Hacksaw Ridge: Gibson Apotheosis

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After a decade or so in the wilderness, Mel Gibson may have made the movie that will bring him back to Hollywood respectability, and he couldn’t have timed it better if some clairvoyant had shown him the surprising election results of 2016 when he first conceived this project. America really needed a hyper-violent, xenophobic, feel-good story about a humble Southern Christian fundamentalist peacenik WW2 war hero played by an English actor, and Hacksaw Ridge is it.

As you have probably heard by now, the film follows a couple of years in the life of Demond M. Doss, a real-life Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was a medic in the ugly battle for Okinawa. Opening in a sepia-glow America about to manifestly meet its destiny in the fiery cauldron of the battle for the South Pacific, the story follows Doss as he falls in love with his plucky and faithful gal Bertha, while at the same time responding to his personal call of duty. As his Christian beliefs do not permit him to kill, he endures cliché after moldy cliché from his Sergeant (a role ripped to tatters by of all people Vince Vaughn), his fellow soldiers, and a succession of officers who either cannot, or will not believe that he is capable of going into action as a medic without first learning the proper arts of war.

The screenplay veers from one base to another, covering them all: the hero’s deep and unshakable faith, the gradual winning over of his colleagues and officers in the army, the revelation of his past as protector of a mother abused at the hands of a drunken father. We even are privy to a modest portion of his wedding night, when the pair of virtuous virgins, faithful to their vows, are about to have, well, ahem, relations for the first time. (Pan away to metaphorical curtains wafting.)

After what seems from here to eternity of making sure we know that the hero corpsman is indeed made of the right stuff, Mel gets on about the real business of the film, which is to expose us to the bloodbath at Okinawa, and this is where the film gets really energetic. Doss’s unit is to tackle the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge, and after making sure we really do get Mr. Gibson’s full share of ready-digested tropes of “lead-up to the battle” from every war film ever made, we watch the soldiers inexplicably scale up a massive hundred-foot rope ladder in order to take on the evil “Japs” at the top of this cliff. That the evil Japs in question, who are lying in wait at the top of the ridge, are not wily enough to cut the rope ladder down as the Americans ascend it, thus depriving us of the gore that is to follow, either explains why they lost the war, or is a set design idea that flies so strongly in the face of military logic that we would be better off ignoring it if we don’t want to be the only ones laughing in the theatre just as everyone else is girding themselves for Very Bad Things to happen.

And happen they do. Arriving at the top of the cliff, the hundred-odd Americans encounter a landscape blasted by the naval bombardment that was to have softened up the Japanese forces. The blasted landscape is also strewn with so much blood and guts, and so many severed limbs and heads that showing them nearly brings the story narrative to a halt. After making the point that war is a nasty business, the Caucasian forces encounter the enemy, who fall upon them with the WW 2 hardware that we all know from many a movie. The horrific images of flesh being pierced, flayed, blown up, of heads shot-through, are composed with a kind of fanatical desire to make us see how truly awful a thing it must have been to have been in combat. I could not help but remember that in the years after the Second World War, Hollywood was not permitted, and did not permit itself, this kind of imagery. I have a strong suspicion that those who had seen it, so to speak, in the flesh, had enough trauma in their memories to need no further reminder. Saving Private Ryan reset the boundaries of war movies, and Gibson has beyond a doubt made a conscious choice to extend them very much further. I’m glad I wasn’t watching this film in a cinema of the future, in which, if you pay extra, you will no doubt be able to be splashed with real blood.

The violence of the battle is there to present in high relief the heroism of the unarmed Medic Doss. However, Gibson is also means to remind us about what stout-hearted killers are his armed fellow Americans. While failing to show us that the unit has any cogent command or leadership (apart from Vince Vaughn, strangely-armed with a British Sten gun that never runs out of ammo, exhorting his men forward like Sergeant Rock of old), the battle scene smashes home the point that the USA produced fantastic soldiers to fight “The Good War.” The G.I.s recover from the initial shock of the Japanese ambush, push forward bravely, and destroy a pillbox before they are driven back by a massive horde of Nippon soldiers, leaving Desmond on a field of battle where he must scurry around under the very eyes of the Japanese, dragging mutilated but still-living Americans to the edge of the cliff, where he lets them down by rope to the waiting afterguard.

Having spoiled the main plotline for you, I will say that the actual history on which the film is based has already provided the spoiler, because everyone in the theatre who has a Twitter account knows that the man on which the story is based did in fact survive the war, and was in fact presented with the Medal of Honor. Knowing aforehand that the hero would not be killed took a big bite of the tension of the story, in spite of the bloodletting. The set-piece also suffers because, all the way through Doss’s ordeal, we keep wondering why the Japanese don’t just cut the damn ropes anchoring the huge rope-ladder and rid themselves of the pesky American assault force for good and all. Maybe it’s just me, but with this much verisimilitude of carnage on the battlefield, I cannot detach my mind from such a tactical malapropism. It’s like watching a supposedly realistic war movie suddenly invaded by the cinematic logic of The Expendables.

Doss is finally removed from the battlefield, having saved a large platoon worth of his buddies. By this time, the Corps of Engineers (one presumes) has created a sort of zip line under which his wounded form slides towards the bottom of the Ridge, and Director Gibson takes this cinematic opportunity to make sure we get it: his hero has achieved apotheosis, complete with heavenly light bursting through cloud. The moment is no more subtle than the lighting effects in The Ten Commandments, as his hero comes down from Golgotha and ascends into God’s grace at one and the same time.

I think it’s a worthwhile enterprise making films that show us that war is horrible, that it is fought by brave people, and particularly in the case of the two major wars of the 20th Century, was fought by civilians who laid their life on the line for patriotic or (more impressively) anti-fascist reasons. This film’s agenda seems stranger. Mel is using this quite amazing historical incident of a non-violent man’s struggle to help his fellow man as inspiration to make a declaration about Christian virtue, all the while bathing the film stock in carnage. It’s as though Gibson has morphed into the character of Desmond Doss. John Oliver pointed out a while ago that Mel Gibson has a penchant for being tortured in his movies. One wonders if in the martyred figure of his protagonist, Gibson isn’t in fact making a movie about his own martyrdom; surely goodness and mercy shall follow Mel all the days of his life, a stalwart Christian flayed and criticized by a Hollywood that has become more Vince Vaughn than John Wayne. The heavenly choir that accompanies the wounded Christ-figure down from the Golgotha of Hacksaw Ridge is in fact singing the sweet prince Mel Gibson himself to quietus, and at last the illogical image of the rope-ladder becomes clear: it is not a piece of second-war equipment, it is Jacob’s very Ladder. about which (in my brief stint in Sunday School) we used to have to sing the following childlike hymn:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/We are climbing Jacob’s ladder/ We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

Soldiers of the Cross.

This all makes sense in view of Gibson’s affiliation with a radical branch of the church that offers blood sacrifice as a central trope. The radical piety of a Lamb bathed in the sacrificial blood of stalwart Americans, and of a lot of very dehumanized Asian people, seems like an all-too timely panacea for a nation deeply wounded and divided by the events of November 2016.

Annals of Tzar Donaldovitch

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The first in a series of short tales about the new Tzar at the head of the royal family now running a certain former great Republic.

 

After months of promising to Make Amerikov Great Again, the former billionaire name-brander, education-fraudster, and steak-oil salesman known as Donald Drumfk is now the Leader-Elect of the nation until recently known as the (“use-ta-be great”) USA. “There’s gonna be rebranding! Lotsa rebranding!” exclaimed Donaldovitch. “That old Amerikov was a disaster, so I’m gonna tear it up and start over. From now on, that old building down in Washington—dumpy old place, old, no glamour, all loser— isn’t gonna be used as the main palace. Too flat, looks like a building that’s trying to be tall by lyin’ on its side. I’m gonna live in Nueva Yorki, where things are really happening.   (See that smart rebranding I did there? New York was a disaster, just a disaster, ask anybody!) Me and the kids, we’re gonna use the old Washington place as our country dascha, you know, put in a big pool, really big pool, get some stags and… well…other deerlike… stuff… in case my pals from the National Rifle Secretariat want to come down on a Friday after a hard week of harassing Congress, for a little vodka and ka-bang, ka-boom. Speaking of which, we’re gonna rename that building where all the generals work. ‘Pentagon’ sounds like a place where a bunch of geometry nerds hang out. From now on, we’re gonna call it something sexy. Palace of the Grand Army? I’m working on it, it’s gonna be great. And we’ll get some real architects in there. People who know what a ninety degree angle looks like!”

This week’s surprises included the re-naming of Donaldovitch’s Cabinet. (“Cabinet is too confusing. A cabinet is a place where you keep stuff.”) Under the new regime, advisors to the Tzar will be called The Secretariat of People Not As Smart As Me, or PNASAM. Named to the PNASAM are prominent figures from the world of fantasy fiction, like Sarah (“I see Russia from my back window”) Palinova. Palinova is excited to be coming to Nueva Yorki. She’ll be able to bring her ski-doo from home, as Donaldovitch has promised unrestricted access to Centralski Park for Sarah and her kin.

The Secretariat of Learning is to be in the charge of Elana deVosinschka, who will take time off from her twice-daily prayer meetings at Our Lady of Perpetual Ignorance to enforce new Education priorities, such as a math curriculum dedicated to the measurement of Noah’s Ark, and a geology curriculum focusing on the tough question of How God Planted All That Fake Evidence.

Most importantly, Donaldovitch has created the position of Grand Visier, and appointed his stalwart commander Sven Bannonovski, formerly Chief Disseminator of Falsehoods.  It’s unclear what Bannonovski’s function is to be in the PNASAM, but there is speculation that he will spend his nights at Donaldovitch’s bedside whispering into his ear.  When Tzara Melanianska, the Royal Consort, was asked if this might be intrusive, she coyly responded, “I sleep through anything.  The Tzar, he like to tap on phone most nights anyhow.  I have good earplug.  Diamond.”

Tzarina Ivaka Donaldovna, Donaldovitch’s star daughter, posed for photographs, after arranging for new red carpeting to be installed at all of her father’s hotels, so state visits to Amerikov “can be kept in the family.”

 

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The Annals of El Presidente Donaldovitch II: “Hearts Purple With Pride.”

 

The Czar-Presidente has signed two new executive orders today that could, in his words, “be bigger than big!” The first appoints Czarina Melania to the newly-created position of Secretary of Fashion. The Czarina, whose remarks were mumbled owing to a facial injury apparently caused by “falling downstairs,” vowed to “make America Ten Again.” Before the luxury dinner celebrating this new Department’s rollout, the Czarina was towed down the Washington Mall atop Donaldovitch’s former private jet. It was pulled by a team of refugees hoping to gain enough favor with the current Administration to have their Green Cards recognized. The plane has been repurposed as a parade float, as El Presidente claims “I got a way better one now. Just needed to redo the décor. Too plain before, no round beds, no chandeliers. Now it’s all class!”

 

The hoopla surrounding this event almost overshadowed the second new Executive Order, supposedly penned by Stefan Bannovitch himself. It calls for a new Loyalty Test for American citizens. Simply put, every Americanski will be required to fire at least one bullet into a part of their bodies. This will “kill a few birds with one stone,” as Donaldovitch claimed as he waved the new Order above his head at the press conference. “First, it will stimulate the economy, increasing gun sales all across our beautiful country. Next, it will separate the real Americanskis from the fakers, and third, it will provide every red-blooded citizen with a life-long mark that proves their devotion! PLUS…” said the Czar-Presidente, pausing for effect, “every single citizen will be eligible for…wait for it… A PURPLE HEART!” Trump’s Mendacity Advisor, Kellyova Con-wry fainted at this point with an audible thump on the ground. (Asked about it later, she denied any fear of pointing a gun at her own body and pulling the trigger. “I was just so inspired,” she said, in a nasal tone so grating that paint peeled from the wall behind her.)

 

As for the Czar-Presidente’s own family, Donaldovitch assured the assembled journalists from NotsoBrite Bartnews that his whole family were “absolutely ready to take a bullet for our great nation. We’ll be discussing caliber at the next Cabinet meeting.” A staffer, who begged not to be identified whispered something about special “needle-width” bullets for the First Family. “They might be planning to combine it with their Botox procedures.”

 

Trump supporters have loudly proclaimed their support for the new initiative, claiming there will be “shootin-parties” all across the Republik. A poll of those who didn’t vote in the last election revealed that many thought it advisable to shoot themselves in the foot.

 

III

 

Annals of Il Presidente III

Orange is the New Black

 

The Czar-Presidente made headlines today when he attended ceremonies to celebrate Black History Month. The ceremonies were held in his private sauna, as the organizers of Black History Month had refused to reveal to the Czar-Presidente the location of the authentic opening ceremonies.

 

This did not deter Donaldovitch from making a few proclamations for the occasion. “That Martin Luther King guy had some good ideas, fantastic ideas. People have been saying they were very American ideas, about freedom, like the freedom to choose what kind of health care coverage you want your family to have. Take me, I don’t want any of that socialist medicine, where there’s a bunch of people in a room that looks like hell, cockroaches on the wall, you know. American hospitals are a mess. Public health is a disaster. I’m going to replace it with something fantastic. I’ll be making a big announcement. Tuesday. Or Wednesday.

 

“What? Oh, ya. Black History. There’s a lot of it, you know, everyone is saying so. There were some bad misunderstandings, bad people got involved. But you know, like, Rosa Parks and the X-man guy… Malcolm. They just kept asking politely until things changed. It was fantastic, really. Because prejudice is a terrible thing, really terrible. It’s like when all the fake-news people start ganging up. You want to see oppression? I’ll tell you about oppression! Oppression is when a bunch of East Coast media types keep picking on you, even after you’ve told them to shut up. Do I know what Rosa Parks went through? You think not being allowed to drive a bus even compares with the kind of oppression I’ve been going through since the election? And why? Because they’re a bunch of lying bastards, that’s why! They won’t accept that this country’s smallest, most oppressed minority has the right to govern! They oppress every rich person in this country the way the try to shut you up before you’ve even signed the first dozen Executive Orders.

 

I’m glad for the freedom we have to vote in this country. I wouldn’t have been elected if we didn’t have that freedom, and I want all my colored people to know. I stand with you. I mean, I’m a few floors above you, but I’m with you. God Bless Amerikov!

 

(A big thanks to Chalaundrai for the title!)

 

 

The Annals of Donaldovitch: IV “It was a massacre.”

 

Things in the Republik of Amerikov continue to go “fantastically great” according to Czar-Presidente Donaldovitch, as latest polls show his popularity dropping below that of the Dogfaced Shitgibbon, a creature so disliked by other gibbons that they hurl faecal matter at any member of the species that shows up at a watering hole.

 

Donaldovitch was responding to allegations of blank-faced lying on the part of his team after Kellyova Con-wry, spokesperson for his PNASAM (People Not As Smart As Me) team was again under attack for referring to the Bowling Green Massacre, an event that apparently took place in an alternate reality to the one experienced by ordinary people (the ones who, for example, possess that troublesome human organ commonly referred to as a “conscience”).

 

The Czar-Presidente was not ruffled by this addition to recent history, and in fact pointed out the ignorance of the press for confusing Bowling Green, Kentucky with the bowling green located Ms. Con-wry’s parents’ old folks home in Damned Lies, Florida. “She was talking about the terrible, terrible job the immigrant green-keepers did, applying so much insecticide to the lawn that it was like a massacre. Terrible! Bad! Fake News!”

 

Stephen Bannovski, newly named duel Minister of Propaganda/Minister of Black Ops in the PNASAM, announced the formation of yet another new agency under the direct control of the Executive Branch. Henceforth to be named the Ministry for the Invention of Massacres, it is to be headed by none other than Con-wry herself. At an interview with CNN, who are still inexplicably giving broadcast time to her skull-shaped visage, she claimed “The M.I.M. is going to be very active. Already we have plans to imagine the Massacre of Innocent White People By Agents of Martin Luther King, the Massacre of Innocent Prison Guards at Treblinka, and the Massacre at “Me Lie,” where vicious Vietnamese children murdered hundreds of U.S. servicemen. There’s going to be more outrages committed against god-fearing citizens than you can shake a schtick at!”

 

When Ms. Con-wry was asked if this wasn’t just out-and-out lying, she shot back in the offended, wheedling tone that has become her beloved trademark, “I don’t know how you can even say that, when Hillary’s emails… were… existing.”

 

When Bannovski and Donaldovitch were seen in the halls of the Presidential Dacha (the building formerly known as the White House), they were laughing maniacally and slapping each other on the back. One Dacha staff member, who begged our correspondent to swear on the grave of his mother not to be identified, said they were saying something to each other that sounded like, “that’ll keep ‘em guessing!” That seems certain to be the only purely truthful statement to have emerged from the mouth of the Czar-Presidente since that remarkable day on January 20th when millions of invisible supporters sung joyful hymns of celebration at his Coronation Ceremony.

 

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“Allied”: Thanks for asking

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Hollywood Gets It Wrong, Again… But Thanks

I went to see “Allied” the other night with my French Canadian girlfriend.   This movie is set in wartime Casablanca and England. And for those of you who might ask, “which war?” I can only respond, “the big one.” Brad Pitt plays an intelligence officer who must decide whether or not to trust the agent with whom he has been sent to perform an assassination. Later, they are married and have a child (for which plotline the setting moves to England).

The most amazing thing about this movie for me was the unapologetic presentation of Brad Pitt’s character as a French Canadian. This is probably the first time since 1940 that a Hollywood film with a real budget presented an authentic Hollywood star playing a Canadian as the central character of an action drama, and certainly the first time that the character was specifically French Canadian.

It is a sometimes risible effort. No one familiar with franco-Canadian culture could possibly believe that Brad Pitt’s character is French Canadian, any more than we believe that Sydney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca is a North African. Brad’s well-meaning attempts to speak “Canadian” French cause ripples of laughter in the Canadian audience, no less than the misapprehension of Canadian geography, which has Pitt’s character seemingly going from Ontario to Southern Alberta for occasional calming weekends. (This would have been a very hard 4-day train journey each way in wartime Canada. I know: during the war, my father managed to get back to Alberta exactly once as a serving Royal Canadian Navy sailor.)

Notwithstanding the above, I am grateful to this film for helping to redress decades of historical falsehood. Canada’s WW 2 sacrifice somehow escapes notice from Americans no less than from the English, our two staunchest allies in the Second World War. By proportion, Canada sacrificed more casualties than the U.S.A. in the fight against Hitler. And yet my countrymen disappear in the record as presented by American film fiction and British history alike. British histories persist to this day in saying that there were three “British” beachheads on D-Day. This is false. There were two British beachheads, one Canadian, and two American. In other words, Canada, with its tiny population (and with no vested interests in the outcome of the war) was tasked with one-fifth of the Western Allied war effort on June 6, 1944.

So thanks, Mr. Pitt, for your characterization. If the accent is a little off, I must say our Air Force Blue looks great on you, and you do your Northern neighbours proud.

As for the movie itself, I highly recommend that people go see it. Ma blond et moi, nous avons trouvé l’histoire captivante, and we were literally gripping each others’ hands as the story of the star-crossed lovers, a couple caught up in the world drama of the war, came to its thrilling conclusion. In other words, the film delivered the kind of emotionally engaged, hope-for-the-good-guys thrill ride that we used to expect of movies about the war.

There is a kind of nostalgia about all narratives about the Second World War. Although it was undoubtedly not “The Good War” (anyone who ascribes the adjective “good” to an event which killed 60 million people is clearly not in touch with reality), it certainly was a story with unmistakable villains. And that, for once, a Canadian was The Good Guy in a Hollywood movie about the event was a gratifying pleasure.

Lindros and the hockey culture

kid-on-outdoor-rinkEric Lindros has been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I hear the sportsjocks talk about this as the correction of a horrible injustice. What none of them knows, remembers, or wants to talk about is the reason why, when he was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, Lindros refused to go. The subtext was an ugly bigotry towards Quebec and French Canada in general. This was at a time when tempers were running very thin, and the political situation in Canada was at its most delicate. The first separation referendum had lost by twenty points, and the second was on the horizon, one in which Quebec voted to remain in Canada by the narrowest of margins.

Lindros was an effective NHL hockey player, largely because he was the (literally) prototypical modern power forward. He was big, mean, and skilled. In the view of many in the hidebound hockey community (let’s call it the Don Cherry Worldview), he was a working stiff hero expressing himself. In my own view, Lindros and his family were classic Anglo bigots who expressed, consciously and consciencioiusly, an ugly old sentiment that this nation has yet to completely grow out of.

Hockey is culturally and symbolically important to Canadians; its strong associations with our youth and our climate give us a focus around which we can gather. Like everything, it has a political subtext. Sometimes the message is beautiful and positive: the whole conduct and life of Jean Beliveau evinced a grace that everyone in our sometimes divided nation could be proud of.

All too often, the sentiment is less worthy. Professional hockey players are, after all, not required by their culture or their calling to be philosophers. They are required to play a game that calls for the balletic balance of a figure skater, the hand-to-eye skills of a surgeon, and the motion-vector analysis of a WW 1 fighter pilot. It also requires the physical courage of a warrior. No other sport is played on a surface as hard as asphalt, with two knives attached to each foot, in the confines of walls that can break bones if you make uncontrolled contact with them, and carrying a spear. The very object with which it is played can– and often does– cause injury.

Occasionally, however, a player rises above the undercurrent of violence in the sport, and plays a transcendent game of skill. Those who have played hockey know that this takes superb talent underpinned by real courage.  The combination is what makes us watch our national heroes, both men and women. And it is why the greatest hockey players are not the most brutal, but those who most transcend the brutality.

There is a reason why many people went into the Hockey Hall of Fame before Eric Lindros. The transcendent ones are very rare beings indeed, and deserve to be there first. Lindros was blunt in his approach to the game, and his whole family was blunt in their rejection of a city that is a unique cultural gem on this continent. Some of us have not forgotten that.

What right hath these writers?

My play Anatolia Speaks was recently dismissed in a weekly arts publication on the basis that because I am male and not of the country I am writing about, the piece was somehow less valid.

 

I was deeply amused to read Miss Culkin’s little piece about my play Anatolia Speaks in the last issue of Vue. This young lady evidently believes that all of that play’s very real educational and moral intentions can be decried because I have had the temerity to write a monologue about a Bosnian woman when I am neither female nor of that deeply tragic country. I congratulate her for stumbling upon this vital critical tool. What cleansing vistas it opens up! We can now dismiss those vile old men Sophocles and Euripides (the latter of whom was probably transgendered, and thus might be excused). Down with Kyd, Marlowe, Webster! Away with that pretender Shakespeare, whose Hamlet can now be thrown onto the rubbish heap of literature, for it is very doubtful that the so-called Bard of Avon had even a Danish cousin. Damn Moliere (that wasn’t even his REAL NAME)! Onto the rack with Miller for daring to write about the mad religious witch-hunts of Salem when he himself wasn’t even a Christian! Let us eschew and desecrate Lysistrata, Ophelia, Lady Bracknell, and Blanche Dubois. In the political cleansing of our minds and our literature, let us whitewash, like Pol Pot defacing the street signs in Cambodia with mind-numbing white, all signs of former times, when mere imagination was enough to launch a poem, a play, or a painting.

I look forward to Miss Culkin’s future literary efforts, in which she will no doubt dismiss all the male characters created by Timberlake Wertenbaker, George Eliot, or Judith Thompson.

Universal Studios: Nostalgia Trip

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Universal Studios May 26

When you’re in the presence of America functioning as all-out as at Universal Studios theme park, you are in the belly of the beast. This place is the machine of fantasy at its most unrelieved. The thousands of guests are funnelled from pillar to post as efficiently as one can imagine without outright violence, and the makers of the park have tried to achieve a perfect balance between controlled reality and the illusion of choice. In that way, it’s like American politics.

There was a security check at the main gates, with metal detectors, a bag inspection, and a man walking about with a bloodhound (whether it sniffed for drugs or explosives, or both, I don’t know) . When my jack-knife was discovered, I was sent back to my car (“you can’t bring THAT in here, sir”). Universal knows that it’s a perfect target for a terror attack. What could more disturb the mullahs than people enjoying themselves on the empty calories of American entertainment? Not that the parks don’t have lots of Muslims enjoying themselves as they ride the Harry Potter train or scream with pleasure as they splash down in a raft at Jurassic Park. I’m glad to note, not without a cultural sneer, that the women in burkas are no less engrossed in the antics at the Terminator 2 show than those in flesh-revealing cutoffs.

What IS the Universal theme park? It took me a while to get it. Apart from the opportunity to line up and ride around on some kind of vehicle that goes fast, gets you wet, or tries to provide some other visual thrill, the experience being vended is nostalgia.

I’m surrounded by people on a nostalgia trip, and the nostalgia is largely about the imagery of innocent, purely fantasy films. The world of Harry Potter has been painstakingly recreated in Diagon Alley (one of my favourite puns in modern literature). Kids whose parents have parted with enough freight to purchase a plastic authentic wizard wand can stand on certain spots and wave at birds or skeletons or books that actually move or dance, or open. I was struggling with my phone-camera in front of a “wizarding” bookstore in Hogsmeade when a mature lady, polite like all Southerners, offered, “would you like me to open that for you?” and stood proudly on the appointed spot, waved her wand, and the book in the shop opened. She was as delighted as a six-year-old with her feat.

It is a testament to the power of nostalgia that even such a cynic as I can stand self-consciously grinning in front of the old BSA (although the brand is not ascribed) and sidecar that Robbie Coltrane might have ridden as Hagrid. This is partly because I love those old bikes with their clunky engineering, but it’s partly that I’m recalling the pleasure I felt when I watched as delighted as my kids when the bike descended from the sky in the first Harry Potter film. After all, the Harry Potter films are themselves powered by a kind of nostalgia, specifically a nostalgia for a Britain that was still Great.  Hagrid’s BSA (standing for Birmingham Small Arms) that was one of the relics of a bygone era when Britons still gave themselves licence to shoot foreigners in their own homelands.

For the record, I did resist buying Butter Beer just to find out what Hollywood thought it should taste like (very sweet, my daughter had reported to me).

Every Attraction is an opportunity to sell some nostalgia-infused gack, be it an authentic Neuralizer from Men In Black, a hat from Jurassic Park, or a T-shirt that says, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” from Hogsmeade. More subtly, you can also buy stuff that celebrates your affinity for the darker side of the Potter mythology (“I survived Azkaban”).

Food is for sale everywhere; outlets for pizza, burgers, ice cream are appropriately associated with their place on the site (the donut shop in the Simpson’s area, Lard’s Donuts, cashes in the very irony that The Simpson’s satire depends on, and markets it back to us: “go ahead, indulge yourself just like Homer would!” And we do.

Why is this nostalgia bath so attractive?  Are we so devoid of real memory, real experience, that one of the busiest places I’ve ever been, one of the most cherished destinations on Earth, is a place where your average Joe or Jane merely wanders around, half-baked by the Florida sun, going from one adrenaline-pumping “experience” to another, with long waits for each, eating expensive junk food?

In a galaxy far away, psychologically speaking, we kids would walk over to our public parks with a ball of some kind, and in twenty minutes, enough children would gather to start a game. On a summer’s evening, we would produce a tin can and play what the Boy Scouts used to call a “wide game” called Kick the Can. In the winter, we actually had a Wonderland of snow falling through 150-watt bulbs illuminating hundreds of skaters swirling around on the ice, forming trains, whiplash-lines, games of kiss-tag. I remember hearing my first stories from Canadians who had come back from Disneyland, self-titled “the Happiest Place on Earth.” They spoke with wonder of the “real castle” or the “real Mickey Mouse.” Those of us whose parents either could not afford the Disney experience, or who utterly distained it, had to be content with real dirt, real scraped knees, real meals cooked by real grannies, real snowflakes, real competition, real hurt feelings, and real kisses from real-life princesses.

Fast-forward to the pressed-cement bricks of Gringott’s Bank, or the artfully-designed cartoon imagery of the Popeye Cruise ride, and it is little wonder my children feel less grounded, less secure, and less sure of their place in the world. We have traded reality for nostalgia, what’s more nostalgia for worlds that only existed in the imagination.   At Universal Studios Park, we celebrate the imagination of James Cameron, or Barry Sonnenfeld and Lowell Cunningham, or of Ms. Rowling, a woman who invented a fascinating world sitting in a coffee shop. Truly, their imaginations deserve to be celebrated, but we did that already by buying the books and going to the movies.  The theme park experience is at a further remove, and judging by the empty, longing faces that I watched walk past me  yesterday, the promise of Nostalgia Realized is less than delivered.

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself in line for the live show starring animals trained for the movies. The innocent pleasure of watching dogs, cats, birds, and even a pig go through the routines that they had been taught was comfortingly old-fashioned: a quaint kind of real-world skill had been required to train these beasts, and it seemed to me they were the happiest performers in the Park. Our affection for them is as unfeigned as their pleasure at receiving a treat for doing well. It gave me a satisfying nostalgia for simpler things.

Post script:

It goes without saying that a terrorist attack did in fact take place in Orlando since I wrote this article, which prevented me from posting it for some time.  That the target was a nightclub where gay people are known to hang out is bitter indeed; targeting the LGBT community is a more specific kind of hate crime.  In retrospect, I want to make clear my view that, although the kind of cultural alienation that the theme park represents is worth questioning, the utterly bizarre fantasy world that fundamentalists inhabit, where your god rewards you for barbaric acts of hatred, is psychotic delusion on another level of alienation altogether.

God and the Gun: The Orlando Massacre

AR-15

Praise the Lord, Pass The Ammo

The Orlando Massacre

The loathsomely self-satisfied grin on the face of Omar Mateen will haunt me not because it is the face of a demon: it will haunt me because it is the face of an arrogant frat-boy, at once contemptuous and insecure. A lonely little man taking selfies in a room by himself, justifying his hatred by associating it with religion, and carrying it out with the psychotic’s perfect tool: the AR-15.

I first learned about the AR-15 in a brilliant and chilling Harper’s article by Dan Baum in June of 2013 (http://harpers.org/archive/2013/06/how-to-make-your-own-ar-15/). You don’t have to register any part of this kind of gun except the trigger mechanism. The rest of the weapon can be customized by adding any number of accessories. Such accessories might include an extra-large ammunition magazine, ideally suited for situations where a “high-kill rate” is the desired outcome. And such accessories can be added like accessories on a child’s toy, easily acquired without the need of permits or any other such inconvenience.

In the fight over the legality of the AR-15, its defender was of course the gun-lobby, and its front organization the NRA. Every shred of evidence on the public record (multiple mass shootings) is that this weapon is exactly the kind of tool of murder that should NOT be freely distributed, and yet the gunaholics on the American Right have only one right stuck on their brain.

Meanwhile, the gay community in Orlando is the subject of this grotesque and horrifying attack, enabled by a false interpretation of the Second Amendment, and abetted by a radical version of Islam. Having allowed the “radical” caveat, it’s worth restating that the text of Islam, like that every major religion in the West, abominates homosexuality. It’s time for all of us to recognize and condemn the awful hypocritical contradiction at the heart of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths: you cannot speak of your religion as being about love, tolerance, and charity without acknowledging that is also about hate, intolerance, and closed-mindedness. It’s time for our culture to grow up.

I was in Orlando for the Fringe Festival short days ago. My host there was an incredibly generous gay man who opened his house and his resources to a gang of Canadian guys (all of us straight, by the way). That he has lost friends and colleagues in the shooting is inevitable, and I mourn for him. Bless that man. Bless his sane Liberal views, his frank declaration of his freedom to define his sexuality as it was. Bless his rejection of the hidebound conservative version of the religious faith he was born into.

Let us be like that man. Let us grow up. Time to condemn the hypocrisy of the gun lobby, which allows a known abuser of women, a man the FBI talked to twice, to walk into one of the ubiquitous gun shops in Florida (it’s easier to find a gun shop in Orlando than an ice-cream stand), and purchase a weapon more suited for the battlefield than any form of “protection.”

As a Western Canadian of a certain era, I grew up with a pretty wide array of rifles and shotguns in the house. They were tools of survival for my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  None of those weapons has been fired in decades, and none of us is an iota the worse for it.   The two weapons used by the Orlando murderer (he carried a handgun as well as an automatic AR-15) have only one function: to kill human beings. Grow up, NRA, you’re enabling no one but the psychos.

Film Essay: Francofonia

Francofonia

by Aleksandr Sukarov

Francofonia Poster (1)

Aleksandr Sukarov uses cameras like a very smart kid playing with high-level toys. From the early scenes of the film, one of which features a great drone-shot of Paris, lifting us from street level to high above the city, the filmmaker is at play with our perceptions.

The film is about the preservation of culture: who are the heroes, who the villains, how it is accomplished, what the value of big-C culture is to a nation, or a civilization. Sukarov asks the questions in a variety of filmic techniques, and from as many angles as he can think of, tastefully restraining himself from stating the obvious, teasing us with conundrums that remain unanswerable. The film is partly a love-poem to the Louvre, which we see though several eras of its history, from many surprising angles. Our guide through the great museum is often Napoleon himself, a kind of grand guinole of a character, pointing at himself posed in a number of paintings and bragging, “that’s me!” (A claim that he even makes, in one of the film’s best jokes, about a famous picture that is distinctly NOT him.)

Napoleon also brags that many of the great monuments in the museum are there because of him, which gets at the heart of the film’s great themes: Is the piracy committed in an act of conquest a valid way to acquire works of art, even with the best curatorial motives? What is the relationship between Art and Power?

The film’s primary narrative focuses on the German occupation of Paris in 1940, when the Count Franz Wolff-Metternich became the Nazis’ chief curator and administrator of French art objects. The Occupation period is brought to life by brilliantly-chosen archival cinema footage melded with dramatic footage in which Sukarov dares to speculate on the relationship between the Duke and Jacques Jaujard, the wartime Director of the Louvre. The uneasy entente between these men is presented in two beautifully subtle performances by Benjamin Utzerath and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing.  Indeed, by the last reel, the German occupier becomes a quite sympathetic character, and his relationship with his French counterpart a small ray of sunlight in a very grey landscape.

By contrast, Sukarov invites us to consider the barbarity of Operation Barbarossa, showing us documentary images of embattled Stalingrad and Petersburg. People slog through the snow, dragging corpses past destroyed buildings whose architecture was no less beautiful than the Parisian edifices that the Nazis restrained themselves from destroying. If they were careful NOT to wreck the Louvre, they made a point of lobbing shells into the Hermitage. As a Russian, Sukarov cannot restrain himself from commenting on the distinction, but the point is not overstated. Indeed, Soviet suffering during the winters of 1942-43 could hardly be overstated.

Perhaps the most wonderful images of the monumental Paris museum come from a surprising source: paintings from the museum collection which depict the museum itself. These paintings come from a variety of periods of the Louvre’s long history, and give us a very vivid image of lives lived there: people visiting, conversing, flirting, admiring works of art, and perhaps most delightfully, painting. As the director points out in voiceover, there are a lot of paintings of women painting that are part of the collection, and Sukarov brings us close enough to these ghostly people, framing and lighting them so perfectly that we can feel their loving concentration.

At one point in this film, a gloved man stands next to one of the glass-encased mummies in the collection, and taps the glass with a finger. In the shots of the mummified figure that follow, you are very much expecting the mummy to come to life. If it does, what will it say? What message from the grave will it bring?

This is a question that rings through this film: what do we learn from the artifacts of culture lovingly preserved in such places as the Louvre? The answer seems clear: we learn what it is to be human. And Sukarov’s playful, passionate film tells us that this is exactly why the existence of such thing as an Empire can only be justified by its respect for such inquiry.

The Kennedy Space Center(re)

Florida, May 24.

The Atlantis

The 24th of May

Is the Queen’s Birthday

If you don’t give us a holiday

We’ll all run away

 

I grew up with my grandmother reciting that once a year. It’s the Queen’s Birthday, up in my homeland. Not that anyone for a thousand miles around here would know or care. (Nor should they.)   So I feel not only foreign, but somewhat old, knowing that rhyme.

 

Yesterday’s travels took me to the East Coast of the state, about an hour’s drive from Orlando. I was itching for a swim in the ocean. I was diverted, however, by the sign that read “Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center… 10 miles.” I had no idea I was so close, so I thought, “well, I ain’t gonna be coming this way again soon,” and made the turn.

 

There are several unexpected things I want to report about the KSC. The first is that the imagery is indeed iconic. For about a mile before you arrive, driving along the causeway approaching the site, you can see the two-rockets-tied-to-a-massive-fuel-tank configuration onto which they strapped the Space Shuttle. There’s a kind of mental “holy crap, that’s THAT THING” which is symbolic of so much technical achievement, so much aspiration. You turn into the Center (I’m using the American spelling on purpose), and get the shock of ten dollar parking and a fifty-dollar admission fee, suppress the desire to run away, and, passing a food truck that seems oddly out of place, enter the somewhat Disney-style gates. Which is the second surprise: how commercial the place is.  Clearly this is part of the money-collecting wing of NASA.

 

I stroll into the Rocket Park. The next surprise is the small scale of the early rockets that are represented here. One has the idea that the launch vehicles for lower earth orbit are larger than these, some of which are on quite a human scale. The mock-up of John Glenn’s capsule, into which you are welcome to squeeze yourself, reminds you how primitive were the first manned space flights: having the Right Stuff was partly about fitting into a very tight space.

 

I boarded the bus that takes you out to the launch site. You pass the Crawler, the monstrous flat vehicle that transports rockets to the launch at a speed 2/10ths of an MPH, and is capable of loads of several million pounds. En route (pronounced “uhn raoute” here), the driver points out that, of the 22 square miles that make up the NASA site, most is kept as a wildlife sanctuary. We are encouraged to look for alligators in the wetlands, and the largest bald eagle nest is pointed out.

 

The circle drive around the launch site (getting out of the bus is quite out of the question) is fascinating partly because of the familiarity of the image, and partly haunting because it has the something of the feel of an abandoned heavy-industry yard. I had kind of expected to be wowed by very shiny, high-tech stuff. The buildings, the general state of industrial rust, remind me more of the familiar heavy-industry yards of my home town of Edmonton, that servant of the Northern oil industry.

 

Some shiny high-tech stuff is to follow, in the first Visitor Center, a celebration of the Apollo Program. I am very susceptible to the nostalgia associated with the first moon landings. I was fifteen, sitting beside my 19th Century-vintage grandfather as we watched  Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base in 1969, and being able to stand under the massive Saturn rocket brilliantly displayed in all its proud strength is truly mind-bending. Equally mind-bending are the displays of everyday artifacts of space travel. The flight log from (I believe) Apollo 11 sits open. It might be a pilot’s log from a commercial airline flight. Various spacesuits are displayed, and you can only shake your head at what looks like technology very little removed from what my uncle would have worn as a Lancaster pilot in 1943 (as indeed, historically speaking, it was). Which is not to say that the scale of human inventiveness on display is not impressive. The very made-for-the-purpose feeling of it is part of what’s most impressive. Yankee ingenuity, indeed. And if you can look at a rock brought back from the moon, that mysterious chunk of ex-earth a quarter of a million miles away, without being gob-smacked, well, you simply have no imagination at all.

 

When you re-board a bus from the Apollo display center, you are taken back to the main area where you can tour the various displays around the space shuttle Atlantis. I loved seeing the actual space shuttle and the artifacts that were associated with it, but I have to say I was surprised by the absence of hard science. Rather than celebrating the acquisition of knowledge, the Visitor’s Center is celebrating the romanticism of NASA’s accomplishment. Heroic space music, the kind you might associate with superhero movies, is played everywhere. There is a Disneyesque “experience” (the word “ride” is frowned upon, evidently) you can have, in which some forty people are seating in a “pod”, strapped in, and given a shakeup designed to give an idea of what taking off in Atlantis might have been like. I can assure you, even with my very elementary aviation experience, that the experience of taking off in Atlantis must have been a thousand times more exhilarating, especially with the loss of Challenger and its crew in 1986.

Canadarm

Most delightful was the chance to stand within a few feet of the Atlantis herself. The heat-shielding ceramic tiles which cover her give her a somewhat rough-edged feel. And looking into her open cargo-hold at the two cranes clearly marked with the familiar flag and government-sanctioned “Canada” logo gave me a surprising jolt of national pride. I have always thought that celebrating having contributed a couple of “Canadarms” to the space program was too modest an accomplishment to make a big deal of. But there I stood, feeling quite nationalistically smug that, amongst all this American pride, the maple leaf was on prominent display.

 

NASA’s accomplishments are justly celebrated on Cape Canaveral. I’m glad I saw the place. NASA is one of those massively government-funded projects which, along with the Hoover Dam, the Berlin Airlift, or the New Deal, make Americans most understandably proud. Ironically, it is the kind of government-led, centrally-planned activity that the right wing of U.S. politics seems to decry. And yet, amongst things to wave a flag about, this fifty-year accomplishment is truly one of them.

Ken at NASA2