Saturday, January 24, 2015

Storytime: The Missing and Babylon

Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in The Missing.

He does not have Daniel Craig’s suave charisma or Clive Owen’s intellectual charm or Gerard Butler’s (woefully overexposed) sexy swagger. James Nesbitt, ostensibly also a child of the United Kingdom but born to Protestant parents in disaffected Northern Ireland, has brought his own unique brand of intensity to the acting profession for decades. His recent triumph was as a father whose young son is abducted in The Missing, a taut eight-episode BBC series that was co-produced by and broadcast on the Starz pay-cable channel late last year.

I first saw Nesbitt, who turned 50 less than two weeks ago, as an Irish protest organizer trying desperately to keep things peaceful in Bloody Sunday. That award-winning 2002 television film, directed by Paul Greengrass (soon famous for The Bourne Supremacy), depicts a terrible chapter in world history. The British Army killed 13 unarmed demonstrators staging a cilvil rights march in Derry on January 30, 1972. Think Selma with white faces and a brogue. In The Missing, he inhabits the role of Tony Hughes, a Brit on a 2006 vacation in rural France with his wife Emily (the excellent Frances O’Connor, who portrayed an equally conflicted mom in 2001‘s A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and son Oliver (Oliver Hunt). The boy, age six, disappears and the story follows an agonizing search for clues by his distraught parents. They must contend with a duplicitous local police force and various suspicious civilians, including a wealthy developer (Ken Stott) and a convicted but remorseful pedophile (Titus De Voogdt).

Friday, January 23, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (4 of 4): It’s (Still) Hard Being Loved by Jerks

Charlie Hebdo’s then editor Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier (1967-2015), in 2012. (Photo by Fred Dufour)
“I prefer to die standing up rather than living on my knees.” Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), editor of Charlie Hebdo and one of the victims of the January 2015 terrorist attacks targeting him and his staff.
You cannot look at It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks (C'est dur d'être aimé par des cons, in French), the fine 2008 documentary that Daniel Leconte made about Charlie Hebdo and the lawsuit launched against it about ten years ago by various French and non-French Muslim groups, in quite the same light as when it first came out. Yet the issues and questions raised by this very perceptive film, revolving around the definition of racism versus legitimate satire, the rights of French citizens to not be offended stacked up against the values of the Republic where free speech, however offensive, is sacrosanct, and the intent behind the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, still apply today. Only now they’re overlaid with the blood of the victims of the shootings in the magazine offices, killed by those who not only opposed their freedom of speech and image but who felt they had the moral right, even a religious obligation, to silence it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (3 of 4): The Lessons of Philip Kaufman's Quills


In the opening scene of Philip Kaufman's prickly and erotic drama Quills (2000), based on Doug Wright's clever and perceptive play, we bear witness to a muscular brute partly dressed in leather who both gropes and caresses a young woman in what appears to be a sadomasochistic tryst. As we're drawn in further and become aroused by the deeper and darker dynamics of their grappling, we soon discover that we've actually become enraptured by the sight of Mademoiselle Renard, a libidinous aristocrat, who is about to meet her demise at the hands of a sadistic executioner during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Just as she is about to be decapitated, we meet the incarcerated Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) who is in the process of documenting her tale. In one swift stroke, Phil Kaufman with a sly aplomb implicates us in our deeper fascination with sex and violence. With that audacious opening, the director, who is no stranger to eroticism and politics (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June), brings us in more intimate touch with our hidden and forbidden desires. He uses the outrageous exploits – and the brutally frank writings – of the Marquis to raise more probing questions about the role of art, the matters of sex and the dubious tool of censorship. And it's no accident that the story is set a short time after the Reign of Terror because what's up for grabs in Quills is the romantic belief in the basic goodness of man.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (2 of 4): Revisiting The Interview after Charlie Hebdo

A scene from Death of a President (2006)

In 1971, in a novel that was first published during Richard Nixon’s first term as President and has since been reissued as part of the Library of America series, Philip Roth killed off  “Trick E. Dixon,” described the American people joyously celebrating their President’s untimely demise, and signed off with a chapter in which Tricky, in the afterlife, vigorously campaigns for the leadership of Hell. (“Now, Satan has indicated on several occasions during this campaign that I have been misrepresenting his role in the Job case.”) Six years later, Robert Coover used Nixon, called “Richard Nixon” this time, as a major character in his novel The Public Burning, which was set during the McCarthy era. This time, Nixon made it out alive, but he was subjected to speculation regarding his lusting after Ethel Rosenberg, and in the finale, was sodomized by Uncle Sam. A year or so later, a Saturday Night Live sketch depicted Nixon as a vampire who had to be executed with a stake through his heart to spare the country from being subjected to his self-exculpating memoirs. In the play Secret Honor, which Robert Altman filmed in 1984, a drunken, grotesquely self-pitying Nixon spends an evening recounting the crime against basic decency and human dignity that was his political career, promising to blow his brains out when he gets to the end.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (1 of 4): The Challenge of Endorsing “Je suis Charlie”

“…caricature distorts the original, it can be unfair, and it uses humor to reveal the shortcomings of, and occasionally to humiliate, its subject.”
                                                                 –Victor Navasky, The Art of Controversy
When I heard so many people expressing the slogan, "Je suis Charlie," I wondered what they were actually supporting. If the millions in North America and Europe, that include those who marched in Paris and other French cities (the largest since the 1944 liberation of France from German occupation), were merely expressing their sympathy for the murdered journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and Jews at a kosher supermarket by Islamist fanatics, their endorsement of free speech as a basic principle, or their repudiation of censorship-by-terrorism, I fully support these sentiments. During these marches, “republican values,” appeals to “fraternity,” and “solidarity” in the cause of freedom were often heard. A similar sentiment of solidarity could have been expressed for the 132 schoolchildren slaughtered in Pakistan in December and the countless numbers murdered, raped and turned into sex slaves by the savage Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. The inclusion of murdered Muslims in these gestures would have sent a strong message to the Muslim world that their lives count just as much as non-Muslims. Muslims suffer the largest number of victims from Al Qaeda and ISIS terror, yet we expect Muslims to condemn acts of violence against Westerners as they did when a delegation of 20 imams visited the Charlie Hebdo offices the day after the shootings, to brand the gunmen as “criminals, barbarians, satans” and, crucially, “not Muslims,” Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argues that the demand of Muslims to condemn acts of terror committed by jihadist cultists as “odious [because] it tacitly assumes that Muslims support such horror unless they explicitly say otherwise. The very demand serves to drive a wedge between Muslims and their fellow citizens.” 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Selma: History Left on the Page

David Oyelowo (centre) as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma

The director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, moves the historical figures around like action figures set against the famous landscape of Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights to African Americans. I can’t remember the last time a historical drama presented such potent narrative material so ineptly. As a filmmaker DuVernay lacks every important skill: she has no idea how to choose the most effective or interesting camera angle, no editing rhythm, no notion of how to shape a sequence, and neither she nor the screenwriter, Paul Webb, has a clue how to dramatize a scene. The actors stand or sit around and make speeches; even in the private interactions of King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) – the one where she visits him in a Selma jail cell after Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) has come to see her with an offer of assistance and King refuses to consider it, or the one where she confronts him in their home about his infidelities – they seem to be presenting position papers, with careful deliberation and pauses you could drive a train through to underscore their points. We might as well be watching the story unfold in a pastiche made for the History Channel – though I doubt you could find anything as dull as Selma on the History Channel. And in the set piece sequences built around the march, like the protesters’ several efforts to make it across Pettus Bridge while the armored cops under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) stand with truncheons on the other side, the somber music enshrining the historical significance of what we’re seeing has to do the filmmakers’ work for them.

There’s no doubt that these scenes, and a few others – notably the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four little girls (two of whom we see walking down the stairs moments before the explosion) – are powerful. You can’t watch Clark’s cops beating black citizens in the streets and then chasing one family into a diner and mowing down its youngest member (Jimmy Lee Jackson, played by Keith Stanfield), or the clubbing and tear-gassing of the protesters when they first attempt to stage the march, without feeling horror and anguish. But those emotions derive naturally from the events, not from the way the filmmakers have put them on the screen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Sacrifice, Slaughter, and War: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Thirst

Author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (Photo by Chris Higgins/NYTimes)
When a person who is smitten by words is given a pen, he will not stop writing even if threatened by a blade.  – from Thirst, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi.
The world is inundated with bad news.  For the most part, we specialize (professionally or personally) in one or two conflicts (perhaps in addition to what is trending on Twitter). More than that and we become overloaded. The Syrian Revolution and its evolution with ISIS, recent events in France and its contexts of both racism and secularism, not to mention the Ukraine, Kurdish movements, the Columbia FARC treaty, Tibet, Boko Haram, and Hindu nationalism… we only, albeit to our shame, have attention for so much. As conflicts move into the past, we retain a few impressions about what happened, but our engagement in the conflict (and its aftermath) becomes more distanced, and we become less invested. The more such conflicts appear firmly in the past, the less likely it is that we will know anything about them at all. How many people can simply call up an interesting or relevant fact about the Crimean War (1853-1856) or the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648)? A more recent example of a conflict that has quickly passed of concern for many (particularly in North America) is the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq. This is the setting of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s most recent book, Thirst (Melville House, 2014). At minimum it will make the reader stumble over the indifference with which we dismiss any of the wars in our world.