuster films and almost nothing else).  However, I am very glad that I went to see Spy.  Fortunately for the rest of us, McCarthy shows no signs of slowing down, so we can but hope that a few more films of this type will be in the pipelines.  And we can also hope that this may be, not just the Golden Age of the Reboot and Television, but also the Golden Age of Female-Centered Comedy.

Year of the Flood

Reading the Anthropocene:  Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood”

Continuing on with my “Reading the Anthropocene” series, today I’d like to talk about the second volume in Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAdam Trilogy,” ominously titled The Year of the Flood.  Unlike the first novel, which was told from the perspectivenovel of the embittered Jimmy, this one is told from the dual perspectives of Toby and Ren, two survivors of the plague and former members of the religious cult known as God’s Gardeners.  As the novel toggles between Year Twenty Five (the eponymous Year of the Flood) and the past–interspersed with exhortations from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners–we get a glimpse into the lives that Ren and Toby led prior to the plague.  Both women emerge as tenacious survivors in a world that, as becomes clear, is perilous for women, who are often subjected to the violently sexual whims of men like Blanco (Toby’s employer and tormentor for most of the novel), and exploited for their bodies.

If in many ways the first novel portrayed the misogynist worldview of both Glenn and Jimmy, The Year of the Flood acts as something of a corrective, evoking shades of The Handmaid’s Tale with its rigorous focus on the perspectives of its two female protagonists, Toby and Ren (Brenda).  While Brenda’s storyline focuses on her sexual objectification as part of the Scales and Tails strip club, Toby’s focuses on her search for meaning in a world that continues to collapse around her.  While she finds respite for a time with the God’s Gardeners, she is eventually forced to find shelter elsewhere after Blanco continues to pursue her and jeopardizes the entire Gardener colony.  Nevertheless, Toby puts her Gardener-learned skills to good use, and it is precisely these skills that allow her to continue surviving in the harsh, unforgiving world left in the wake of the Waterless Flood (the plague).  While Ren does not possess the same amount of agency as Toby, she is still just as much of a survivor, enduring neglect and abandonment by her mother as well as by  Jimmy (for whom she harbors a long-unrequited love), as well as the harsh exploitation of Scales and Tails.

One of the most compelling (and sometimes frustrating) things about this novel is its mixed tone about the God’s Gardeners.  At times, it seems that the novel wants us to view them sympathetically and their worldview–with its emphasis on returning to the principles of the earth, its compelling mixture of science with genuine religious faith, and their eco-friendly practices–as a genuinely practical alternative to the corporate/military dystopia which surrounds them.  Indeed, several of the “hymns” that punctuate the main narrative are actually quite touching and melancholy, evoking as they do the heavy price humankind has to pay as a result of its pushing so many species over the brink of extinction.  However, these moments of pathos remain at least slightly undercut by the exhortation that begins the Adam One chapters, which routinely refer to his fellow Gardeners as “fellow mammals.”  To me, this always strikes a bit of a humorous note, a sly wink from the narrator (perhaps even Adam One himself?) and a suggestion that perhaps all of this should not be taken too seriously.

Of course, no review of this series would be complete without an obligatory mention of the animal hybrids, especially the pigoons (who of course make several appearances, usually as a torment to Toby).   These quasi-pigs continue to be a menace, disturbing precisely because they so seamlessly embody a strange sort of cuteness with a brutal and sinister cunning.  A new hybrid, the liobam, also makes an appearance, as a bizarre cross between the lion and the lamb, manufactured by yet another religious sect in the hopes of bringing the apocalypse to pass (hence the lion laying with the lamb).

Again, despite the brutality and the animal hybrids, the end of the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note, as the journey narrative seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion:  Amanda has been successfully rescued, the remnants of God’s Gardeners have been reunited at last, Jimmy is brought back from the precipice of death, and the People of Crake approach.  Unlike many products of the anthropocene (particularly films like Melancholia and the literary works of authors like Paolo Baciagalupi), the trilogy (so far, at least), seems to be cautiously optimistic about hte advent of the anthropocene.  Humankind might be capable of destroying the world, but these novels suggest that it is just as capable of rebuilding at least a measure of what was lost.

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Screening Classic Hollywood:  “Magnificent Obsession”

Today on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” I’m going to talk about Douglas Sirk’s 1954 film Magnificent Obsession, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.  The film tells the story of Bob Merrick (Hudson), a careless playboy whose actions inadvertently cause the blindness of saintly Helen Phillips (Wyman).  Merrick, haunted by both guilt and his growing love for Helen, gradually turns his life around, becomes a doctor and, after a period of estrangement, ends up curing Helen of both a debilitating illness and, in melodramatic fashion, her blindness as well.

The film is based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the pastor-turned-author who was also responsible for the bestselling historical novel The Robe (which was also adapted into a film, released in 1953.  For my review of said film, see here).  Not surprisingly, this film also bears traces of that religious spirit, in the person of Edward Randolph, a thoroughly Christian painter who gradually but inexorably leads Bob to the way of Christ (indeed, it is the Christ-inspired service to others that, Randolph says, will become a “magnificent obsession”).  Though more understated than its biblical epic predecessor, Magnificent Obsession nevertheless shows the ways in which mid-century American culture saw Christian conversion as a means of taming the ribald and undisciplined energy of the hegemonic male into more appropriate channels.  The fact that the act of submission required of male conversion was itself incompatible with notions of dominant masculinity is here at least somewhat ameliorated by Hudson’s strong jaw-line and stoic performance, which betray little of the manic and hysterical intensity of Burton’s portrayal of Christian conversion in The Robe.  

Sirk has become known (some might say infamous) for the biting sense of irony suffusing many of his best-known films.  Often filmed in a colour palette verging on the garish (thanks in no small part to his use of the Technicolor process), Sirk’s films typically take vicious aim at the stultifying and superficial nature of mid-century bourgeois America.  One need only think of the needling rebuke of middle-class hypocrisy of All That Heaven Allows or the exposure of the seedy and deviant sexuality of the upper class in Written on the Wind to see how this often plays out in Sirk’s work.

While some of that is present in Magnificent Obsession–the film sometimes hovers on the tense border between genuine sentiment and cloying sentimentality–all in all I actually found myself quite moved by the film.  Wyman seems less restrained and uptight than in All That Heaven Allows, and this allows her a bit more flexibility in the range of emotions that she can convey, ranging from her initial iciness toward Bob to her moment of tender desperation at the possibility of a cure for blindness and her subsequent resignation.  It would be a heart of stone that would not be moved at Helen’s sad recognition that she must still wear her darkened sunglasses, or her fumbling through her apartment and inadvertent knocking over of a plant (whose piercing crash is jarring in its aural intensity).

Still, there are a few ripples of discontent on the surface of this seemingly placid film.  Agnes Moorehead, who made a career out of playing waspish matrons, brings a fair amount of bite to her character of Nancy, though she does also have a trace of softness and tenderness toward Helen.  What’s more, the scene with the burning witch in a street festival carries with it sinister overtones of the specter of nuclear oblivion that seemed to hover so permanently over most of the 1950s.  And no discussion of a Sirk film would be complete without mentioning the orchestral score (no one puts the melos in melodrama like Sirk).  Indeed, Frank Skinner’s score, full of swells and angelic choruses, is in many instances even more overwrought than the Technicolor visuals.  Of course, this is hardly surprising in a Sirk film, and it provides something of an ironic counterpoint to the otherwise genuine-seeming emotions evoked throughout the film.

All in all, Magnificent Obsession, like so many of Douglas Sirk’s finest films, offers both the pleasures of the sentimental (for those who want it), as well as the bitter bite of irony (for those who desire such).  Truly, few directors have so ably managed to manage what American audiences seem to want and, at the same time, what they desperately need.