Monthly Archives: October 2015

WTF, Crimson Peak?

WTF, Crimson Peak?

Writing this on the back of seeing the film. We had wanted to spend our Saturday evening watching it, but, due to what I thought was poor fiscal performance in days previous, the run of film has been cut short. We should have known better.

More like Crimson Cheek.

More like Crimson Cheek.

It’s a shame – we were both looking forward to it – the visuals coming off the trailer were superb, Guillermo del Toro has done fantastic work in previous off-the-wall weird stories, the whole thing was shaping up to be a nice, well-developed gothic piece. What we got…not so much.

The themes were well constructed, the tropes, if not novel, are for the most part effectively done. But then, there is this weird, inappropriate mash, which hangs off the film like a tumour. There were several distinct areas that derailed the film; each of which alone probably wouldn’t have been fatal, but in combination left the work a twisted mess.

I. The Acting
Mia Wasikowska did an acceptable ingénue. Though I’ve seen her in different films, I’ve not seen her in a different role. I’m told she does have a broader range, though, and is competent in it as well. Here, she was able to portray a frailty throughout the first two acts that was believable, and, to her credit, didn’t suddenly drop it in the third when shit hit the fan.

Jessica Chastain played her role as distant/crazed sister far too straight. The weight of her performance dragged down almost every scene she was in, save for her introductory. And that scene was hardly focused on her character anyways. The whole first act of the film saw everyone at their worst – the dialogue was stilted, the interactions wooden. The actors that made it through to the next two, however, found their paces. Not so Sister Lucille.

Charlie Hunnam did a pretty good job as second man. The accent, as ever with Hunnam, was sometimes an issue – I can understand casting him as an American, coming off the success of Sons of Anarchy (season to season, great fun for watching the accent, that), but it struck me as a bit surreal to have all these various actors playing in roles opposite their natural accents – Chastain struggling as toff, Hunnam some manner of New England via SoCal. Wasikowska, born and raised Australian, has always impressed me with her command of accents. Returning to Hunnam’s performance, he played his role with the camp that was sorely lacking in other aspects of the film, and looks the better for it. Not overly done, and certainly not in some knowing manner, as if the character were in on the joke with us. Rather, he hit the cues laid out for him with an earnestness that worked, that fit.

Pulling a lot from his Loki role for the character, Tom Hiddleston was easily the best of the bunch. Despite the Hallmark Special feel of a number of the earlier scenes, Hiddleston charms his way through the dialogue, doing a good job at fostering mystery with an undercurrent of the unwholesome. The exchanges between he and Wasikowska are deserving of a better film, and show how good this one should have been. Also, you get to see his bum.

II. The Effects.

I get the feeling that a lot of money was spent on CGI for this film. Between the ghosts (which, I’m told, did a nice job with bone structure – from an anatomical perspective) to the ever-present, crappily-rendered butterflies, altogether too much money.

The set design, as promised in the trailer, was great. The mansion set piece was one of the best things about the whole production. It was over the top. Hole in the roof, letting leaves/snow heap in the middle of the entry hall, walls weeping red sludge (the Sharpe family land is built on red clay, the industrial use of which is their hoped-for ticket to returned wealth), beautifully sinister wooden architecture, mysterious, locked rooms, and an industrial dungeon of a basement, it was great.

It's a fixer-upper.

It’s a fixer-upper.

And that’s the trouble – the mansion, complete with stereotypically solitary moorland manservant, the bony, effervescent ghosts – they’re tropes. Tropes that don’t sync. The mansion looks like it would be at home in a Wuthering Heights written by Alan Moore. The ghosts would fit nicely in a modern, shock-horror. Together, they don’t really flow.

Another outlier – the violence. The sheer graphicness of it is unsettling. The foley artists did a commendable job throughout – technical elements of the film were of a pretty high calibre, save some bad falls. But here, well, I’m not sure where one actually acquires the knowledge to recognise those sounds, let alone reproduce them, and I’m content to remain ignorant. del Toro seems to have a bit of a fetish for damage to the face. I can attest, it’s effective. There was a moment – you’ll know the one I’m talking about if you’ve the poor luck to see this monstrosity – where it looked like I might have another crack at my reaction to the caesarean in Prometheus. Tunnel vision ahoy.

III. The Production

This one somewhat overlaps with the previous section, but there are distinctions that set it apart.

I mentioned the technical skill on display in most elements of the film above. The foley work was great, the set and costuming sumptuous, the cinematography tight.

The directing looked like it fell off a cliff. The whole things seems like something very strange may have happened in post. ADR really sloppily overlayed. Weird cuts and sewing together of scenes that take the film in what feels like, not necessarily a broken narrative, because there is a through-line there, but like something on a queer slant.

The narrative is there, but there is something about the way the piece is cobbled together that doesn’t allow the obvious cues to sync with the story as a whole. You’ll go from these strange, super camp scene cuts – the screen going black as the focus is pulled in to a circle around a face or an object, hammily underscoring the importance thereof – to bog standard horror clichés of atonal strings and sudden movements behind characters. There is no atmospheric continuity. Also, we get ghosts, right off the bat. In a film that is doing everything else in it’s power to build suspense. Can’t have your cake and eat it, too, I’m afraid.

Honestly, the last time I saw a film this schizophrenic would have to be Splice, which from one moment to the next was body-horror to slapstick comedy to disturbing incestual assault. Actually, that’s sounding really quite similar…

Crimson Peak – don’t see it. And you won’t, because it’s been pulled. All too appropriately. Time for a shower.

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Oh! Canada…

Oh! Canada…

The Interregnum is over! The triumphal return of Canada’s tacit Ruling Party, personified directly in his Royal Tonsorialness, Justin Trudeau (first of his name). Sad that this day should come so late, but, lest the dykes of your tears should burst with sadness, reflect on the fact that he takes up the mantle passed to him from his (nigh) Universally-Beloved father. ‘Tis true! At long last, our Ruling Party has itself, and by extension our country, its Rightful Ruling Family!

Toothsome.

Toothsome.

Blessedly, the people of Canada have shaken off their torpor, have returned to their senses, bringing an end to the nine years of Stygian darkness – dispelled by that shining, toothsome smile of our Sovereign Trudeau. October 19th, a day which will ring out in the history of our proud nation, when we as an Electorate put flight those nasty, scummy, scurrilous Tories! United we stood, together! All the various citizens of the Country, save for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. And Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry. And Banff-Airdrie and North Okanagan-Shuswap and Portage-Lisgar and Lac-Saint-Jean and…

But let us not dwell on those pockets of pestilence – time enough yet to root out the pits of moral turpitude! We shall not rest till we are all one happy, if enclave-segregated, family! Today, though, let us give thanks, thanks that the age-old enemy, the Bloc of all Dissension, has only won but ten seats. The threat of Insurrection in the Land of Poutine is as clogged as a bonhomme’s arteries. Our Unspoiled Leader will not be forced to abrogate the Constitution in defence of it, as was his storied Father. Which is not to say that our Bonny Prince Trudeau is not up to the task – oh no! He is as doughty as he is honest!

Lo! If victories come not in triplicate, feed me to feral beavers! Look, ye, how those upstart Orangeists have been laid low! Never meant to rise above tertiary, the days of their hubris are over. Returned to their rightful depths, let this be lesson to them! There is only room for one political party in the Centre, only room for one clique in the pockets of our Corporate masters, and that party, that clique, is the Liberal Party of Canada! Liberal über alles!

Just as the march of Red that swept across the lawns and fences of our proud Northern Land these last weeks conquered the poll boxes, so too will it sweep away the past deviations, the alterations conjured through dark subterfuge and misdeeds. Return, we shall, to the good old days. The days of the quiet superiority that comes from knowing that, well, we’re just so much nicer than those guys south of the border. The days of picturesque, pristine natural beauty – the kind that makes it easier to hide the poverty and immiseration of those folks who formerly owned that land. The days of a kinder, gentler austerity politics.

Cast off your radical weeds then, Canada, for they suit not the day! Better to adorn oneself in something more placid, more fitting to sanctimoniousness and self-satisfaction – like a seasonally-themed cable-knit sweater! The ballots are cast, and the fourth-year ritual is run. Your work is done now. Sink back into your apolitical apathy, for your spirit must be near-spent! As you take your bed this evening, know that you have accomplished good work this week. We have returned to a more comfortable, a more Canadian, status quo.

The City & the City: A Review

C&C

The City & the City: A Review

Last night, or, more precisely, earlier this morning, I finished China Miéville’s The City and the City. I first heard about Miéville maybe a year or so ago, that he was the heir apparent to supernatural/horror fiction. I’ve seen a few interviews, recordings of a few talks that he’s given – not always the most eloquent, but clearly knows his stuff. His politics align with my own for the most part, so I may be giving him the benefit of the doubt. This is the first book I’ve read by him, and, on the whole, a job well done. Not too over-the-top with the supernatural (not that that is necessarily a bad thing) and, to his credit, he eschews some of the more ill-advised rhythmic efforts of his antecedent Lovecraft (H.P. may have been a racist hack in other respects, but the purple prose was purposive). I don’t know if this is indicative of his whole oeuvre, but I’m willing, off the back of it, to find out.

The plot of the book, The City and the City, is a fairly by-the-numbers murder mystery. Young woman, murdered horribly. Detective, just this side of too-old-for-this-shit, takes the case. Difficult to find her identity. Knowing the job’ll be better done by a higher authority, he tries to pass it up the ladder. Starts to look as if the crime may have taken place in another city, so he sets off and works alongside foreign equivalents. Only thing is, said foreign city actually occupies the same physical space as his own.

It’s a concept that, in less skilled hands, would have sunk suspension of disbelief immediately. Miéville pulls it off, narrowly. The reader is thrust into it – rather than a full explanation, this is this, this is how it works, etc., we sidle up to the weirdness – little things seem a bit off, why is he describing it like that – getting acquainted with the character’s perspective before we get a more robust exploration of the way this works. Your trust is won over, in small increments, in spite of yourself.

The setting of the story, some time in the early 21st century, is the twin-city of Besźel/Ul Qoma, located somewhere in Eastern Europe. At a point lost in the mists of time, the two cities split, occupying the same location, but with distinct populations, culture, history. There were times that they stood on opposite sides of wars, times when they went to war with one another. At the current moment in time, it is the city of Ul Qoma experiencing an economic resurgence – heavily modernised, plenty of foreign investment, even with a longstanding embargo by the United States. Besźel, by comparison, remains a backwater, stuck more in the 19th century than the start of the 21st. There are factions within each city, nationalists that take pride in their own culture, and unificationists, “unifs,” those that would combine both for the betterment of each. The majority of the population belongs to neither camp, and, like most people everywhere, just try to get by.

There is an extra element of difficulty in that for the good citizens of Ul Qoma and Besźel, though. The physical space that they share, it isn’t divvied down the middle, nor is it a complete overlap. There are slices of space, patches of air or buildings, where you can see, and move, from one city to the other. Crosshatched, these areas are called. There is a third force that operates outside the remit of either city, policing the conduct of both citizenries. Long ago, this force, this group, came about to moderate the bizarre overlap of these spaces. It is known as Breach.

Breach – one of those great multi-tense jargon terms that give a space, a story, its personal flavour. Breach is a place, a group of people, an action, a state of being. Breach, this thick concept, allows the reader to get a sense of what it means to be a native of either city: to get a hold on what the psychological space is, and to better understand their motivations. Each citizen is, from a young age, conditioned to not only disregard the “sites” they see, the noises they hear, the odours they smell through the crosshatched spaces but to mentally suppress them, as if they were never experienced at all. Failing to do so results in a Breach. When one Breaches, the agents of Breach descend upon them, removing them to Breach, for the good of both cities. Visitors to either must undergo a strict training regimen before being allowed to enter – leeway is given, but only just. Breach is a mysterious body, nominally accountable to an Oversight committee of the ruling bodies of both cities, but ultimately autonomous and opaque. Fear is one of their most potent weapons, the fear of the unknown. The layers of mystery are slowly peeled back as the narrative progresses, injecting an effective element of poignancy come the dénouement. Along the way, though, the presence of Breach, in all senses of the term, explains the simultaneous anxiety and reservedness of Besź and Ul Qomans alike.

 

Miéville will crush you with...the weight of his brain! No, really, dude has a PhD in International Relations.

Miéville will crush you with…the weight of his brain! No, really, dude has a PhD in International Relations.

The main plot interweaves with an archaeological dig and the Canadian Academics working it, a dig that goes back to the Precursor of both cities, the strata of which overturn all rules of the Harris Matrix. The items being unearthed there, a nearly incomprehensible mix of broken pottery, Antikythera-like machinery, crude lithics – may – hold extraphysical properties, the possibility of which is attracting the attention of powerful foreigners. The interactions of the students and staff are another effective world-building piece – an academic himself, Miéville knows these relationships, and the bureaucratic tape that tie them, intimately. This group also offers a counter-point to the native perspective on the oddity of life in the Cities, allowing the reader to insert themselves as foreigner.

The bizarreness of the overlap, the “Cleavage,” works – on the microcosm. If you allow yourself to abstract from the level of on-the-ground, you do start to wonder why foreign bodies, if interested in the possibility of supra-physical artefacts, wouldn’t already be pulling apart the mystery of just how in the world two cities can occupy the same physical space. Likewise, a force like Breach makes sense in the hi-tech, modern age, but the logistics of such an operation before the advent of CCTV’s or the Internet is difficult to swallow. As ever with Weird Fiction, I suppose that it is necessary to keep the camera angle tight – else, it becomes difficult to explain how a world could be plausibly different from our own. However, as I said earlier, Miéville handles these concerns adeptly. The incongruous elements of the setting are never such that they overshadow the narrative. The setting serves to augment, rather than railroad.

I would be remiss to not highlight the allegorical element at play throughout – the Situationist-esque concept that we ourselves live in a dense, multiple space, just as do the Besź or the Ul Qomans. How much of our own daily experience do we actively un-see, scrub from our minds? How often do we purposefully ignore the beggars in our streets, the sight of gross inequality, the superstructure of our politics and economics made physical? Do not we, too, self-police our thoughts? Do we not go about our lives, knowing, if only in the back of our minds, that we are constantly watched, examined by a silent, generally unaccountable force? In a certain sense, our cities are just as crosshatched as those of The City & the City, and it is left to us, at the end, to determine whether it be best to Breach or not.

Value Ethics; or, At Home in a Foreign Land

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

I’ve been working away at the Nichomachean Ethics for a while now – put on hold after it was shelved during a thorough tidy, I’ve dug it out and am attacking it in earnest.

As I think I’d mentioned elsewhere, I did for a long while, at least the first years of my demi-adulthood, count myself a Kantian, or at least a Deontologist. There was something comforting about being able to point to an absolute, a well-supported base that could be universally applied. As I was to learn upon closer examination, i.e., a reading of the First Critique (catalyst for the emergence of some mental health fun I’m still working through)i, the whole system collapses if you take a loosely Judeao-Christian God out of the equation. Rather than standing up by the strength of its own architectonics, its rigid formulae, the compulsion of the dicta was surrogate. The whole apparatus was an empty vessel, and, without the Holy Ghost animating it, sits lame and inert.

 

An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn't stick.

An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn’t stick.

I cannot accept a god of that sort, and so I find myself sealed off from the enjoyment of an ostensibly airtight ethics. I don’t know that that precludes Deontology altogether, but it is difficult to move from a preset group of universalised principals without an external force to lend them power. If the system itself doesn’t provide the validity, it has to come from somewhere. This is one of the strengths of Utilitarian systems – built from the ground up, they don’t really need the universality of a Deontic system – you set your assumptions (which is where the problems start) and then the whole thing skips along. Historically, those assumptions have been mistaken, and the apparatus is invariably too clumsy to actually grasp the nuances of the world itself, but at least there is a pleasing mechanistic coherence about the whole thing.

So, top-down Deontology doesn’t work for me, without God at the crank making sure it keeps running it’s simply empty. I’m not especially interested in a Utilitarian ethics – I have an intuition-level distaste for it, which I’ve shored up in a post-hoc form several times, but should really take the time to chew on. What then of Value Ethics? Fine grained enough to get a hold on the world, and doesn’t seem to need external authority. So far, so good.

The trouble, and this was something I noticed in my initial skim back in uni, is that so much of, at least what Aristotle’s formulation presents, is prey to the rankest of societal relativism. I realise that it would be anachronistic to project our own standards of logical rigour backwards, but there exist many fundamental assumptions in the Nichomachean Ethics that simply don’t pan out when you get beyond folk-wisdom. Declaring virtues to be a known element to “all men” works nicely if you’re talking about a single population, within a limited time-frame and geographical spread, but, as we know from experience, what one society takes as patently obvious is the far edge of the alien to another.

It’s not a novel complaint, by any means. I guess I’m just left a bit disappointed that it collapses so readily into relativism. Mind you, it’s not as if the take-away portion of the system – the pursuit of eudaemonia, that human flourishing produced by valorous conduct – could be anything other than a very specifically, societally bound affair. I suspect it’s directly related to how nuanced and fine-toothed the approach is that it gets so thoroughly tangled in individual cases.

Alongside concerns about Kantian Deontology, it was also in preparation for reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s works (his earlier, Marxist works) that I took on the re-reading of Aristotle. It’s interesting, then, that he confronts this issue of cultural relativism in After Virtue. The way out is a fallacy, its true, but this is a messy world. In defence of Value Ethics, MacIntyre and others admit that there is a significant problem with cultural relativism. So too, they say, does every other form of Normative Ethics. Worse they, in fact. As much as Virtue Ethics may be mired in cultural concerns, Consequentialism and Deontology have it just as bad – the generalised goals of Consequentialism, every time, are chosen within the blinders of a culture. The best Deontic system, as I’ve already said, had a massive deity-shaped crutch. Tu quoque, but at least Virtue Ethics owns it.

One of the more attractive elements of MacIntyre’s position, from what I’ve read of it, is the onus on humans-as-members-of-communities. MacIntyre’s position from the outset is to reject the individualist thrust of modern (Renaissance/Enlightenment forward) ethical systems. By situating humans in relations with one another, in something more robust than mere actor/acted upon, we arrive at a better way of conceptualising proper behaviour in society. For what it’s worth, this dovetails with the common-sense approach to ethics – no one, no honest person, would say that American society owes nothing to the victims of slavery, or genocide. And yet, no one of my generation has owned slaves, or driven Native Americans off their land. Clearly, we believe in some degree of historical culpability – “I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships,” MacIntyre says. I suspect the ways in which this aligns with my politics to be readily evident.

I’ll finish the Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ll grab MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well. I guess I’ll just have to get used to having a more bounded, localised ethics. I’m not sure what metaphysical baggage I’ve loaded myself with, yet, but I’ll wriggle out of it without too much trouble – I still fly the flag of the Vienna Circle, even if it is 2/3 in self-mockery. It’ll be a shame to not know that I’m always right, categorically, anymore though.

i. More so the difficulty of the text and what this meant for me as a scholar – the whole God thing I’d gotten over half a dozen years before.

La Pièce Écossaise

Macbeth (2015)

macbeth-2015

A week ago today I had the great fortune to see an early showing of the latest film adaptation of Macbeth – for free no less!
Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the eponymous Thane and Lady, the film has, rather fittingly, usurped the position of my favourite adaptation, previously held by the McAvoy/Hawes ShakespeaRe-Told version (which is still quite good – some of the other pieces in the series not so much, but they are far from the worst). The adaptation was directed by Australian Justin Kurzel, and also features performances by David Thewlis, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris, amongst others.

James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes in ShakespeaRe-Told. I'm serious, this is worth watching.

James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes in ShakespeaRe-Told.
I’m serious, this is worth watching.

I thought that Thewlis’ performance a bit staid – by the numbers, really. To be fair, the role of Duncan doesn’t really leave much room to make it one’s own. More of a necessary element to be dispensed with for the plot, it’s a placeholder. Thewlis did the job well enough, but there is nothing about it that required him, if you follow.

Banquo, as played by Considine, however, was a different story. A role with more meat, Considine did a fine job at balancing the desires of the character with, as would have been “true to life,” if such a thing is appropriate in this story, a naturally taciturn, cool demeanour. Reserve, actually, is something that all involved can be lauded for.

I’ve yet to see a great deal of breadth from Harris, but the characters he has played, I’ve always enjoyed. Cast in the role of Macduff, he does a masterful job at balancing the emotional outpouring required of the character while also retaining the seriousness and gravity expected. I like Harris. I’ll continue to be interested in productions he’s involved with, but it would be nice if he weren’t always typecast. Perhaps this will be a springboard away from that.

We’re a full decade on from Batman Begins, responsible in large part for this advocacy of “gritty realism” in film – a push that has been so thorough as to become banal. However, gritty realism is something that fits Macbeth naturally, and this adaptation does a good job at it. The presence of the witches is left ambivalent – they’re a key element in the play, instigators of the plot and guides for it at crucial moments. That said, what they are, their powers, how much they actually know, is left an open question. We’re presented with four women of descending age – three women and a child, really – who are adorned with obviously ritual scarification, and seem to have some eerie foreknowledge. What we don’t get, however, is actual, supernatural magic. So too run the various hallucinations experienced primarily by Macbeth. One of the best elements of Fassbender’s physically-oriented performance is the way he presents the degradation of the character’s mind – wracked by guilt, his mannerisms betray a person under extreme stress. The most supernatural elements of the story fit with a psychological understanding of the world.

The film itself clocks in at just under two hours, longer, in fact, than most stage productions. I’ve always considered the brevity of the play to one of it’s core strengths: it doesn’t mess about with accessory subplots or bog itself down with excessive extra characters, just gets in, denounces lust for power, gets out. The extra time here, though, is used to good effect. Rather than padding with extra dialogue, most of the additional space is used to underline the feel of the story – long-exposure shots of the bleak Scottish countryside at dawn or dusk, time slices focussing on a single character, a single face, in the midst of a busy, chaotic scene. An effective way of evoking the direction desired for the story, the framing, without having to add to the original script – a great strength of the medium, of showing, not telling. The austerity of the setting, the loneliness and confusion, are left palpable.

Stillness amidst chaos. The battlescenes, another well-executed element, allow for moments of psychological insight.

Stillness amidst chaos. The battle scenes, another well-executed element, build psychological tension.

Another strength of film versus theatrical performance is well showcased here, foremost in Cotillard’s performance. Too often in theatre, as product of the physical limitations of the genre as much as anything else, the character of Lady Macbeth is presented as over-the-top, as intense in a loud, percussive way. The same audio constraints don’t apply to film, and this frees Cotillard to present a, not soft, but severely silent performance. The immediacy of hushed lines is apparent, and they carry none of the shrillness that often pushes this character into the realm of melodrama. One of the earliest scenes in the film is the death pyre of her child, and the beaten-down sadness, the cold-burn anger presented by both Fassbender and Cotillard do a wonderful job at setting the tenor of the characters and the story.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, or of powerful, beautifully shot cinema, I urge you to get out and see this one in theatres. It’s worth seeing on the big screen.