Sunday, 11 March 2018

Crime, Politics and Spectacle: Netflix's Babylon Berlin

The following review that which originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because crossing boundaries in every sphere - political,social and cultural most obviously in the criminal domain - is abundantly evident in this gorgeous and disturbing Netflix production.

 "The rise of the Nazis, and the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust, have been widely depicted in film and TV. Rarely seen is the period just before, when democracy – in the form of the idealistic, if flawed, Weimar Republic – was still fresh in Germany and the country was in the midst of a cultural, political and social revolution."
                                           – Tom Twyker, a director of Babylon Berlin.
Babylon Berlin (on Netflix) is an exhilarating, gritty sixteen-part series that is a mash-up of genres. On the most basic level, it is a propulsive police procedural and political thriller that has been adapted from the crime novel of the same name by Volker Kutscher (Picador, translated in 2016), the first in a series planned by the author culminating with the 1938 Kristallnacht. More importantly, the drama – reportedly the most expensive German television production involving three directors in every episode – is a vivid evocation of 1929 Berlin accented with film noir a few months before the crash of the American stock market. Ten years after the end of the Great War veterans still carry its scars; the war's consequences accelerate extremist politics from the left and the right threatening the rule of law and destabilizing the fragility of the Weimar Republic; pockets of poverty in the city remain with its attendant political and social ramifications, particularly for vulnerable women; and the attempt to blot out a humiliating defeat and for most Germans a shameful peace treaty explain in part its frenetic cultural, social and sexual life. Very little of the political, social and cultural tapestry of Berlin portrayed in the series is based on the novel. The series other strength is its focus on character development that enables the actors to grow into their roles and deliver strong performances.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Power Over Truth: Michael Wolff and David Frum on Trump's First Year

This review, originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because any discussion of Donald Trump will involve extensive crossing the line that according to David Frum is a threat to American democracy.

Photo by Drew Angerer.

"Again, I just wrote what I thought and what I heard. That's one thing about the book: There really aren't any politics in the book. I have no side here. I'm just interested in how people relate to one another, their ability to do their jobs and a much less abstract picture of this world than whatever the political thesis may or may not be." – Michael Wolff, Hollywood Reporter
Even before the publication of Michael Wolff's mega bestseller, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt and Company, 2018), media outlets, among them The Guardian and New York offered their own searing scoops: Trump's former strategist, Steve Bannon, claimed that the June 2016 meeting between Trump's son and Russian officials was "treasonous" and "unpatriotic"; Trump expected that he would not win the election nor did he covet it. Instead, he anticipated that he would become the most famous man in the world, a martyr to "Crooked Hillary," and that his daughter, Ivanka, harboured presidential ambitions.

Wolff, an award-winning journalist writing in such prestigious publications as New York and Vanity Fair, and the author of a biography about the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has garnered a reputation in the journalistic world that is not "bullet proof" according to Kyle Swenson of the Washington Post. Drawing upon a large array of critics who skewer Wolff as a purveyor of celebrity gossip and for being less than scrupulous with the truth – one questions his journalistic ethics for "pushing the facts as far as they'll go and sometimes farther than they can tolerate" Swenson leaves us with the impression that Wolff should be read cautiously.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Yes They Can: Naomi Alderman's The Power

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because the novel explores whether or not women, now endowed with special powers, do sometimes cross a line.

The 2017 publication of Women & Power: A Manifesto by the eminent classical scholar, Mary Beard offers a witty and caustic literary and historical overview of how women have been ridiculed, demeaned and silenced. She begins with the moment that Telemachus in The Odyssey told his mother Penelope to "shut up," go to her room and resume her own work leaving public speech to men. Eventually, Beard spotlights the moment over two millennium later when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced for quoting from a letter by Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King), while others, like Bernie Sanders, were not. Beard is a particularly apt scholar to pen this manifesto considering the inflammatory vitriol that has been hurled at her for her publicly speaking about controversial issues. Beard's manifesto could be read in conjunction with Naomi Alderman's speculative-fiction novel, The Power (Little, Brown and Company, 2017) since she speculates what would happen if men were removed from their perches of power, demeaned, violated and silenced?

The Power is couched as "A historical novel" written by Neil Adam Armon. It is framed by an exchange of letters thousands of years into the future between Neil, who pleads for patronage from an address at "The Men Writers Association" and a woman called Naomi. He explains to her that he has written a novelized history after his academic studies have been ignored. Naomi’s responses, especially in the backend, are flecked with ridicule, charged with sexual innuendos, and downright condescending. Even before we read the novel within the novel, this literary conceit signals that we are entering into a vastly changed reality: the traditional schematics of sex and power are reversed with women exercising the real power while men are the disrespected other.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

We Migrants: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large is reproduced here because the novel assessed is about crossing boundaries from a war zone to the West but without the moral connotations that this site  usually focuses upon.

Author Mohsin Hamid. (Photo: Ed Kashi)

Mohsin Hamid's most recent and timely novel Exit West (Riverdale Books, 2017) is set in a nameless, besieged country likely in the Middle East where Saeed and Nadia, the book’s protagonists ( and the only two characters named), meet in an evening class and embark on a courtship. Initially, they reside in "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." That is soon to change as their tentative, gentle relationship contrasts with their country teetering on the lip of a precipice as it disintegrates into war.

In the first half of this remarkable novel, Hamid charts their growing relationship amid the backdrop of a city spiralling out of control, requiring the young lovers to leave. Although the graphic details he provides feel authentic, Exit West is not a "realistic" novel à la Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. There is an abstract quality about the vagueness of its setting, its characters, and its narrative that Hamid renders in exquisite prose with occasionally longish, orotund sentences. He is primarily focused on highlighting the universality of societies at war with themselves and how civilians respond to the chaos closing in on them.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Delectable Samples: A 2017 Arts Roundup

This review, originally appeared in Critics at Large, and is reproduced on this site because although some of the following material is not about crossing a line, some of it is.

Robert Lepage in 887.

Since I rarely write about the arts, I welcome the opportunity to briefly comment upon what I enjoyed most this year, even though several of the pieces below have been reviewed by colleagues at Critics At Large. Apart from, perhaps, television, my sampling from the arts scene is relatively small yet I did experience some wonderful aesthetic moments. – Bob Douglas

Two theatre productions I attended this year were outstanding. Auteur Robert Lepage’s one-man bravura performance in 887 unspools the interplay between the fragmented recollections of his family life and the perils of collective Quebec memory from the 1960s to the present. 887 was the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Quebec City where Lepage spent his formative years. The staging is jaw-dropping: a revolving set showing the interior of his current apartment and the exterior of his childhood home that reveals a doll’s-house replica of that apartment complex, toy cars, puppets and hand shadows. The catalyst for these reveries occurred in 2010 when the organizers of a cultural anniversary invited Lepage to recite by heart a 1968 poem, “Speak White.” He found that he could not learn the lines until he had explored his family history, particularly his relationship with his absent father, and how the personal dynamics intersected with the larger world of nationalist politics. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

The following television review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because some of the material  does explore the consequences of crossing the line both in historical and aesthetic terms.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that covers the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Changing the Anti-democratic Dial: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

This review, originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because the On Tyranny offers helpful thoughts on how citizens can avoid crossing the line into darkness and becoming complicious with a president that has no clue that there is a line.

Historian Timothy Snyder speaking in 2016.

"Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so."

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
 Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny.

Recently, I was fortunate to hear in Toronto a stimulating talk by distinguished Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, author of acclaimed monographs Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and StalinBlack Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and his latest, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017). His talk was followed by a Q&A with CBC correspondent, Susan Ormiston. It turned out that his presentation was more an expansion of the epilogue in On Tyranny that explores two paradigms leading to worldviews that founder on an insufficient knowledge of history, while the interview with Ormiston directly related to the lessons Snyder posits in that slim (a mere 126 pages) but substantive volume.