Critical Hit!!

pop culture (and everything else) explored

On Social Media and the Culture of Positivity

In my political economy class, we questioned whether social media messages themselves actually are important, or whether its only the participation that counts. Many agreed that the messages do indeed matter, and that social media networks are specifically designed to promote messages to positivity. Examples include the long lambasted lack of a “dislike” button on Facebook, or the action to “heart” a tumblr or twitter post, rather than down vote it.

What are the implications of these social media structures, and what are their impact? Upon reflection, I found that these social media structure supported a false consciousness of positivism, one that is perhaps best represented by the success of the trash book The Secret, which properties that the power of positive thinking is the key to success. Of course, this culture of positivism shifts one away from political praxis, especially in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. Nah, it wasn’t the banks fault or wall street, you just weren’t thinking positively enough!

This mindset is particularly proliferated on finance blogs targeted towards millennials. Lifehacker, NerdWallet, The Simple Dollar, Get Rich Slowly, these and many more perpetuate the myths that you can easily start-up revenue on the side, and that your poverty is merely a result of your own laziness. Particularly egregious is Lifehacker’s “Complete Guide to Making Money in Your Spare Time“, which not only includes such scams as Slice the Pie (where your make pennies for your intellectual work), but illustrates all to clearly that, whether from an audience commodity perspective or a biopolitical perspective, we are always working. The culture of positivity merely papers over this fact, districting us from the real political work to end human alienation.


The “Love” Songs of The Police

I’ve been listening to The Police a lot recently, having recently acquired their complete recordings. My favourite band in high school, The Police remain a firm favourite today for their wonderfully layered music and poetic lyricism.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on The Police’s oeuvre, noticing that they make for an unusual popular rock act for their political lyricism and tendency towards such densely layered instrumentation. Their pop hooks are top notch, of course, but merely represent their biggest hits, rather than their varied artistic experimentation.

What I’m getting at is that for a big pop/rock act in the 80s, the band has virtually no love songs. Instead, The Police consistently explore the dark undersides to love, from stalkers (“Every Breath You Take), to pedophelia (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me”), to cannibalistic metaphors (“Hungry For You [j’aurais toujours faim de toi]”), to intense loneliness (“The Bed’s Too Big Without You”). The nearest The Police ever get to a romantic love song is “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, about the speaker’s inability to articulate  his romantic affections for his lover. Of course, this song compares losing such eloquence to the chaos of this world as a rape. How romantic.

Who in the world is Dani Cavallaro?

Throughout my time in undergrad, I would often check out books with the express purpose of merely holding onto them, perpetually existing in a “to read someday” pile that grew and grew in my bedroom. A few of these texts were the work of Dani Cavallaro, who, from first appearance, looks like a studious author, with 13 books of related to the topic of anime.

By the end of undergrad, I had recognized that Cavallaro’s work wasn’t quite up to a rigorous academic caliber, but merely assumed that she was coming from a sophisticated fan’s perspective, and left it at that. Here as a student I once found her intimidating, for at a brief glance, she appeared to be a well published author in the field, leaving less room for me as a scholar. But it wasn’t until I started researching today that there was much more to the story of Dani Cavallaro that what appeared.

Today I finally took initiative to try and figure out who this Cavallaro figure was, only to find barely anything about her at all. Amazon and Goodreads led me to find her other work on subjects I couldn’t believe Cavallaro had expertise to cover, namely subjects such a French Feminist Theory. Of course, perhaps what should have tipped me off was that these texts were introductory or survey book. I could not believe this was the same person, and went further down the research rabbit hole.

As these posts demonstrated from the wonderful Anime and Manga Studies blog, not only is there nothing about this person, her work is, frankly, rudimentary. Her prose is fluffed with academic jargon, often rephrasing portions of wikipedia entries and the work of other scholars without citations. You actually can’t find any information about this person online, aside from very brief author bios on the publisher’s website. This is, in a word, sketchy.

The fact that many of her books are published from McFarland press says a lot about the quality of the press and its authors, as her work is basically plagiarism hidden under the shambles of academic jargon. From all appearances, Cavallaro at least illustrates to me I could always have a job publishing tripe from a living.

In researching all this, I can’t help but feel I uncovered a conspiracy. A conspiracy~!

Whiplash: Encore Edition

It’s been almost a year since I published my 3000+ word piece of Whiplash. I’ve had more thoughts on the film, a work that continues to haunt me to this day. Perhaps I can exorcise some spectres by establishing more of my thoughts on the subject.

Overbearing Accolades

Certainly some of my anxiety over the film continues from its critical acclaim, a wave of enthusiasm that in some respects tampers the discourse on the film. Richard Brody’s piece on the film, for instance, has the title “Getting Jazz Right at the Movies”, while a different title (available in a google search) is “‘Whiplash’ Gets Jazz All Wrong”, an indication perhaps of the piece’s original title. I suspect that because of the film’s overwhelming accolades, Brody’s biting criticism trimmed to fit the field.

Whiplash Richard Brody Article

The White Man’s Power

Thinking more about the homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs Fletcher uses, I was at least encouraged to find J. Bryan Lowder’s essay on the film’s use of homophobia, an illustration that someone has at least noticed and questioned it. Of course, I wish his final judgements were more concrete and biting, but he at least raises the question as to how and why Whiplash uses homophobia.

This leads my back around to slurs particularly absent in the film, racial epithets. In a room full of male students, a good number of them black, Fletcher resorts only to homophobic, anti-Semitic, and fat-phobic slurs to bully his class. While each type of slur has its own history (and are thus incomparable in many respects), it’s telling how the film calibrates Fletcher’s abuse to be as unrelenting and shocking as possible while still being “realistic.”

In an interview with The Dissolve (R.I.P.), writer/director Damien Chazelle had this to say about Fletcher’s language:

“There’s not a single demographic group in existence that [Fletcher] doesn’t go after at some point in the movie, but there’s almost no logic to it.

Of course there is a logic to his choice of words, all stemming from his ideological power as a white man. If Fletcher was true to the ideology he upholds (pressure and crush your students until they either break down your students until them make something of themselves), it would be “in character” for his to use racial slurs. Of course, that would take us out of the film: how could we believe this (tenured?) teacher would hold a position in a music academy if he said that? Whiplash therefore balances a fine line between “believable” and “unbelievable” physical and emotional abuse. Of course, while there is certainly a lot of pressure and horror stories associated with musicianship, I find none of the film believable as Fletcher physically and emotional berates students for (ostensibly) years without consequence.

Race haunts this film, an unrecognized spectre undergirding its ideological formation. When Fletcher first enters into Andrew’s classroom, he effectively silences his black colleague, indirectly judging his student placement efforts as poor when criticizing the only female musician in the film to only have first chair “because she’s pretty.” Black voices are very much silent in the film, their presence largely subsumed by the ego contests between Fletcher and Andrew. But is that the point?

False Consciousness

Is this film ultimately critiquing the power dynamics it portrays? That’s a hard question to answer.

Take the ending for example. My previous writing on the film notes that any ambiguity is false in terms of who has “won”, as Andrew literally hasn’t played the drums since his tutelage with Fletcher, therefore his “success” in the end (if you can call it that) logically derives from Fletcher’s abusive tactics.

As Dan Olson notes: Andrew “sells his soul for a pat on the head from the devil.” But is that perhaps the point, that we should walk away from the film saddened that Andrew submitted to Fletcher in the end? Are we to walk away from the film all the wiser from Andrew’s destructive journey in the white male ego? As FILM CRIT HULK puts it: “THE ARGUMENT AS TO HOW MUCH OF THE ENDING OF IS EITHER A VALIDATION OR CRITICISM IS BOTH RIGHTFULLY AMBIGUOUS. BUT PROBLEMATICLY SO [sic].” If it’s a validation, the film has presented a terrible, inaccurate, immoral message: be better than the abuser by showing him up. If it’s a criticism, it’s a criticism that explores the white male ego at the expense of minority and underrepresented voices, while completely misrepresenting jazz.

Jazz being a historically and culturally important work of black musicians, the lack of substantive black characters in the film is unfortunate. People of colour in the film are merely supporting players with no agency or personality of their own, save the brief appearance by a black female lawyer contracted by another family. Andrew’s classmates rarely interact with him, an act that further heightens the films delusions about music as a solo operation while limiting the roles of the black players. Andrew gets a girlfriend, with her only purposing in the film to be ditched later.

Whiplash is also a film that mangles jazz. As Jon Newey, editor of magazine Jazzwise, notes, “It is a warped, retrogressive portrayal of jazz and big band cutting sessions.” As Tyran Grillo wonderfully explains “the film fails to recognize the history of jazz as such, treating it more as a code devoid of emotional variables.” The criticism on the film’s portray of jazz goes on, illustrating how many a jazz fan are perturbed by the film’s vision of the genre.

The ideal Andrew seeks is the prestigious jazz musician, playing Carnegie Hall and winning awards. This ideal is one of white privilege, as indicated by the final scene as Andrew plays to a crowd of rich white patrons who can apparently make or break his career. This is of course a ridiculous notion, and so is his ideal: he could make it bigger and better by shoring up his talents anywhere else outside of jazz and become successful. But his ideals get in the way. As the poster of his idol, Buddy Rich, on Andrew’s wall says: IF YOU DON’T HAVE ABILITY, YOU WIND UP PLAYING IN A ROCK BAND.

So the white male ego strikes again, ultimately limiting Andrew’s potential. If that was the film’s intended message, it comes at the costs of few people actually understanding the film’s sets ups (the final confrontation as the end all be all of his career) and Andrew’s ideals (what a jazz musician truly is) are falsehoods. Never in the film is it clear that jazz is something more that Big Band, more than Carnegie Hall, more than such competing egos. Perhaps I don’t trust an audience enough to see Andrew’s ideals as destructive lies, but the film doesn’t either, or at least does not make it tangibly clear.

Even if Whiplash was a good exploration of the male white ego, I would be uncomfortable with how the film misrepresents an entire musical genre historically rooted in the black experience to make its point. The fact that Whiplash ultimately fails damns the film all the more.


Kafka poster with Jeremy Irons and eye shot

My favourite poster, exemplifying the film’s wonderful cinematography.

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

Steven Soderbergh hit it big with his first full feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape. With a budget of just over a million dollars, the film raked in over $24 million, and won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. From there, Soderbergh basically had his pick of whatever project he wanted to make.

Kafka (1991) was is follow up feature, a wonderfully directed piece starring Jeremy Irons as a fictionalized Franz Kafka, who is involved in a nefarious, paranoid scheme similar to those in Kafka’s own works. While the film has sly references to various Kafka works and his own biography, the protagonist being Kafka in this story isn’t a necessity (nothing makes him essentially Kafka), but the touch is nice all the same. In beautiful black and white cinematography, Jeremy Irons does look a bit like Kafka, with prosthetics on his ears to amplify the effect. He plays Kafka as the investigative, yet overwhelmed protagonist caught in a web between the oppressive state and the revolutionaries seeking to destroy it.

The acting in the film is well done, with a stacked cast creating a world of eccentric, yet menacing characters. Joel Grey (oscar winner for his portrayal of the Emcee in Cabaret) plays the paper-pushing supervisor Mr. Burgel, an exemplar of bureaucratic society, while Alec Guinness plays Kakfa’s chief clerk in the office, a simple yet mysteriously authoritative character. Theresa Russell is the leader of the revolutionaries as Gabriela, a wonderful performance (for the most part), with a complementary lovely costume design. Throw in Ian Holm and other small yet memorable parts and you have a world full of delightfully intriguing characters.

What’s unfortunate about the film is that it was poorly received, to because it is inadequate, but because it was such a departure from Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Roger Ebert’s review is a good example of this, comparing the films multiple times and spoiling the aesthetic change near the end of the film. Many reviewers either did not review the work on its own terms (always comparing it to Soderbergh’s previous feature), or they didn’t get it all together (note the strange comment Gene Siskel makes saying that the film has a happy ending – this is not the case.) The film flopped at the box office, and has only ever gotten a DVD release that’s long out of print. But if you’d like to watch the film just for the great cinematography alone, the entire film has been uploaded to youtube.

Jeremy Irons on Saturday Night Live

Jeremy Irons on Saturday Night Live

Two days before he won his oscar for Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons hosted Saturday Night Live. The best thing to come out of this was probably the gorgeous title card.

A good SNL host will be able to give a calm, yet effervescent demeanour, rising above the (usually low grade) material to make a show of it. This kid of performance, and the improvisation it requires, is not a strength of Irons, making Irons’ opening monologue somewhat embarrassing as a result. Of course, it doesn’t help that the writings give him nothing original to work with, merely giving him gaudy props to play around with in the one note joke that “he wants to win the oscar”. As this is the only clip available, I cannot judge the performance Irons gave in the rest of the show, but I can say the other material not featuring Irons is quite good.

As Irons’ rushes through his opening monologue, it’s apparent that he only just flew in from Ireland (as he even mentions in the monologue), so the embarrassing opening is only further encumbered from there. Luckily, Irons did int he oscar, blotting out any small features like these to be largely forgotten.

Reversal of Fortune

Part of a series of the films of Jeremy Irons

When I first watched Jeremy Irons oscar acceptance speech, I was happy to hear him thank David Cronenberg. This act also initially led me to believe that Irons merely won the oscar for previous excellent work (as the Academy can tend to do), instead of really deserving it in Reversal of Fortune. But as I researched the film (by watching Siskel and Ebert reviews of course), I found they gave accolade after accolade to both the film and Irons’ performance. And to my delight, I found Reversal of Fortune to be an excellent film, a fascinating true life story of Claus von Bülow, a seedy man accused of murdering his wife and the tumultuous legal drama circling around him.

This film is incredibly well written, structuring the legal drama to make it narratively compelling and understandable. Based on the book by law professor Alan Dershowitz, the man who represented von Bülow, is charts Dershowitz’s appeal case, as he and his law students research the alleged murder of Sunny von Bülow, uncovering more and more about the strange Mr. von Bülow himself.

As a gripping, enveloping legal drama, the film is utterly refreshing, illustrative the true artistry that can emerge from what could otherwise have been utter trash. Part of this comes from the trio of performances by Irons, Ron Silver, and Glenn Close, who are all rock solid. Close illustrates some wonderful body language in the film, playing the alcoholic Sunny, a woman who finds her current life utterly detestable. Silver as well does some good work, essentially the lead character whose anger and thirst for justice propels much of the film.

Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune - headshot

Irons won the oscar, despite his character being a relatively unlikable (balding) man.

And then there is Irons, in what can only be said as another masterful performance. Irons’ trademark contained body language is at work here, but is mined for new depths, as we can never truly tell what von Bülow is thinking. Are his reserved and restrained actions coming from a desire to hide his guilt, or just the character’s natural body language? The fact that Irons won best actor, even though he plays a questionable unlikable character, is a testament to the strength of his performance. It’s a daring role, and Irons makes it his own.

There are two other things notable here.

  1. Why no best picture nomination? Probably because Ghost pushed it out.
  2. The Lion King poached more than just Jeremy Irons from this movie, it poached his best line as well.

Dead Ringers

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

Dead Ringers (1988) is a magnificent film, and one of my favorites. It not only has wonderful acting by the powerful Geneviève Bujold, whose is criminally underrated, but stars Jeremy Irons turning in two masterful performances, playing a set of gynaecologist twins whose relationships deteriorate when Bujold’s character becomes entwined between them.

Scholar Mark Nicholls, taking a psychoanalytic approach to the films of Jeremy Irons, notes the sublimation of the feminine within the film. The film examines how women are controlled, from Bujold’s character’s bristling feminism to the abstraction of women to organs (as seen in the title sequence).

Space in the film is defeated manipulated, as Irons’ characters are rarely seen outside rooms, and are often ensconced in womb-like spaces. This use of space also touches upon the fear of separation, one of the film’s primary themes. As twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, their relationship is a combination of narcissism and ego, a fusion where individual identity is consumed.

In term of performance, this may be Irons’ best work. He deftly portrays two different characters with distinct and controlled body language that is a marvel to watch. Irons notes in an interview that his work in the theater (where one is expected to toggle between two or three characters in between productions or shows) enabled him to successfully meet the artist and technical challenge of playing a set of twins. The film uses a combination of split screen techniques and motion controlled camerawork to create movie magic, as they say.

After this film, Irons starred in two smaller pictures, one a historical drama, the other based on a play; both projects obviously well suited to Irons’ preferences for literary adaptations of works of higher caliber. After than his next project was Reversal of Fortune (1990), in which he finally won his oscar. As Jeremy Irons thanks David Cronenberg in his acceptance speech, he remarks that “some of you may understand why”. Why indeed.

On-Message History in The Mission

My blogging partner’s take on The Mission is another wonderful article about a not-so wonderful film.

Source: On-Message History in The Mission

The Mission

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The Mission (1986) was a project well suited to Jeremy Irons’ preference towards prestige pictures. Headed by a near all star cast (Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, babyfaced Liam Neeson) and crew (score by Ennio Morricone, directed by Roland Joffé), the film won both the Palme d’Or and the Technical Grand Prize and the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film’s quality is only surface deep.

Where to begin dissecting this film? Perhaps we shall start with the plot, or rather, the lack of one. This film is a historical adaptation of real events in 18th century South America, as Jesuits try to establish missions and convert natives while brushing up against colonialist slave trading. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a Jesuit who establishes contact with the native Guaraní group. He does this with music, or course, which begins the films didactic footnote that “music is a universal language”. Such didacticism never leaves, as Morricone’s score takes up Gabriel’s melody and disperses it throughout the film.

While Gabriel gains success in influencing the native people, Rodrigo Mendoza, a slave trader, comes into the picture. Here we have an interesting dynamic, a shepard versus a wolf fighting over the potential flock. But the film loses that tension when Mendoza commits to being a Jesuit after serving penance for killing his brother in a fit of rage. From here follows the political tensions of the the mission in regards to the Portuguese, who want the land for themselves. The middle of the film has prolonged berates on the humanity of the Guaraní, showing off the missions to illustrate their beauty to a visiting Cardinal advising the use of the land. He reluctantly, but ultimately asserts that the Jesuits must leave the land due to pressures to keep the Jesuit order intact. Our stars all stay on the mission for various reason, Gabriel as a man of peace, Mendoza as a man of war, with the Jesuit Fielding (Neeson) by his side. Both sides fail, and the mission is destroyed by the invading forces.

The narrative of the film, or rather, the lack of one, is what harms the film the most. The narrative threads are never clear in the film, and the battle at the end of the film seems to come out of nowhere, distinctly different from the rest of the film’s idleness.  Our characters are underdeveloped, simplistic symbols that don’t amount to symbolizing much in the end. Historically speaking, none of the Jesuits disobeyed or stayed with the Guaraní to fight. But that doesn’t stop the film from having didactic, yet vaporous themes of peace vs. war. Father Gabriel questions whether “might is right”, which is a cliché line in of itself, but also one that did not exist in the 18th century. Talk of peace and war, obedience and noncompliance, and other binaries are vaguely explored and never fully realized, leaving it up to the scenery to buoy the film’s mess of of a plot with its cinematography.

The Mission (1986) Poster with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons

The poster captures the beauty and terror of nature (how Herzogian), but makes the film appear to be much more symbolically solid than what it actually is.

While the film’s only Oscar went to cinematography, the cinematography isn’t that impressive. While the natural landscapes are gorgeous and are what made the film win the oscar, long tracking shots feel somewhat staged, with the battle scene at the end dipping in and out of coherency. There is nothing original or stunning in the film’s cinematography, aside from the beauty and terror of the natural landscapes themselves. The obvious comparison here is towards Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film that also uses the labour of native peoples, and has a story of white men trying to tame the jungle. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t watch The Mission because it isn’t as good as Fitzcarraldo (a film should always be judged on its own merits), but because The Mission itself is a failure of a film, a pretentious prestige piece that duped enough people to win some awards, only to fade into obscurity. The film has the gall to being and end with 4th wall breaking looks on from the Cardinal, as if to say “Be affected by this film!”

The director Roland Joffé made his earlier by directing another historical adaptation, The Killing Fields (1984), which also netted a few oscars. His oeuvre is full of prestige trash, historical adaptations that stretch the truth for oscar gold. Of course, he also directed and produced the abysmal Scarlet Letter (1995) adaptation, and that film ends with a battle scene as well. The Mission, generally speaking, has not held up well over time, save for the fact that it plays nearly every year at my alma mater Calvin College. Why is this film so popular among the Christian crowds? Obviously the plot of conversion to Christianity is alluring, but more so is the film’s depiction of idyllic missions throughout the film. Much of the film is illustrating their harmony and beauty, idealistic imagery that is so potent to Christians.

I’ve talked much about the film, but not about the lead performances. That is because there is very little to say, except that Irons and DeNiro don’t get much to say. Their acting is broad and bland, a result of an unfocused, overwrought script and ineffective directing. This is a particular shame, because I watched this film specifically to examine Irons’ performance, but his presence feels marginal, even when he is a main character. He all but disappears but he end of the film as the poorly shot battle sequence goes underway. In that regard, it’s not even worth watching for Jeremy Irons.

The Mission is a frustrating disappointment, a prestige picture at its worst. As Roger Ebert eloquently stated when listing the nominees for Best Picture that year at the Oscars, there were “Four good nominees, and… The Mission.”


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