Saturday, May 13, 2017

Defining Race: Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro

author James Baldwin

"Trumpcare was never about the well-being of Americans," actor Jeffrey Wright recently remarked as President Donald Trump continued to dismantle the former president's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "It was about trying in vain to erase Barack Obama from the history books." Given the erratic nature of Trump's actual policies, where everything is put in direct opposition to Obama's legacy, Wright's claim isn't rhetorical. What he does is open a door into what the early days of the Trump era are all about: inducing social amnesia. The one consistency that both elected Trump and has sustained him so far has been the continuous fermenting rage over having had eight years of America's first black president. Even the term – Obamacare – when it springs forth from the lips of many Republicans, sounds like they're describing some kind of plague or pestilence that has swept the land and needs to be gotten rid of, denying both the intent of the Act (despite its deficiencies) and the political integrity of the man who put it forth. Obamacare never was allowed to be a piece of legislation, which is why the Republican alternative isn't even a sufficient improvement, or close to being a reasoned response to it. During the tenure of his presidency, I think Barack Obama knew that he was a lightning rod for both the unrealistic expectations of his followers and the irrational hatred of his adversaries. He also understood that any daring move on his part to fulfill those two terms in office would have likely led to a cataclysmic outcome given the nation's unresolved racial history and its string of assassinations. So he worked carefully (and with precision) to be both a visible and an invisible presence. Out of office, Obama is still a projection of America's torn psyche, an ineradicable reflection, one part of the nation wishing to bury the whip of slavery while the other refuses to confront and transcend this unsavory legacy.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Looking Back: The Sergeant (1968)

Rod Steiger in The Sergeant (1968).

The Sergeant, poor cow of a movie, never had a chance. The critics of 1968 – faced with Rod Steiger’s miserable Army lifer, Sergeant Callan, pursuing John Phillip Law’s dewy-eyed Private Swanson on a godforsaken supply post in 1952 France, and then killing himself – were unanimous in panning it. “In the context of today’s liberated movie-making,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “this study of repressed homosexuality seems almost quaint. It also is basically confused.” Steiger, Canby felt, “comes on with all the subtlety of a drag queen,” while Law seemed “remarkably dense.” In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael made more or less the same complaints, while voicing regret for the loneliness and pathos she believed were the homosexual’s lot in life. New York’s Judith Crist, with a sensitivity typical of herself and her peers, dismissed it as “a sleazily commercial film [about] a fag non-com.”

For straight critics like these, The Sergeant was mainly an offense against two hours of their time. Later, with queer critics to the fore, it became an offense against gay liberation: a mainstay on the list of “daring” sixties Hollywood movies that were seen as retrograde, even toxic in their sexual politics, with a preponderance of gay or lesbian characters either killing themselves, killing others, or getting killed. (Among the others were 1961’s The Children’s Hour, 1962s Advise and Consent, 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1968’s The Fox, The Killing of Sister George, and The Detective, and 1969’s Staircase.) In Screening the Sexes (1973), the first study of homosexuality in the movies, critic Parker Tyler placed The Sergeant in the “Homeros in uniform” subgenre, calling it “a clean-cut, well-tailored movie like an expensive suit that has had only one wearing, then been relegated in a plastic wrap to the closet, where it will stay indefinitely.” By 1981 and The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s definitive history of gayness in cinema, the AIDS holocaust was imminent, and The Sergeant’s stock was even lower. Rather than suggesting that homosexuality might be associated with anything healthy, The Sergeant dealt “only in sexually motivated manipulations, spitefulness and petty jealousy, most of it unconscious and unexplored. The result is caricature.”

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Feudal Fury: Team Ninja’s Nioh

Nioh was published by Koei Tecmo and Sony Interactive Entertainment in February, 2017.

I've talked a lot about FROM Software's Dark Souls series. It's about time I talked about its clones.

A series as monumentally successful as the Souls games whether it's the direct entries in the Souls franchise or stand-alone spinoff titles like Bloodborne  is obviously going to spawn legions of imitators. These games seemingly connected with players at a molecular level, crafting worlds in which we became profoundly immersed and which we yearned to visit again and again. They married deep combat design with beautifully realized narrative, and through sheer quality of execution and polish they gained a singular reputation. Like the watershed titles in other genres  DOOMGrand Theft Auto, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros  they evolved our ideas about what games could accomplish, and inspired countless creators to take up their mantle … often with diminishing returns.

But that's not to say that Dark Souls was born into a void. The series is not without its own myriad influences, not just in gaming, but in other media as well. FROM Software president Hidetaka Miyazaki famously drew inspiration from the Western fantasy novels he found in his local library as a boy, filling the gaps in his understanding of English with his own outlandish imaginings. The exaggerated, hyper-stylized depictions of knights, dragons, monks, castles, magic, and ancient slumbering foes that appear in the Souls games are a reflection of Chaucer, Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Dante  just as games like Lords of the Fallen, Salt & Sanctuary, or Hyper Light Drifter are muted shadows of the Souls series. And though younger gamers  or those with short memories – may point to Miyazaki's Souls games as the progenitor of the "crushingly difficult action game" genre, they were hardly the first to offer this kind of experience. Perhaps the most well-known series to spark this flame, beginning with a landmark NES title in 1988, was Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden  and now, in 2017, Tecmo is back to reclaim their throne from Miyazaki with an action-RPG called Nioh. And lemme tell you: they're back with a vengeance.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Art of the Impossible: How Post-Truth Doubt Hypnotized Us

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable  the art of the next best thing.” – Otto Von Bismarck 
“Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.” – Frank Zappa
Throughout the crucible of recorded history, politics has always undergone a dramatic shift in form, focus and intent with each new technological development. But today, its very core definition has practically altered beyond recognition since the advent of the digital domain we currently inhabit. Towards the end of the 20th century, a century of the most drastically amplified creative inventiveness and the most viscerally enhanced horrors, approximately around 1998, in fact, we entered a realm almost as theatrically shape-shifted as the transition from the medieval period to the so-called Renaissance. Technics, the skillful utility of tools, has always been the hallmark for every decisive change in our concept of reality as sentient beings. Now, however, reality has blurred irrevocably.

In many respects in fact, we are either still in the late Renaissance proper, or else perhaps even odder, still in the late Medieval era per se. The Renaissance itself, we should always remember, was largely an advertising campaign for the Medici family, one whose glittering product, liberal progress, is still always up in the air. It may always have been only a chimera, a mirage, a beautiful propaganda campaign selling a new psychological product.

This is a very fragile condition made all the more palpable with the recent American election of a practitioner of what used to be quaintly referred to as realpolitik. We therefore need to re-think realpolitik in light of recent and current developments both socially and technologically. Reality and its reflective presence in social life and politics suddenly became utterly interchangeable.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Danger in the Drawing Room: James Kudelka's Love, Sex & Brahms

Bill Coleman, Evelyn Hart and Ryan Boorne and the cast of Love, Sex & Brahms. (Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Actors who move. It's an image Canadian choreographer James Kudelka had in mind when creating Love, Sex & Brahms whose world premiere took place at Toronto's The Citadel Theatre on March 16. Set to the Intermezzi for Solo Piano which composer Johannes Brahms created late in his career, the work is more costume drama than dance, focusing on the emotional underpinnings of the characters more than on the spiralling spurts of their bodies hidden behind the Victorian-era dress created for them by Toronto fashion label Hoax Couture.

A Tissot painting come to life, the work is an expanded version of the two-time Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms which debuted in April, 2015. The new hour-long version now has 10 characters compared to the original 8 and more than twice as many scenes. Coleman Lemieux and Compagnie, the critically acclaimed and community-based dance organization where the award-winning Kudelka has been choreographer-in-residence since 2008, both produced and danced it. Among the performers for the run that ended on March 19 were company founders Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux and independent dance artists Danielle Baskerville, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Victoria Mehaffey, Louis Laberge-Côté, Ryan Boorne, Andrew McCormack and Daniel McArthur.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Unexpected Treasures: Twelfth Night at the National Theatre

Doon Mackichan and Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The finest production of Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen was by the Théâtre de Soleil at the Olympic Arts Festival in L.A. in 1984. It was as leisurely as a conversation with good friends that trails late into the night. Visually it was plush: every new scene was signaled with a quilted backdrop that tumbled down in front of the previous ones. The director, Ariane Mnouchkine, embroidered the big comic moments so they were like inspired vaudeville or silent-comedy routines, but the play paused to frame the melancholy ones, too, so the cumulative emotional effect of the evening was rich and overpowering.

I thought of Mnouchkine’s Twelfth Night at several points during Simon Godwin’s staging of the play for the National Theatre, which the invaluable NT Live series has been sending out around the world in HD. It’s a banquet of a production, and startlingly fresh. Godwin has given it a contemporary setting – Olivia (Phoebe Fox) and her female staff, led by Maria (Niky Wardley) and the clown Feste (Doon Mackichan), live in a sort of girls’ club environment, while Orsino (Oliver Chris, whom I admired in One Man, Two Guv’nors) helms what feels like a fraternity for the rich and entitled. One of the rooms in his castle is a gym where he spars with Cesario, the male persona Viola (Tamara Lawrance) has adopted, spar, and Godwin has turned one of his scenes into a fortieth birthday party, complete with balloons and party hats, that points up how slow he’s been to attain maturity. (The emphasis on gender division links the play to Shakespeare’s earlier romantic comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost.) Even Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, is a woman: Malvolia (Tamsin Greig), though unlike the other females in the house, she most emphatically does not party. The twenty-first-century setting allows for her infatuation with Olivia, of course, and it lends a tender quality to the love that Antonio (Adam Best) exhibits for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), who is so grateful to Antonio for his many kindnesses, after the shipwreck that separated the siblings, that we see how much he wishes he could reciprocate – but he just can’t. It also permits a lightly homoerotic flavor to Orsino’s friendship with Cesario that enhances this comedy of sexual confusion.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Storm is Coming: Starz's American Gods

Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle in American Gods. (Photo: Jan Thijs/Starz Network)

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first episode of Starz's American Gods. It was written before the airing of the show's second episode last night.

"The Universe is made of stories,
not of atoms."
- Muriel Rukeyser, "The Speed of Darkness" (1968)
"Without our stories we are incomplete."
– Neil Gaiman, from The View from the Cheap Seats
Shadow Moon is having a very bad week. When we meet the protagonist of Starz's American Gods, he has just been released from three years in prison (served for a crime he hasn't committed), only to find out that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident, taking with them any promise of a return to normalcy. Even before arriving at the funeral and learning some of the more gruesome details of their deaths, he meets a mysterious man calling himself Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as a kind of bodyguard, errand boy, Man Friday (so to speak) – and things quickly go from weird to worse, as Shadow falls headlong in an epic battle between forces struggling for the souls of America.

Adapted from Neil Gaiman's award-winning 2001 novel, and developed for television by Michael Green (Kings) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), the first episode of American Gods premiered last Saturday night – landing with a gritty and glorious bang. Gaudy and beautiful, messy and poetic, it steps headlong into a compelling vision of a vibrant and contradictory America made of big skies and flashy neon. In a different era, Gaiman's sprawling, ambitious novel would have definitely fallen into the "unadaptable" category. The story the book tells, though set in the narrative's present era, is broad, allegorical, and clearly too big for anything but a thinly told feature film that would probably be generously labelled as "inspired by." But when it comes to bringing to novels to the screen, television has dethroned film and small is the new big – and so the time of American Gods has finally come.