Lincoln: Anatomy of an Oscar Favourite


People can read film reviews anywhere online. Pick a critic you like, follow their blog or an RSS feed of their reviews, and you can sit in your little echo chamber forever content. Where, pray tell, could you find a film review that also sheds light on the political systems of other species? Unless you’re reading a review of The Secret of NIMH or something similar, your pool of options becomes far shallower.

With that in mind, we can proceed to talk about Lincoln, the new film from Jaws director and Hollywood Grand Duke Steven Spielberg. It does not tell the story of Abraham Lincoln; a film that tried to bite off that much would be setting itself up for serious digestion congestion. Instead, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner tell story about Abraham Lincoln, specifically how the tall, hatted sixteenth president finagled the House of Representatives into passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, the film is mainly concerned with the ugly, often unethical process of getting enough support to pass one of the most pivotal pieces of legislation in American history.

At once, you can see the tensions at play in the fabric of this story. On the one hand, you have a story about vote-buying and patronage, strategic lying and clever manoeuvring. It’s a story that could be set in an government at about any time. Democracy is a game of numbers, and making sure that you have more of the right people on your side than not is rarely a game of pure principle and honest civic engagement. On the other hand, however, the specific characters, setting, and context surrounding and inhabiting this procedural plot are some of the most iconic and mythical in modern history. Spielberg has a history of falling into sentiment, earned or not, and before watching this I feared that he would fall into a rote recitation of the national myth. Abraham Lincoln was an honourable and insightful chief executive who freed the slaves, won the Civil War, and laid the foundations for the great American hegemony in the twentieth century.

Fortunately, I instead witnessed a film willing to give us a minimally romanticized portrait of a man and a legislative system riven by complex conflicts. It’s a film more complex and engaging than a biopic about such a statuesque demigod should have a right to be. Spielberg, and especially his longtime composer John Williams, don’t resist all temptations to turn this into something a little too sacramental, but overall it’s a remarkable achievement of direction, writing, and acting.

First, a sentence about Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s flawless and carries the film during its rough patches–his attention not just to historical detail but to details, gestures, and line reading is admirable, and I could find no significant faults in his performance. Tommy Lee Jones as radical abolitionist and believer in (gasp) racial equality Thaddeus Stevens is playing well within his established range. It’s not surprising how good he is, but I appreciated the sardonic edge and energy he added as well. Stalwart character actor David Strathairn is similarly excellent in his role as Secretary of State William Seward, as was Sally Field. She lent a remarkable intensity to the character of Lincoln’s wife, Mary-Todd. Having seen many sons of her own die in the horrible war her husband is responsible for waging, she seems justifiably mad–in both senses of the term.

One weak thread in the film is the relationship between Lincoln and his son, Robert. Robert insists on leaving his law training and enlisting with the army, a proposal that understandably leaves his Presidential father cold and enrages his mother. I will acknowledge I find the interplay between this intimate household debate–which must remind Lincoln daily of the enormous blood cost of winning the war–and the broader political conflict intriguing. However, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert as stubborn and principled, like a few other characters in the film, but without much zest or distinction. Unfortunately, the performance and the lack of a satisfying resolution leave this thread of the story a little impoverished.

Something else  that kept me from fully appreciating the film was the music. John Williams’ uplifting score is cut from much more conventional biopic cloth than the film itself, and when the strings start to jerk the tears out of you during a morally ambiguous moment or a particularly tough speech, I felt cheated. Occasionally, the cinematography plays into this tendency as well, flooding rooms with exterior light and changing the characters from fully embodied onscreen figures into stark silhouettes. Once or twice, the effect highlights the drama and provides a striking contrast between certain key scenes and the more realistic and low-key lighting elsewhere. After a few more times, however, it loses its effect. It never became actively irritating, but it was problematic.

I want to conclude with a brief note about the film’s treatment of history. Yes, it does what every standard historical biopic does. It elevates the people who happened to be in power during a pivotal societal moment into the only meaningful figures. It’s Great Man history writ however large the film screen is. Nonetheless, within the constraints of narrative film biography it gets the story it’s telling right enough to escape my wrath. I might change my mind on this later, but for now I am attempting to distance my thoughts on this fictional work from my approach to writing history. This is not history but a fantastical re-imagining of it. That doesn’t mean there are dragons added, but omissions can be just as fantastical and unreal as embellishments. As small a compliment as this is, this might just be the least terrible, most compelling biopic I’ve seen in a long time.

This is how you do Oscar bait the right way.

Editor’s Note: Chicago, The Post

I have an aversion to photography employed as a memory aid. Photography is always artistic, but staged, clearly affected photographs seem to me more appropriate than the ubiquitous candid shots people take home by the hundreds, maybe thousands from their vacations.

All of this is to say that I forgot my camera at my lovely friend’s house before taking the train into Chicago, meaning I have no confirmed evidence of being there. None in my own possession, of course.

Portentous preludes aside–and we thank them for their modest contributions–I can say I had a harried, enlightening, rejuvenating weekend. Of the several friends who accompanied me into the city, one had never seen the “sights” before. So we started with the postcard locations. Millennium Park and the Cloud Gate. LaSalle Street and its banks and Board of Trade. The Rookery–requisite Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. It’s been too long since I’ve seen them, but I doubt I would have appreciated them so much had I not been sharing the odd novelty of the experience with friends.

I could say at this point that “people are more important than places.” I can see the shades of truth in that statement. People can brighten up dark places, make bright ones better. When I think back to my former Chicagoland life, however, I’m more likely to think of places than the people in them. I have many memories of empty places, wide streets rimmed with puddles and teeming with traffic. Faceless crowds, I suppose. A church that looked like an office building or a bank. Long car rides to palatial malls. I never looked out the window much in those days; if you asked me how to get to my house from the store ten minutes away I would remember reading fantasy novels in the backseat but not the way. I’d have to shrug and look it up on the Internet.

Most of the time we spent downtown was spent in two places: The Art Institute of Chicago and Portillo’s. The contrast between the two should be apparent, so I won’t dwell on that. The Art Institute is an art museum, and it looks and feels like it. Art museums are hushed and sacred spaces, and being in one can drive you batty if you’re not careful. Luckily, art that intrudes into your experience and makes wry comment on the space it occupies is plentiful. Minimalist floor sculptures from Carl Andre and playful found object art can only carry you so far, though. That’s why I was delighted to find a video exhibit called “focus” presenting short films by Hito Steyerl, including one that presented biographical stories of security guards who worked there. It became uncomfortable to note that, almost to a one, the employees at the museum were black and the patrons white. The video exploited this and managed a fine balance between wit and serious comment that I wish more contemporary art could find. I’m perfectly fine approaching a work of art with nothing but contempt for me, but I would prefer something I can laugh with as well.

Portillo’s is a restaurant/food emporium where you can indulge in various self-destructive meals. I had a chocolate shake with pieces of cake in it. It was delicious, and I felt no compunction about it. Of course not. Probably more pleasurable than the food was the classic jazz flooding the whole place. Were I a dancer, I would have strutted my mediocre stuff. I wish restaurants that played good music would post what they’re playing somewhere. I would appreciate it, even if my wallet would not.

After a brief period of respite and regrouping back at home base, we returned to the city to take in the Neo-Futurists. As I’m no theatre critic, I can only point out that I enjoyed the show and would recommend that anyone in the city take in their free-wheeling stage antics. Just be prepared to grab your neighbour’s bottom and then give them a long, long stare (or hope that that piece is phased out before you arrive). Such is the price of art, I’m afraid.

The next day was relatively uneventful. We woke late and forgot to go ice skating. I was fine with that, since I haven’t been skating for half a decade and would like to avoid unnecessary blistering on my sensitive ankles. Bloody, bandaged ankles aren’t a pretty sight no matter what city they’re in. The day concluded with a viewing and what British people in films call “spirited debate” of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. A review may be forthcoming eventually. Once that was concluded, however, we indulged ourselves once more in the delights of Chicago food, this time deep dish pizza and cookies covered in chocolate and ice cream. Please don’t use your imaginations too much; it could leave you hungrier than you ought to be.

Bookending the main event were a pair of three-hour drives to and from the city. While I’m sworn to secrecy as to the contents of the conversations had in that gold-painted van, I can say they were stimulating and a mite offensive to my introversion. Nonetheless, being packed into a van with six other people, too much luggage and a leering rabbit is bound to leave an impression, generating some wonderful conversations.

Sorry for the brevity and choppiness of this post. I’m afraid the constraints of a real school term are about to come down on me once again, and I must spend the rest of the evening reestablishing my psychic connection with Alexius. January is almost ended, and we can be happy for that. I’m already missing Chicago, but far less than I am used to, and I can be thankful for that.

Additional links of interest:

Cards Against Humanity–Please play this with your most jaded friends.

Lou Malnati’s

Editor’s Note: Escape to Chicago


Many of you reading out there might not know this, but before I found my weird psychic connection with Alexius I spent the majority of my life in the Chicago area. One of the Windy City’s many nicknames–besides “The Windy City”–is the City with the Big Shoulders. Chicago puts those shoulders to wonderful use distorting nearby Indiana’s time zone structure, but its muscularity and beauty are magnetic.

I currently live in a rural area of Southwestern Ontario when I’m not at college. While I don’t believe in a Panacea that’s going to solve all of my problems, I think my personality would be significantly improved if I lived here. Ever since moving out of the United States, I’ve missed precious little, and I never thought I would miss American cities. Nightly local news in Chicago was a sickening sideshow featuring senseless gun murders, failing public schools, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and the occasional criminal governor. Nevertheless, and I say this as someone not predisposed to romance, I caught Chicago Fever. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be terminal, a chronic illness affecting the remotest parts of my brain.

Luckily, however, I’m going to be spending the next four days there. I’ll be giving brief daily reports if possible, giving Alexius a bit of a rest. The cultural focus will still be there. I’ll have some reading materials and a probable visit to the Art Institute to write about. I’m looking forward to posting!

Justin Timberlake: Suit and Tie

Unlike (most) other Mickey Mouse pop stars, Timberlake has earned a reputation as a genuine artist. I want to post this mainly to recognize his return but also to point readers to this article on NPR. Writer Ann Powers, who certainly knows far more than this hellbound tiger about pop music, commends the track for Timberlake’s agile vocals on “Suit & Tie.”

I can see the criticism that this song is not the sort of dynamic, in-your-face comeback it could have been, but I don’t mind all that much. The beat is relatively spare and the feel of the song is more spacious than most radio fodder these days. I can’t say I’m blown away by it, but I can see myself spending a lot more time with this song in preparation for Timberlake’s new album set to release this year.

Have a wonderful weekend, earth-dwellers! It’s gonna be another cold one.

Wachowski and Tykwer: Cloud Atlas

I hate this poster, but what can a cat like me do?
I hate this poster, but what can a cat like me do?

More than two years have passed since I first read David Mitchell’s intricate nesting-doll novel Cloud Atlas. An article in the New Yorker profiling Mitchell caught my attention, especially when it summarized that particular book. While reading, I was captivated by its dizzying construction and its effective attempt to make sweeping statements about the nature of human connection through space and time via what are essentially six long vignettes. These half-dozen snapshots all had their own individual plots, characters, and settings, and were widely dispersed in time. Writing styles varied from broad comedy to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic to historical and pulpy. Yet the book maintains a sense of coherence and wholeness through a karmic cosmology where the actions of characters in previous times had consequences later. Kindness was repaid with kindness, hatred with hatred. That cosmology, with the help of a governing anti-institutional message, lent enough unity to these disparate stories to make me feel like I had still borrowed a novel from the library instead of an thematized short story collection.

The film adaptation, released in North America in October of last year, concerns itself with the same six stories. It does, however, discard some the structure of the book, which is likely for the best. The book begins with the earliest story and goes forward for the first half, with the first five stories ending halfway through. The sixth story is told straight through in the centre of the book, after which the other five are resolved in the last half in reverse chronological order, latest to earliest. To make the stories more palatable and to make the connections between the stories more explicit, the filmmakers (writers and directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer) chose to cut between them instead. While a more conventional filmic approach to multiple story threads, it helps to keep the film’s pacing consistent.

Now, to introduce the six stories in chronological order:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing–the story of a lawyer on a voyage from the Pacific Islands to his home in San Francisco. It takes place in 1850.

Letters from Zedelghem–tells the tale of a struggling bisexual music composer who offers himself as an amanuensis (apprentice composer) to an aging member of a previous musical generation. It takes near Bruges, Belgium in 1931.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery–a pulp-fiction yarn about the travails of the titular journalist and her run-in with a sinister energy company and its hired guns. This takes place in 1975 in San Francisco.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish–the most broadly comic story of the bunch, it takes place in present day. Its events concern the unwilling incarceration of a debt-ridden British publisher in a nursing home.

An Orison of Sonmi-451–Leaping into the future, this story takes place in what was once Korea and is now called Nea So Copros, a totalitarian state that operates by exploiting genetically-engineered slave workers. In particular, it focuses on the part of the titular character, Sonmi-451, who escapes her servitude and joins a resistance force.

Finally, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After–this takes place “after The Fall,” which is implied to a be a world-ending nuclear conflict. In this future, those humans that still survive live a hard, primitive existence and are visited by Prescients, who are a remnant of the technologically-advanced civilization that has collapsed.

Phew! Any project that proposed to condense and adapt this material into a watchable film has a clear and daunting challenge ahead of it. At the end of the film, my overall impression was one of admiration. The film falls far short of perfection, but its successes more than measure up to its failures.

My primary concerns for this adaptation when I first heard of it (long ago, when I was still in heaven) were mechanical and basic. How would the editor survive his own ghastly ordeal cutting and pasting this jigsaw puzzle together? How would the directors manage to maintain a sense of pacing when the stories themselves all have their own distinct rhythms? The huge tonal gulf between different stories would also pose thorny difficulties. Finally, would I be able to invest myself in the struggles of the onscreen characters so that the real stakes of each story’s outcome would be clear and meaningful?

In all of these foundational matters, the film succeeds without any fatal stumbles. Unfortunately, the Academy has failed to recognize Cloud Atlas’ editors with even an honorary award. What holds this unwieldy collage of times and places together is a set of key writing, directing, and editorial decisions without which I doubt the film would have succeeded in being more than a noble failure. First, actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving (the true standout in the cast), Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and others have all been cast in multiple roles. Visual and thematic similarities between locations and times are highlighted through match-cuts and explicit references to the karmic nature of their universe. We are able to grasp the archetypes that persist throughout the film–the noble individual, the oppressive collective, the motifs of falling, escape through windows, and the power of narrative–because the subtlety of the books has minimized.

I lament the loss of this subtlety, but I recognize that this film probably could not have worked without paying that price.

It’s often noted in reviews that large, audacious films “fall short of perfection” or are “flawed gems.” What comes through in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas resoundingly clearly is that all artistic projects are exercises in compromise, attempting to find a satisfying equillibrium between too short and too long, between too light and too serious, and between numerous other extremes. I’ve noted the compromise between subtlety and comprehension. These compromises manifest themselves most obviously, however, in how the actors perform their roles. Of our principle actors, not one–save perhaps Hugo Weaving–is able to quite pull off all of their performances seamlessly. Much of this can be attributed to cross-racial and cross-age casting. Aging someone through makeup is a delicate art, and there are some faces in this film that look more like putty cascades than human flesh. Distracting flaws do real damage to the sense of time and place in the film, and give us an uncomfortable peak into the sheer artificiality of this enterprise.

Tom Hanks has the largest chasm between best and worst performance. As the village chief of a tribe of survivors and protagonist of the Sloosha’s Crossin’ story, he is adept at portraying the inner conflict of the character even though much of that conflict is visually dramatized. As a bad-haired scientist in the Luisa Rey story, he manages well though not memorably. However, he gives a palpably embarrassing, cringeworthy, and thankfully brief performance in the 1930s story and a questionable one in Adam Ewing’s as a ship’s doctor  treating the protagonist for a worm on the brain. This range is larger than the others’, but every actor in the film has highs and lows. Weaving has the highest highs despite the white, Australian male being cast as a woman in one plot, a Korean in another, and the devil in yet another. His versatility is astonishing, and he is able to elicit a wide range of emotional reactions from laughter to spine-tingling menace. Halle Berry has few real lows but comes off as somewhat bland, and the rest of the cast varies in levels of excellence from the good Whishaw and (in one role ) Grant to the unmemorable Sarandon.

Watching the film is only very rarely disorienting or a chore, and what is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is its creation of such distinct worlds while holding its emotional resonance together at nearly all times. The tragic moments largely hit their marks, the triumphs are uplifting, and the comedy is shockingly well-timed and executed. For such a colossal undertaking that touches on these Big Ideas to transcend cold dissection and register emotionally is a great achievement.

What I would say is that this is the best Cloud Atlas adaptation I could have reasonably expected. It fails where it couldn’t help but fail and in few other places besides, and mostly succeeds where it needs to. I’m not sure how it would stand up to microscopic dissection, but since I did not experience the film that way, and I doubt that it is asking to be parsed that way, that holds little relevance for my opinion. It rides a razor’s edge between success and failure, but I was ultimately endeared to it and hope to wrestle with its implications for some time after seeing it.

Editor’s Note: Beyond Dialogue by John Cobb


Alexius’ stint in hell has been growing steadily more unpleasant, and he has been stricken with a severe fever. Severe enough, at least, to impede any further communications between the two of us since the last post. Therefore, I will step in to discuss a book whose implications I have been mulling over for a couple of months now.

That book is Beyond Dialogue by John B. Cobb, Jr., and it has a rather cumbersome subtitle that pains me to type but it reveals much more about the specific intentions of the book. That subtitle is: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism. In this fairly short book–less than 150 pages–Cobb, a Methodist theologian in the Process tradition, discusses what real inter-religious dialogue looks like. The subtitle reveals the specific religious traditions he intends to cover, as well as hinting at what lies “beyond dialogue” as the main title so temptingly proposes.

A paragraph of background never hurt anyone. John Cobb was born in Japan to missionaries and, while studying at the University of Chicago, abandoned traditional notions of God and embraced the philosophical theology known as Process theology. First developed by Alfred North Whitehead and later expanded by philosopher-theologians like Charles Hartshorne, this tradition denies the transcendent, simple, omnipotent God of classical thought and asserts instead a radically immanent, complex, limited and yet still active and real entity. Members of many religious traditions have embraced these tenets, and Cobb in his late eighties remains one of the leading figures in the field. Having grown up in Japan and lived alongside Buddhist traditions as well as having interactions with important Zen teachers, he has always had a strong interest in the potential for cross-polination between Buddhist and Christian thinking and living.

With that said, what lies “beyond dialogue?” In Cobb’s estimation, if dialogue is real, it will lead beyond it. Dialogue for its own sake is emptied of purpose, leading only to conversations that change no minds and make no real attempt to understand and live out the value of the other tradition’s contributions to the conversation.

Crucially, Cobb acknowledges the deep linguistic, philosophical, and cultural differences between the religions in question. He does not attempt to unify them under a broad umbrella of universal principles or ideas. Instead, he thinks of dialogue as looking for truth in disagreements, in being open to real change and articulating full-blooded expressions of the respective traditions. Buddhists must be willing to accept and possibly appropriate some edification from Christians and vice versa not so that they are either converted over or stand suspended in a negative space between the two, but to more truthfully and powerfully live out their own deeply held convictions. Distinctions are maintained, but, Cobb posits, a productive dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity will leave the two looking at least slightly more alike.

Though much of the book is dedicated to this theory of dialogue and a brief history of Western interpretations of Nirvana, the book earns its place of relevance, at least for me, in the subsequent chapters on what Western Christians can learn from Buddhists, what can be intelligently appropriated into our own belief and practice, and what we can give back to our dialogue partners.

In the first part, Cobb notes the affinity between Buddhist and Christian notions of clinging and balance. Both Christian and Buddhist texts affirm that the world as we see it is not ultimate. Clinging to the things of this world is futile because they are ultimately empty of permanent value. Materials possessions are nothing to be scorned as long as they do not become objects of clinging, idols in which we invest undue trust. Of course, Christianity retains a sense of attachment to God and Christ where Buddhist goes much further to decry all clinging, even to the highest ideals, as a source of suffering. Buddhists are generally dismissive of the importance of ideas about or worship of God for this reason. Using Process philosophy as a bridge, he also investigates the difficulties of navigating Buddhist ideas of sunyata (emptiness) and anatta (no substantial self).

Briefly, Buddhism denies that there is any substantial thing that one could truthfully label a “self.” Indeed, “things” in general are what are called dependently originated or existing only in virtue of their participation in other things. Everything is subject to constant processes of change, and it is these processes that define what “I” am, namely a sequence of mental and physical events intimately related both to each other and to events in the environment. As Cobb puts it, “Buddhism shows us first that in each moment there is no other reality than the subject experiencing.” Understanding this has been immensely helpful to living out a Christianity that not only pays verbal lip service to community or ecology but grows out of those ideas from the deepest level.

Cobb’s treatment of both parties in the dialogue is nuanced and suitably complex. I never had the sense that a misplaced naivety was behind this enterprise. Instead, the book approaches the problems of Christianity and Buddhism’s differences with a clear eye and an understanding that the dialogue was truly mutual. Christianity’s robust ethic of social involvement, so easily lost in the musings of contemplatives, is one example given of a virtue of Christianity that could be appropriated by Buddhists. Some Buddhist sects, like Jodo Shinshu in Japan, have doctrines of free grace remarkably similar to Christian perspectives, and could probably affirm Christ as an incarnation of Amida, whose vow is the source of their salvation. For my own part, I would argue that the most valuable part of Christian faith is its assertion of incarnation and, in my own understanding at least, the idea of the eternal Word of God acting as a distinct call to greater creativity and goodness throughout history.

I am in no intellectual position as of yet to make a final assertion of how Buddhism can inform my Christian practice, and perhaps I never will, but I find this book immensely helpful in clarifying the issues and giving me tools for reconciling the deep truths of this, what first appeared to be an alien tradition but that I have since discovered is a vital and invaluable source of wisdom. Devotion to a particular God does not preclude an understanding that one’s own understanding does not encompass the Entirety, and that it is wrong to attach yourself to your own understanding and cling to it as a refuge.

I could almost recommend the entire book just on the virtue of its last paragraph, which in part reads, “Our mission is to display the universal meaning of Christ freed from our past compulsion to contradict the truths known in other traditions…Once we allow Christ to speak apart from the impediments we have placed in the way, Christ will carry out the authentic Christian mission. Christ as Truth will transform the truths of all other traditions even as they transform ours.”

Amazon Link

Ask Dr. Cobb (Questions and Answers on Process Theology)

Buddhanet Buddhist Studies

Process Philosophy Definition from Stanford

Challenges of Discernment 2: Snoop Lion


Snoop is no longer a Dogg. He’s come over from the dark side and reached out to the light. Now, he is a lion. I can deal with that. Lions might be unconscionably social creatures, but you can’t deny either their sexual prowess or their felinity.

When artists take radical changes in direction, they are always or almost always doing so in direct response to their career and what came previously. My editor and I have had a few conversations about this influential, controversial, and often stoned music figure. We agreed that it was going to be an engaging challenge integrating the new, reggae-derived music that Snoop is delivering on Reincarnated with our previous experiences with his music. Where we diverge, however, is in our history of thinking about him and his place in culture. My editor has only recently appreciated gangsta rappers as legitimate objects of cultural interpretation–something having to do, no doubt, with his Northern European and Christian school upbringing–while I have been listening to Snoop’s dope rhymes since I became sapient. It’s a little-known fact that tigers are rather enamoured of hip-hop music. Hard to say why, but there you go.

Snoop Dogg is a talented rapper who is bounteously gifted and, shall we say, lyrically disquieting. I find his voice compelling and his flow practically flawless most of the time. His history is rather checkered and the quality of his releases is not as consistent as some, but there’s no denying his impact and visibility in the hip-hop world. His significance to that genre is the main source of all the publicity around his much-hyped transformation from badass urban rapper to peace-loving rasta mon.

He still has lyrics in one of the new singles about killing people. So much for making child-appropriate music.

On that subject, I find it helpful when criticizing songs in general and hip-hop in particular to pay attention to why songs are written, what audience they’re directed to, what their subjects and themes are, and at what time they were composed. These might seem like elemental, if not elementary, aspects of all music criticism. Yet, it’s important to remember that these rules apply across genres. We should neither hesitate to point out the misogyny and violent content in such lyrics nor condemn their presence before considering them critically. In some cases, there might be a compelling reason for insensitive or provocative lyrics to be there beyond empty gestures of offence.

I want to leave this one fairly open. I’ll just say that I can overlook problems with representation and even direct statements of murderous intent if the quality of the music is there. I might write a more in-depth review of a Snoop song later, outside this series. For now, take a look at this song and see what you think:

Now, as for the transformation itself. It might be tempting to view the Snoop Dogg/Snoop Lion transformation as a simple redemption narrative. That is indeed one perfectly valid interpretation, and it’s the one that Snoop has chosen to package and market his Reincarnation album and accompanying documentary. It’s too early to see for sure, but judging by the lyrics from “Here Comes the King” I think a case could be made that there is more continuity than not between the two personae. See what you think.

First, note that Snoop was born to sing reggae. That voice is so well-suited to Major Lazer’s distinctive production that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t worked together before. Second, notice the aforementioned persistence of militaristic themes and violent imagery. And, of course, the central, highly monarchical core of the song, proclaiming Snoop the “king.” Well, if I were a reggae insider, working my way up in the ranks to barely scrape together a viable media presence, I would question this American interloper’s self-proclaimed ascension. Nonetheless, the beats and lyrics don’t disappoint, and though I have one skeptical eye out, I’m looking forward to giving Reincarnation a spin later this year.

Little Post: The Promise of the Beach

The second entry in my Challenges of Discernment Series awaits publication next Wednesday. In the meantime, I have been thinking about the beach.

Approximation of the beaches near me at this moment.
Approximation of the beaches near me at this moment.

Not even a week after the New Year began, and my mind is fixated on the beach. Perhaps it was a visit to the local beach with a few of the Hungry Ghosts, who were wading out far into the lake to search for minnows. When I asked them whether they had ever found them, they said that of course they hadn’t. Millions of years of ghosts passing through this realm had left the seas devoid of most life. Algae and seaweed, dank curtains of slimy green velvet that bloomed near shore in the summer. Now it was winter, and in the winter, especially in the few moments where the gusts of wind quieten, there is a sublime feeling of cold. The lake is not inviting but steely and alienating. This led me to consider a few songs in my music collection that related to the beach, often in a surprisingly political fashion.

The song above is called “Sleep: Murry Ostril [They Don’t Sleep Anymore On The Beach]” by controversialist “post-rock” band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE). It was to this song that the dreariness of the local beach directed me first. The more I think about it the better I understand the reason why winter is a season for nostalgic and sentimental holidays. Christmas is thoroughly child-centred and saturated with family memories and melancholia. New Year’s Eve is both celebratory and funereal, a time for trying to put the previous year in neat compartments, to assess what it meant and why it was worth living in spite of all the evil in the world. At the same time, people are trying to bring order to the coming year through ritual television viewings and New Year’s resolutions–the latter in particular is a practice that confounds my feline mind to no end. In February, Valentine’s Day is a season of chocolate-coated affection so sweet that there is a contingent of Valentine Scrooges whose size belies the minor nature of this holiday.

In the same vein, I immediately thought of the opening monologue from this track. The narrator laments the changed nature of the world, a loss of innocence and apparent security. People used to sleep on the beach, he tell us. They certainly don’t do that anymore. GY!BE is fascinated, no, obsessed with decay. The sickness of the winter beach is mirrored by this track, both in the opening spoken-word section and the aching instrumental progression of the rest of it. Take it as a cure for residual Christmas cheer if you must, but stick through it the whole way. It’s well worth it.

The second track I thought of is “White Flag” by Gorillaz. Two of my favourite British grime MCs, Bashy and Kano, contribute probably the best song from the band’s Plastic Beach LP. Opening with orchestral Arabic music, the track becomes a raucous back-and-forth between the two rappers, laying down in no uncertain terms the manifesto of their paradise island. No war, no guns, no Corps, just life, just love, no hype, just fun, no ties. It’s a hedonistic Eden. Here the beach represents infinite promise rather than decay. It was certainly therapeutic after the disaffection of Murry Ostril. It reminded me of the summer beach–peace and love.

Finally, I will spare a few words for the most minor and yet the most bouncy of the three tracks. Vampire Weekend is a band to which I have an ambivalent reaction, but that does not extend to this track. “Holiday” is a song that, like most of their works, works in opaque references and irony more than straightforward lyricism. Beneath the surfy happiness of the music, there are some unsettling tones in the “republic on the beach.” Invasions, bombs, war, and other party-spoiling drama undercut the carefree nature of the beach imagery. Nicely done to this tiger’s ears.

Challenges of Discernment: Django Unchained

Snow falls infrequently in the land of Hungry Ghosts. Every day I wake up from fitful bouts of dreaming to see slate curtains of grey clouds roll by without a single ounce of rain or snow falling. It’s more likely that a dust storm will brew out on the horizon, though our little town has been spared a rather nasty bath so far. Ever wary, I have chosen to stay inside, welcoming in only the occasional visitors from the outside, including Charlie. It seems that some of Charlie’s family members have started offering pirated movies to the dead, the first offerings he’s received from what he estimates to be thirty-four generations of offspring. One film we were able to see legitimately, however, was Django Unchained, the first Quentin Tarantino film to get a release so wide that hell itself got a sprinkling of screenings at local theatres. Most of the ghosts in our town are relative newcomers and unable to move very quickly, so Charlie and I found ourselves sitting more or less alone smack in the middle of the theatre. There might have been a couple making out in the back, but the less I know of that, the better.

Coming out of the theatre around two hours and forty-five minutes later, Charlie looked at me and asked me: “So, what benefits did you get out of watching the film?” Normally, when someone asks that question, it has to do with a film that they find morally questionable and they’re asking to make sure that you learned enough to pay penance for indulging in such sinful activity.

I don’t think Charlie meant it this way, since the ghosts of hell are by nature hesitant to be too judgmental of others, but it brought to mind the early years of my culture-stalking the years when I still approached violent or sexually explicit films with trepidation. I remember getting that question from well-intentioned relatives and other close acquaintances who were the type to walk out of a film if they heard snapping tendons or saw a stray nipple on screen–and it’s strange to equate those two, if I do say so.

Nonetheless, the question found a nick in my armor, and I’ve been struggling over it for many years now. Not actively struggling, since the answer for me has never been in much doubt. What claws, what gnaws at me in the back of my mind is how to explain and interpret my responses into language that will be intelligible and sensitive to those who ask. First, I’ll give my answer in general terms and then in relationship to Django Unchained, the film that prompted the question in the first place.

General Answer:

To me, the question “what benefit did you get from watching (experiencing) this piece of art,” can, and in this post will, mean that the inquirer is concerned that you are polluting your poor sensory organs with unclean subject matter or something that ought not to be seen. To me, the question sounds like a transaction–OK, you got to have your fun but what edification or moral reinforcement did you get in exchange? Any response to the question I would give has to begin with a refutation of that viewpoint. Going to a film is not normally an educational exercise first and foremost. It is something done for enjoyment.

I see a film, Django included, for the enjoyment of seeing an artist working playfully and intelligently with the materials of his or her medium, not necessarily to receive good moral teaching. Did I learn positive morals from watching Dogtooth or listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? At this stage in the conversation, I would answer “No.” On the first listen or watch, and maybe on subsequent ones, the morality of a work of art is not what draws me but its mastery of material and its ability to provoke and evoke.

Of course, there are lessons in Dogtooth about the abuse of parental power, the absurdities inherent in traditional family structures, and the fragility of social norms. The same general principle applies to the Kanye album. I would wager that every work of art, no matter how destitute of intelligence or morally repugnant, can teach something to its audience. Again, however, I would emphasize that that is not the main reason I am looking at a piece of art. The power of a piece of art is generally how it skillfully wrestles with questions and limitations, how its various emphases and themes are brought out through manipulation of the relationship between the audience and a given object. Morality is not generally something that floats on the surface of a work of art, to be easily clutched and comprehended without serious thought. And when it is, I’d often rather be in another theatre, another gallery.

Django Unchained:

What did I say to Charlie on the vacant sidewalks? What benefits did I get from watching Django Unchained? I started out by giving an abbreviated version of the answer above. I then briefly reviewed my early thoughts about the film. Here they are.

Quentin Tarantino is, as Richard Brody wrote, a puzzle:

Tarantino is possessed by two emotions—love and revenge—and the over-all subject of the movie is essentially a counterfactual historical warning: that the South got off easily with the Civil War when, in a proper balance of justice, it would have faced the avenging violence of freed slaves whose exaction would have far exceeded military conquest and brought about total destruction and left few alive. His vision of slavery’s monstrosity is historically accurate; his anger, aptly placed—yet the world that he imagines and admires, one without reconciliation, is essentially and crudely adolescent, a version of history as blood feuds in which anger begets anger and revenge breeds revenge as he watches from the superior position of the cinematic referee, at a safe historical distance.

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Brody captures the conjoined virtues and vices of Tarantino. Those who win in his films always deserve to win. They are the wronged, the aggrieved, and, in his two most recent films, the systematically exploited and degraded. When watching the film, I took pleasure in the deaths of those who deserved it and quailed at the injustices committed against those I was meant to admire. Cinematically, mechanically, the film is expertly scripted and executed, scored and filmed. Moment by moment I was enraptured in the rhythms of Tarantino’s scenes. Slow, verbose build-ups culminate in purgative explosions of violence.

The actors let the script’s dialogue do most of the work, delivering their lines with relish and characteristic panache. I was especially impressed by Jamie Foxx, whose work has not always brightened a film as it does here. His character is the axis around which the film revolves. For him, as Brody later writes, this is personal. Vengeance is his, and no one else’s. Tarantino manages to work in some conversations about “characters” and “roles” as Django assumes various false personae to infiltrate Southern plantations. Foxx embodies this character well, playing a quieter, more serious companion to Christoph Waltz, whose German dentist-turned righteous bounty hunter King Schultz has more than enough eloquence to talk them out of a multitude of scrapes. Other cast members also work well within their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio has no trouble projecting cavalier and sophisticated menace as Calvin Candie, owner of the fourth-largest plantation in Mississippi, though I thought his performance was relatively weak compared to Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as his aging head slave. It’s striking to see Jackson in a role that is so apparently static but actually a dynamic and smart counterpoint to Django. Loyal and cunning, he plays a key role in the second half of the film and ends up being the most memorable supporting character/performance of the lot.

While I struggle with the implications of Tarantino’s take-no-prisoners view of historic justice and find many of the more violent moments exploitative, I have to ask myself why he is bringing these to the table in the first place. Brody connects this obsession with purgative revenge to Tarantino’s obsession with B-movies and other popular culture ephemera. I think I can empathize with his films more than I can agree with his worldview as presented here. Escapist fantasies are always simplifications, usually problematic ones. I think Tarantino’s treatment of slavery here in the context of an often witty and dramatically taut film deals with the right problems. Slavery was a horrific, barbaric evil inflicted by those in power on millions of people for far too long (and it hasn’t disappeared either). When I search myself, I find the same desire for dramatic devastation, the annihilation of all the violence and exploitation in hellfire. For almost three hours of Django Unchained I was a paying cheerleader for retributive just desserts, dealt at the point of a gun (and by dynamite, lest I forget). Nevertheless, I find the craft so compelling, and the fantasy complicated enough–yes, cartoonish and hedonistic but no, not sanitized–to enjoy Django relatively guilt-free.

By the way. Could someone please keep Tarantino from appearing as an actor in his own films. His appearance here has a hilarious kinetic punchline I won’t spoil, but his lumbering awkwardness is enough to stop his own fluid filmmaking dead in its tracks. Someone work on that.