“The Illusion of Choice”: Forced Freedom in Mr. Robot and Late Capitalist Society (30 October 2015)

I experience a fleeting feeling of freedom whenever I go to the grocery store.  It offers me a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that creeps up on a daily basis as I worry about deadlines approaching or what I’ll do next after I finish graduate school. And then there’s always the peripheral flutter of […]

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Kiss Me Kate” (1953)

As a queer, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the musical (I know, I know, what a stereotype, blah blah blah).  There’s just something glorious about the midcentury musical, in particular those produced by MGM, the grand dame of the studio system, the one studio that one could count on (in its heyday, anyway), to produce a glossy, shiny, fabulous film.   Thus, when I was cruising about on TCM and saw that Kiss Me Kate was showing, I knew I had to watch it.

Despite being divorced, Fred and Lilli (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson), find themselves starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew).  The bulk of the film follows the performance of the play, with several Cole Porter songs thrown into the mix (this probably helps to explain the film’s undeniable queer appeal).  Just as the mains of the play find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other, so do Lilli and Fred also become increasingly convinced that they should get back together which, in true Hollywood musical fashion, they ultimately do.

In terms of cinematography, the color serves as important a function as anything that happens in the narrative.  Not surprisingly, the Technicolor is almost lurid in its intensity, speaks in a language in excess of what is happening between the characters.  Thus, while the two leads are constantly squabbling with one another and trying to avoid speaking the words that they know would allow them to say how they really feel for each other, the colors of their outfits grow increasingly saturated, until the redness of their respective costumes is so glaring that you can’t possibly ignore it.  It speaks in a language that exceeds that of the narrative, the tempestuous and unruly law of desire that always threatens to overcome even the most resistant of people.

Howard Keel has always done something for me.  While I often find the patriarchal characters he plays utterly repugnant at an ideological level, I often find that it is precisely because he is so transparently misogynist that he is so attractive (and I strong suspect this might be why so many people found him attractive in the times in which he appeared).  Whether starring as the hirsute eldest brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the bellicose Hannibal in the divinely awful Jupiter’s Darling, or even as Wild Bill in Calamity Jane (costarring Doris Day), there is always something tremendously sexy (yes, I said it), about this paragon of masculinity.  And there is no one in classic Hollywood, and very few since then, who have managed to inflect their voices with such booming power (I’m a sucker for a great male voice).

Of course, I am also not blind to the almost toxic amount of patriarchy permeating this film.  I mean, it is based on one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic plays, starring a man who almost inevitably performed in roles that required the subjugating (sometimes quite brutally and cruelly) of a woman who dared to resist his charms.  And, as in those other films, Keel’s hero remains largely unchanged by the end of the film and, I suspect, we are happy to see him so, for to tame him would be to remove those very aspects of his personality that make him so erotically appealing.  (As you can see, I like to think that my own queer readings of the film help to offset at least some of the more problematic and vexing aspects of its ideology).

All in all, Kiss Me Kate manages to combine the best of Shakespeare with the best of the midcentury MGM musical formula.  The Technicolor (not surprisingly) is as lurid as it is appealing, and the musical numbers are as spirited as one would expect from an MGM musical from the period of its greatest flowering.  As long as you’re able to bracket the gender problematics–and anyone who has learned to love classic Hollywood has probably developed that skill in ample measure), this is truly one musical you can sing along to.

If you want to read more about the MGM musical and the ways in which queer men in particular responded to them, I highly recommend the following books:

Cohan, Steven.  Incongruous Entertainment:  Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005.

Farmer, Brett.  Spectacular Passions:  Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

TV Review: “Mr. Robot” (USA)

It’s actually rather rare that I find a television series that so captures my attention that I binge-watch an entire season in a weekend.  However, USA’s Mr. Robot is just one of those shows that it’s impossible to stop watching once you’ve begun.  It’s rather like what would have happened had Fight Club and The Matrix met, fell in love, and produced a trippy and unsettling love child.  At once a thriller and a rebuke of the world that we have made in our own broken image, Mr. Robt lifts itself above the other dross that USA has yet provided, proving that the network may finally be ready to meaningfully compete with the other major producers in the premium cable arena.

It’s rather hard to sum-up a series as complex as Mr. Robot in a paragraph, but here goes.  The series follows Elliot Alderson, a brilliant yet psychologically tormented hacker as he finds himself drawn inexorably into the world of the fscociety, an elusive group of anarchist hackers determined to bring about the revolution that will over turn the corrupt system that we currently live in.  Leading that group is an enigmatic figure named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who gradually emerges as Elliot’s alter-ego, constantly pushing him to do those things that he, at some levels, knows he shouldn’t do.

I’ve always enjoyed Rami Malek in the small parts that he has so far managed to gain (does anyone remember his stellar performance in The War Home? No? Sigh).  He really outdoes himself here, and his gaunt, almost skeletal features with his searing, piercing eyes seem to pin us and draw us in simultaneously.  He constantly speaks to us in the audience (we assume, though it’s never clear precisely who the “you” is that he refers to).  In some ways, the show positions the presumed viewer as not just complicit with him, but also conjoined to his psyche in ways that are at once compelling and disturbing.  We’re never quite sure where we stand with him, whether we are indeed his imaginary friend, whether we are some other imagined spectator, or if there is yet some other spectatorial position that we have not yet determined.  The show seems to enjoy toying with us, and therein lies one of its greatest pleasures.

The series is in many ways a needling (and much-needed) rebuke to our digital, capitalist culture, one in which we have all been reduced not only to endlessly consuming machines, but also to little bits of data and freefloating capital that flit around the globe without a center.  The series is in many ways about the signature loss of control–or perhaps abrogation of control on our own parts–that has become so much a part of the (post)modern condition.  That is what makes it

As interesting as Elliott is, however, he is surrounded by characters who add depth and complexity to the affair, including his sister, his therapist, his childhood friend, and of course his sinister doppeleganger Mr. Robot, brought to life by the inimitable Christian Slater.  He serves as both the series’ and Elliot’s bitter conscience, constantly reminding what us of what is at stake.  And hovering at the edge of the narrative is the enigmatic Tyrell, a cunning and ambitious executive, always seeking more power, no matter what it takes.

Aesthetically, Mr. Robot compels us to watch and listen, engaging us at the level of both the senses and the intellect.  In my view, it is impossible to divorce the series’ aesthetics from the critiques that it consistently lobs at our hypersaturated late capitalist culture.  The haunting music–which ranges from synthesized sounds to the soothing strains of various classical pieces–works both with and against what is happening on the screen.  The music stimulates and unsettles us, constantly shifting registers to reflect the inherently unstable nature of the world that the series brings to life.

It would have been very easy for Mr. Robot to fall easily into the trap of being a cobbled-together mash-up of Fight Club, The Matrix, and sundry other films about broken men desperately trying to make sense of the broken world around them.  Fortunately, however, Mr. Robot does not do that, but instead builds upon that earlier work in order to produce a work that explores the darkest and most broken parts of our collective psyches.  While the contemporary television landscape is littered with the shattered psyches of numerous antiheroes (and a few antiheroines), Mr. Robot stands above many of those in its continued insistence upon its own, and our, complicity in this utterly destructive system.

Screening History: “The Bible: In the Beginning”

Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape.  It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.

The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis:  the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.  In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.

The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic.  One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed.  The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.

George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing.  We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration.  And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.

Abraham's wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

Abraham’s wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant.  Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.

There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water.  Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch.  There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously.  Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod.  While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity.  Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences?  Why do people suffer?  What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world?  Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction?  And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?

The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him.  What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek.  While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped.  The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.

Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former).  It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough.  It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority.  For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible:  In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study

Score:  8.5/10

In Memoriam: Maureen O’Hara

Today we learned of the sad passing of actress Maureen O’Hara, one of the finest of the blazing stars of classical Hollywood. Known for her portrayals of competent and fiercely independent women, she was also known for co-starring with John Wayne in a number of hilarious comedies, including McLintock! 

I’ve long had a deeply personal relationship with the O’Hara. Both my mother and grandmother have long been fans of hers, and I have spent many hours enjoying her finest films with two of the strongest and most amazing women I have been privileged to know. I can still remember watching Disney’sThe Parent Trap and finding Maureen utterly compelling, her independent spirit shining through in all of its radiant glory. Perhaps it was because Maureen reminded me so much of my mother and grandmother–they were both of Irish descent with red hair and independent spirits–that I felt such a strong connection to her.

While her work in classical Hollywood has certainly defined her legacy (and rightly so), I happen to be one of those people who also remembers one of O’Hara’s last films, the TV specialThe Christmas Box, in which she managed to convey that signature blend of steely toughness and caring gentleness, lending her powerful screen persona to a sweet little Christmas story.

Unfortunately, I have not been blind to this formidable actress’s struggles as she has grown older, including both her health struggles and squabbles among her various family members. However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that she carried on despite everything, a pillar of strength even during these incredibly trying times.

As I’ve grown older and my feminist reading skills have developed, I’ve come to both appreciate O’Hara’s feminist works and also to see the full range of the ways in which her star text embodied many of the tensions surrounding female stars. While she embodied everything that is best about female independence, the films she starred in often worked overtime to tame the very aspects of her star text that made her so compelling in the first place. There’s the infamous spanking in McLintock!, the taming of the shrew plot in The Parent Trap, and the softening efforts of Miracle on 34th Street. None, however, manage to fully tame that fiery Irish spirit. Perhaps my favorite role of hers is one I only recently discovered: that of Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance, in which she castigates her burlesque show audience.

Maureen O’Hara was truly a magnificent talent, and the film world will certainly be a great deal poorer without her.

Reading History: “Medicis Daughter” (by Sophie Perinot)

Warning:  Some spoilers for the plot follow.

Thanks to the great folks over at NetGalley, I recently had the chance to read Sophie Perinot’s newest historical novel, Medicis Daughter, which chronicles the life and loves of Marguerite of Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medicis who, through an advantageous marriage, would ultimately become (for a time) Queen of France.  The novel, however, focuses mainly on the time before her fateful marriage to Henri, the King of Navarre, a noted Protestant and thus key to her family’s plans for holding France together.

At the time of the novel’s opening, Marguerite’s family has been beset again and again by tragedy, first by the untimely death of her father and then her eldest brother Francois, and her brother Charles now occupies the throne.  As a young daughter of marriageable age, Margot (her nickname) is a valuable pawn in her family’s hands, and she is soon courted by kings and princes alike, including the King of Spain (the widower of Margot’s sister) and the young King of Portugal, until she is finally married to her cousin Henri.

Marguerite is not always the easiest character to like.  While the entire novel is told from her perspective, there are times when you just want to slap her for the silly (and sometimes politically disastrous) choices that she makes, including her passionate affair with Henri, the Duc de Guise.  And yet, one can also not really blame her for some of the things she does.  Confronted with the reality that she cannot but do as she is commanded, that her life choices are constantly circumscribed by the men and women around her (particularly her brother and her mother), and even by the events that threaten to plunge all of France into continued religious chaos, she strikes out in whatever ways she can devise.

Thus, where the novel most succeeds is in showing the ways in which Marguerite resists (sometimes more effectively than at others) the whims of the people around her:  her often weak, vacillating, and vengeful brother Charles, her ardent and incestuous brother Anjou, and her terrifying mother Catherine.  Through ways both large and small, she attempts to make her own way, even when that means bringing down the wrath of her various family members upon her head.  For example, her brother Henri, overcome with his carnal desire for her, successfully turns her own mother against her.  Truly, this is a nest of serpents, and it is all Margot can do to survive.

While Marguerite is indeed the novel’s center, I would suggest that Catherine emerges as just as compelling a character as her daughter, though the novel does not paint her in a very flattering light.  And yet, if one looks beyond the surface, one can see the ways in which the novel also wants us to, indirectly at least, understand the world that could produce a woman like her.  Having scratched and clawed her way into power despite all of the obstacles in her path, it is even easy to understand why Catherine would deny her daughter those same qualities.  She more than anyone else realizes the political necessities of the world they live in, and these realities have hardened her until she sees no other way to be other than political.  Denied love and any semblance of political power by her husband, is it any wonder that she will do anything to maintain it once he is dead and her weak sons successively occupy the throne?

While the novel focuses mainly on the young Valois princess’s experiences, it does make clear the pivotal role that she played as the daughter of one of the great houses of Europe.  It is important to remember that the French Wars of Religion were some of the most tumultuous and deadly in European history, as almost everyone, from the highest monarch to the lowest peasant, had to choose which way to salvation they would take.  Marguerite thus becomes another pawn in the great games of power being waged around her, a fate that she attempts to resist even as she recognizes the limits of her own agency.

All in all, Perinot has managed to bring another historically underappreciated woman into the modern world, allowing us a glimpse into the way that her mind might have worked and how she might have encountered the world she lived in and experienced on a day to day basis.  Perinot, like other great historical novelists currently working today, allows us to see, and at least partially understood, this extraordinary Renaissance woman, and we can but hope that she will continue to chronicle the rest of Margot’s eventul life in French politics.

Score:  9/10

Screening History: “Barabbas” (1962)

Every so often, a genre manages to produce a film that exceeds its generic restrictions, that rises above the worst tendencies of its predecessors and becomes a work of transcendent and powerful beauty.  Barabbas, the 1962 film, is just one of those entries.  Emerging out of the midcentury cycle of historico-biblical epics that had already produced some truly fine films (such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus), Barabbas continued to demonstrate the ways in which the epic could tackle the pressing questions faced by a world coming to terms with its place in the greater temporal scheme of history.

Taking as its subject the minor biblical figure of Barabbas–the man pardoned and released while Christ was crucified–the film follows Barabbas as he struggles to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s death.  Denied his own ability to die, he can only watch powerlessly as his lover is stoned to death by an angry mob and he is eventually sent to prison and hard labor in the sulfur mines of Sicily.  He is eventually freed from the mines by a collapse, but is then taken to Rome to fight in the arena.  There, he witnesses the death of his friend (and Christian) Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, after burying him with appropriate solemnity in the catacombs, he partakes in a great fire.  Convicted of treason by Rome, he is crucified with numerous other Christians, and the film ends with his death.

A film like Barabbas could only have been produced in the 1960s, when the genre of the historical epic had not only begun to fray, but when the religious and political culture that had given birth to it had also begun to crumble under the onslaught of the changes of the era.  While certainly many of the conflicts and contradictions of the 1950s roiled beneath the surface of many earlier epics (as I have argued elsewhere), the end of the cycle saw them exploding onto the surface of the film itself.  Thus, Barabbas stages the fundamental conflict between embodiment and transcendence, a binary and a tension that it never entirely resolves to its own (or the viewer’s) satisfaction.

Quinn’s Barabbas is a man who struggles to think of any world outside of the body.  He grunts and groans and sweats across the screen (to paraphrase one review of the film), every aspect of his manner an indicator of his embodied-ness and his rootedness in his own world.  Quinn’s strangled vocalizations only heighten this sense of his own untranscendent nature, his own inability to find satisfaction beyond his own limited views of the world.

It’s really no wonder that finds it so difficult to attain the sense of transcendence that the Christians around him do.  As a poor man in the stews of Jerusalem, his only distraction is in engaging in drinking and whoring, and then the Romans force him to first work in the sulfur mines and finally in the arena.  Again and again, the film denies him the possibility of transcending or even understanding; he is only ever a body that manages to survive rather than actually live.  Even as the film nears its end, he finds that he cannot entirely conceive of the world beyond the flesh that the Christians constantly espouse.  After seeing that the city has been set aflame, he decides that it must indeed (as the Romans assert) be the Christians that have set it, and so he joins in the fray.  Unfortunately, he does not realize that the Christians have no set the fire, the emperor has, and he has thus inadvertently sentenced all of them to death.  Like so many other epic heroes of the midcentury cycle, he seems powerless to change the course of events that surround him, even when it is his actions, unintended as they are, that set them in motion.

The film favors a darker, more somber colour palette than one sees in many of the other Technicolor epics of the period, in keeping with the darkness and bleakness of the worldview.  And no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Jack Palance, who as always brings his own particular brand of skeletal psychopathy to the role of one of the arena’s premier players.  His death, while immensely satisfying, is also yet another sign of the fact that Barabbas cannot quite escape the cycle of death and mortality that keeps him mired in the world in which he finds himself.

Barabbas is an intensely evocative and haunting film, one that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.  In many ways, the ending is even bleaker and more pessimistic than Spartacus (to which it can be compared).  Even at the end, it remains ambiguous whether Barabbas has truly understood the message preached by Christ, of the possibility of a world beyond that of the body.  And indeed the last shot we get is of Barabbas’ abjected body hanging on the cross, having finally achieved the death that has eluded him since his fateful exchange with Jesus, a fatal reminder of the futility of embodied human agency.

Score:  10/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Perhaps no genre is as synonymous with the 1940s as the film noir, that dark and seedy body of films that peeled away the veneer of respectability that other genres such as the musical presented to reveal the rottenness beneath American culture.  This is certainly the case with the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the most iconic and justly famous noirs.

The film follows Frank Chambers (John Garfield) as a drifter who ends up working at a diner for its chubby but likable owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful (and much younger) wife Cora (Lana Turner).  Cora and Frank immediately become attracted to one another, and they soon hatch a plan to murder Nick and run away together.  While they succeed and manage to elude the law, they soon begin quarreling with one another, and after an unfortunate accident claims Cora’s life, Frank becomes ensnared in the legal system once again, though this time death is his sure reward.

As always, the femme fatale emerges as the film’s most compelling and most contradictory figure. As always, one cannot entirely blame her for her decision to run away with another man.  Her husband is hardly am interesting man, and while the film never says so explicitly, one can guess that an even younger Cora probably married Nick in order to gain a small measure of financial and domestic security.  Frank, on the other hand, represents all that is dangerous and exciting in the world (and thus everything her husband is not), even if he is also substantially less respectable.

While there are some who deride Lana Turner as one of the Hollywood stars who had more looks than talent (and there’s no denying that the camera does love her), she does bring a peculiar sort of dynamism and emotional volatility to Cora.  This is a woman who is clearly a great deal brighter and ambitious than her husband, and who has grown frustrated with the domestic life that has entrapped her.  All of this is ample material for Turner to utilize, and she does so to full effect.  Just as importantly, Lana is also infinitely more interesting than her co-star John Garfield, who is a serviceable but also rather bland hero.

Thus, for the sophisticated and resistant viewer, the fiction that Frank spins around his motivations reads as just a little too pat, a little too assured to be entirely true.  The film never wants us to see this, of course, content to grant him the status of a morally dubious male antihero.  Yet Garfield does not have the same sort of authorial and narrational assurance of a Humphrey Bogart, for example, with the effect that we (or at least I), don’t find him to be all that convincing when he consistently takes such pains to paint himself as the victim of someone else’s manipulation.  Like so many other noirs, the entire film is told from his point of view, but that doesn’t mean that we, as the audience, necessarily have to believe everything that he says.

And then, of course, there is the disconcerting fact that Nick is one of film noir’s most boring and plodding husbands, even worse than Phyllis’s husband in Double Indemnity (who was more angry and seething).  Like those other husbands, however, he does not seem to know, or care, that Cora may have desires of her own that exist beyond the confines of the domestic world in which she is currently entrapped.  He is amiable enough, but we’re not invited to feel particularly sorry for him when he is struck down.  In the film’s representational scheme, he is the outward sign of the internal emptiness that always seems to afflict the post-war world’s sense of itself.

Like the best noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice allows us to indulge our own worst natures, the things about ourselves, both individually and collectively, that we would like the world to believe either don’t exist or remain in control.  While the film ultimately punishes its evil doers–the law being, ultimately, the postman of the title–the inexorability of the law remains cold comfort.  But then again, what did you expect from a film noir?

Score:  9/10

Film Review: “Overburden” (2015)

During the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, I had the pleasure of watching Chad Stevens’ remarkable and moving documentary Overburden, about the coal mining industry in West Virginia and the lives of those that affects.  As the son of a coal miner, I found the film to be a profoundly touching portrait of the lives of those who dwell in Appalachia and who rely on this most toxic and dangerous of professions for their livelihood.

Filmed over several years, the film follows two women.  Lorelei is a woman whose husband contracted black lung as a result of his years of working in the mine and left her a widow.  Fed up with the way the industry consistently denies its workers safety and outraged at the plans for mountain top removal in her community, Lorelei sets out to demand accountability from the industry and to do what she can to prevent the destruction of the natural beauty of her hometown.  Betty, on the other hand, is a firm advocate of the coal industry and recognizes the necessity of coal mines to the continued economic viability of Appalachia as a whole and WV in particular.  However, when her brother is killed in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, she begins to change her mind about the coal industry and joins with Lorelei to demand accountability.

There is a point in the film where Betty points out that, in WV, coal is family, coal is what keeps people from spending their days on the unemployment line.  And the unfortunate fact is that this is true for the vast majority of those living in Appalachia as a whole.  You either seek out (often very dangerous and destructive) employment in the mines, or you seek out retail or, if you are one of the truly desperate, you turn to selling drugs.  The film grants this reality consideration, and while some may take away a belief that the film is against the coal industry, it would be just as accurate to say that it is instead a call to action to at least begin thinking about other possibilities for energy (one subplot involves the ultimately thwarted attempt to install a wind farm on one of the more prominent mountains).

As much as Lorelei and Betty are the dramatic core of the film, no review would be complete without mentioning the beautiful West Virginia landscape that becomes, in Stevens’ hands, a character in its own right.  The viewer is invited to experience the sense of horror and anger that the people of Appalachia feel as they watch their breathtaking mountains gutted by the machines of modernity, while their neighbors and families find their bodies also abjected by the economic powers over which they have no control and which their government steadfastly refuses to rein in.

What surprised me the most (although pleasantly so), was the way in which the film managed to give the people of WV their own voice without becoming patronizing.  The film world is full of productions that poke ruthless fun at the people of Appalachia (Deliverance, Wrong Turn and its sequels, to name but a few), and even those films that attempt to give them some more complex representation still deny them their own voice.  Stevens, however, manages to let both Lorelei and Betty, two very different women with two very different perspectives on the coal industry and its place (and future) in West Virginia, the chance to express their views without judgment.  The fact that the film ends with the indictment of Don Blankenship (the executive whose actions in part caused the Upper Big Branch disaster), allows us at least a measure of satisfaction.

Whether you are pro or anti-coal (or somewhere in between), I definitely recommend that you watch this film.  The questions that it raises are not easily answered, but that we as a culture and a society definitely need to start asking as we face the uncertainties of climate change.  The fact that these questions demand so much of us makes it all the more imperative that our leaders, both at the state and federal levels, finally commit to discussin them in a meaningful and intellectually rigorous way.

Score:  10/10