Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Look At These Thugs

Walking around with them gats, thinking they all hard and shit...

"Straight up dude this bitch is all sad and crying like awwww they killed my baby but she obviously didn't care enough to raise him right..." ~ a concerned citizen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Woman Without a Country

Olivia Manning, in recounting her childhood split between England and Ireland, described it as having left her with "the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere." This sentiment animates the short fiction of another Anglo-Irish author, Elizabeth Bowen, who frequently presents characters unmoored from any sense of social identity at a tumultuous period of European history. In contrast to Modernism's liberating rejection of national identity, this state inspires angst and loathing in Bowen's characters.

Several of Bowen's characters exemplify this dislocation, in particular Justin of her short story "Summer Night." Though a man in his early forties, he has no close connections save for his deaf sister and the equally unmoored Robinson, whom he inflates in his own imagination. Justin moves listlessly between different cities in England and Ireland, and even different nations on the Continent, without ever setting down roots or moving outside his own closed, celibate, solitary way of life.

However Justin yearns for human connection, as demonstrated in his relationship with Robinson. He inflates the other man, declaring him a genius, thus concentrating the whole of social life from which he finds himself bereft in this single figure. Robinson, eager to be done with Justin so as to entertain his soon to arrive mistress, rebuffs such exultation and drives Justin deeper into himself. Both characters, in attempting to connect, merely find themselves turning further inward.

Even Emma, Robinson’s mistress, cannot shake escape this atomization. Indeed, she experiences it more as Robinson at least has genuine, if fickle, friends to occupy his time while she has a hollow family life and no joy except the limited freedom of her automobile. A rarity and sign of upper class wealth at the time, Bowen further uses Emma’s automobile to show her utter disconnect from surrounding society, stopping at a public house to use the telephone and have a drink but interacting with others no more than is necessary for this rudimentary market exchange. Other people are as phantoms in Emma’s life, as are the places they inhabit which she speeds through seeking some form of human connection in the shallow Robinson.

In “A Love Story,” Bowen presents similar characters but rather than yearning for connection, they actively drive each other away. Frank and Linda’s interactions ring hollow and sterile, Teresa and her mother all but despise each other, and their interactions together display a reluctance to engage with other human beings. Even Clifford and Frank all but say to each other that they do not care for one another and are both quite happy when they are done talking. This resistance to socialization reveals the deep psychic scaring of being a national orphan, of having never developed the skills for interacting with others and establishing a sense of belonging.

Bowen further generates a sense of dislocation through the structure of her narratives. Both "A Love Story" and "Summer Night" follow several separate characters whose individual plots do not come together until the very end, emphasizing their separation between each other. The reader is instead presented with these unmoored individuals, worrying over their own private dramas such as Justin with his awkward infatuation with Robinson. By switching between a third-person singular style for each of her characters, Bowen permits the reader only brief and limited glimpses on her broader narrative.

This dislocation of both characters and narrative reflects the Anglo-Irish experience following the Irish Revolution and into the outbreak of World War II. With British rule thrown off and a new society defined by both Irish tradition and the Catholic Church, the Protestant Anglo-Irish found themselves suddenly citizens of no nation, being too Irish for England and too associated with the old regime for Ireland. Though Modernism with its critiques of the nation-state pursued such a disconnect, Bowen and other Anglo-Irish had such an existence forced upon them and, despite the intellectual orthodoxies of the time, World War II demonstrated national identity remained very much relevant. Without such an identity, the Anglo-Irish found themselves not just disconnected from their nominal homelands but undefended against the territorial and martial ambitions of other nations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In the Land of Ice and Snow

Since Marvel will be crowding the multiplex with spandex-clad fascists for the foreseeable future, there's no better time to go exploring the fringes of NetFlix. Which I did, and I discovered a great little Norwegian gem.

Escape, or Flukt in its native tongue, is a brilliantly harsh film. Its premise is as simple as its title - girl sees her family murdered, tries to get away from bandits - but like a good found footage horror film, execution is everything. This is a naturalistic tale of survival, without sentiment or neat moral lessons. While the heroine, young Signe, is our entrance into this world she is more part of it than the soft and comfortable place we the audience inhabit. Signe is sympathetic but she never conforms to modern norms of right or wrong because to do so would be suicide.

We're introduced to Signe, her parents, and her little brother as they're traveling between villages. This is a textbook case of efficient exposition as just a few words and glances establishes the emotional bond of this little family before all hell breaks loose. Seems these tiny migrations were common at the time - early 14th century, which in Norway looks to have still been the Dark Ages - and massacres by bandits were just as normal. And so it goes with first Signe's mother, unceremoniously dispatched by an arrow. Her father soon follows, after a courageous if sloppy last stand against superior numbers and weapons. Bandit leader Dagmar - the brilliantly cold Ingrid Bolsø Berdal - dispatches Signe's little brother with an efficient crossbow bolt. That's the theme of the entire openeing, the cold efficiency of the bandits after the warm and homey establishing shots of Signe's family. And it quickly pulls the audience into the Norwegian McTeague that is the rest of the film.

There's the immediate tension surrounding Signe of course. Will they kill her? Sell her into slavery? Rape her? One particularly nasty bandit keeps trying that third option, only to be shouted down by Dagmar and even the men. At a time when feminist critique of the arts is seeing a resurgence this is a particularly poignant film - Dagmar, a woman in the Middle Ages, leads this motley band of cutthroats and is clearly feared by them. Signe, though at first a helpless damsel, frees herself and strikes back at her captors with only the help of another little girl, whom Dagmar has adopted.

That little girl, Frigg, provides some much needed humanization for the bandits. Coming across a bearded hermit who delivers backstories, as bearded hermits are wont to do, Signe learns Dagmar was once a perfectly respectable wife and mother until the day witch-hunters drowned her daughter and smashed the fetus out of her. While it could be maudlin, this flashback serves to explain Dagmar's motives, at least concerning her manic desire to reclaim Frigg, but also shows how even in this brutal world people are not brutal out of some innate evil but simple, mindless circumstance. More importantly, he teaches Signe how to wield a spear.

And that's the extent of the hermit's contribution to Signe's survival. I want to take this character and rub her Suzanne Collins's stupid face and go "Looook! This is how you do a sympathetic female protagonist ion a survivalist story!" But as I'll likely never get the chance, I'm doing it to you right now. Signe's character arch is both well-handled and immensely cathartic, as she evolves from a terrified girl into a hardened survivor just as capable and ruthless as Dagmar.

The setting deserves special mention. While the film tells us this is all going on in the early 14th century, the landscape is still modern Norway and yet still just as feral and alien as the unfolding story. Tall mountains, deep rivers, and cold forests all emphasize the finite mortality of the characters, even the brutal Dagmar. It's a world of cold beauty where death is an immediate reality and survival hinges solely on determination.

And it bears repeating - the principle protagonist and antagonist are women. Neither is a caricature or treads in stereotypes. You could easily make them both men and it wouldn't change the plot one bit - even the almost rapist, as it's not like that doesn't happen to boys. And this is from 2012! The Scandinavians are busy making progressive historical thrillers while Hollywood is pulling its hair out over making a fucking Wonder Woman movie!

Rot the multiplex. Stick to streaming.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Land of the Dead and Dying

Throughout Dubliners, and particularly in the concluding story "The Dead," James Joyce explores an ideology of paralysis unique to Irish life at the time of writing. Joyce saw an inertia in the culture and politics of Ireland, owing to both failed attempts in the past to throw off English rule and to rigid social and religious norms, leading to stagnation. Through this story, Joyce presents the debilitating effect of such an ideology on the whole of the Irish people.

Centered on a holiday party on a cold January night, Joyce presents to the reader a number of characters who reflect this stagnation. The hostesses, the Morkan sisters, have held the same party every year, singing the same songs for the same people. Those people being Freddy Malins, chained to his ancient and decaying mother, the irreverent Mr. Browne whose jokes, though witty within their closed world, never rise beyond the boundaries of middle class niceties, the rare new addition Mr. D'Arcy the famous tenor who refuses to sing until the very end of the evening, the nationalistic but largely harmless Molly Ivors, and the muddling academic Gabriel Conroy with his wife Gretta.

Of all the characters, Gabriel best demonstrates the debilitating effects of this ideology of paralysis. A college lecturer, his biography similar to that f Joyce in that he also took a degree in modern languages, at the time thought a woman's discipline, he perpetually finds himself stymied by others despite the desire to assert himself and his control. It starts with a fumbled joke directed at the Morkan housekeeper Lily at the beginning of the evening, which Gabriel attempts to brush off with the conspicuous magnanimity of a hefty tip. However, it fails to endear Lily to him or convince her of his mastery, as she later displays an impertinence towards him in front of his wife, who laughs it all off.

Worse still is Gabriel's encounter with Molly Ivors. She chastises him for his ignorance of the Irish language, his penning of articles for an English periodical, and for never seeing the rest of the country. She sneeringly dubs him a "West Briton," a moniker she relishes rubbing his nose in even during a dance. Shaken, Gabriel cannot even respond but rather broods over the injustice of Molly breaking the social niceties of the party. He only feels his manhood redeemed later when he takes up his traditional role of carving the meat for dinner. In performing an old and familiar role, he finds both his confidence and sense of place in the world.

However, no one else has a more debilitating effect on Gabriel than his own wife Gretta. Feeling invigorated by performing his masculine duty with dinner, Gabriel wishes to make love to her though he lacks the strength of will to forcefully take her as he truly wishes. Instead, he affects a nonchalance and superiority, all while yearning for Gretta to open herself to him. In the process, he elicits a confession from Gretta of a youthful fling with another. This boy, Michael Furey, once sand the same song as Mr. D'Arcy, "The Lass of Aughrim," to Gretta and hearing it again reminded her of the affair.

The confession is a trifle to Gretta but absolutely debilitating to Gabriel. The thought of his wife having a life and emotions independent of him only heightens his own sense of littleness, already foremost in his mind following his bumbling with both Lily and Molly Ivors. Gabriel wanted to seize his wife in the street, to boldly show his love and possession of her, but could not move beyond the strict proprieties of Irish social life even when in private.

In this, Gabriel proves to be the apotheosis of Joyce's critique of Irish life and culture at the time of Dubliners. An educated, intelligent man but held in place by his own inability to act and his fixation on things past. Instead, he finds his only sense of self in old and worn out roles – carving the meat for dinner or patronizing the help with a generous gratuity. Though educated and styling himself a clever man of letters, Gabriel can conceive of no place for himself but the traditional roles for which he proves ill-suited, causing himself only grief. And though dead and gone, like Parnell, Michael Furey exerts an influence over Gabriel Conroy, sapping his will with his own wife and leaving him to agonize over his own mortality, rushing ever onwards to the grave while standing still