Monday, June 12, 2017

Underrated "King Arthur" Defends Authoritarian Meritocracy

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the sort of wholly unremarkable film that I wouldn’t feel behooved at all to review if mainstream critics hadn’t designated it for lower repute than several Amy Schumer movies. Maybe the lot of them were simply reacting out of visceral fury, having been spoiled prematurely by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and improperly readied for their first taste of what’s sure to be a nauseating summer. Maybe they just don’t like fantasy that has no overt political overtones or purpose other than to pass people’s time for two hours.

The key to enjoying King Arthur is to enter it with no preconceived expectations of receiving a traditional Arthurian yarn, about chivalry or honor or humility or respecting women. It’s been a good seven years since I’ve delved into a book of Arthurian legend, the last of which probably being Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the movie’s background, but I can say that Guy Ritchie’s Arthur fits both visually and structurally into the well-worn superhero origin story template. The movie traces the ascension to greatness of an unappreciated, invisible orphan of humble origins (raised in a brothel) who discovers some power vested in him alone (Excalibur) as a chosen one (rightful heir of Uther Pendragon), rejects said ability initially because he’s timid and lacks the will to power, rises to the occasion when his girl is taken captive, and vanquishes an evil overlord (Vortigen, his uncle) who has a personal connection unbeknownst to him. The hero also quips a lot and bears himself into every situation with a certain affected swagger.

In other words, Legend of the Sword is a movie you’ve probably seen dozens of times before in different drapes, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold its unoriginality against it. Yasujiro Ozu recycled the same actors, shot setups, and generational conflicts over and over again throughout his robust filmography, but he’s still counted amongst the greatest filmmakers, so familiarity isn’t damnable in and of itself. What hampers Ritchie’s Arthur from attaining anything more than mediocrity is its scattershot pacing and stylistic dissonance, arising mostly from the need to be a commercially viable, PG-13 movie.

The movie’s hook immediately accorded me many reasons to second-guess how I was spending my Saturday evening. King Arthur fades in to a wide shot of a flaming Sauron eyeball tower, then fades to black right after that with no exposition or characters introduced. I don’t recall if there’s a text card after that, but the next thing that we hear is the bellow of a giant Oliphant, and it quickly becomes apparent how little computer graphics have advanced since Return of the King. An incoherent battle on a bridge ensues, then segues into some lazy, wannabe timely world-building that emphasizes a rift between prejudiced normals in Camelot and downtrodden others, the mages, a beautiful and peaceful people who have been deported back to Africa on account of the unrepresentative extremist Mordred. Certain Arthur purists may raise their noses at the gigantic war elephants in the opening sequence, but within Warner Brothers’ socially conscious revitalizing, they actually make a potent metaphor for homegrown terrorists traveling vast distances from their natural habitat to wreak righteous havoc on the West.

Not that that has anything to do with the rest of King Arthur, which is one of many foibles with the opening besides pretentious slow-motion, lack of context, some truly terrible font, and the pointless casting of Eric Bana. Maybe future entries in the now-doomed franchise would have focused more on Us. Vs. Them sermonizing, but this is more of a personal vengeance tale. Having brushed all this obligatory trailer footage out of the way, Ritchie finally gets to his hero and the film starts to develop into something halfway interesting.

The movie blazes through Arthur’s hardening childhood in a montage full of slam zooms and precisely timed cuts that serves the threefold purpose of waking up audiences, mirroring Arthur’s dexterity in thieving, and showing off Ritchie’s skill at packing much longer scenes into a concise and entertaining form. A lot of early apologists for King Arthur have erroneously complimented its dialogue for being “witty”, but it’s really not. For one thing, none of the vocabulary rises above a 5th-grade reading level, and I may have inwardly groaned when Jude Law shouted at his minion, “Do your f___ing job!” The dialogue is, however, briskly edited, and Richie uses tons of L-cuts to hasten along scenes where not much is happening. The cross-cutting doesn’t always work, mainly in the ending, which mindlessly interweaves two scenes happening in the same room under the same lighting with the same set of actors. On the whole, though, King Arthur poses a workable solution to the exposition problem that’s endemic to a lot of its contemporaries. Some have labeled Richie’s twitchy directing style as formulaic or annoying, but I’d rather watch someone try to entertain me than someone bite the bullet and willingly put out an exposition dump that’s proven antithetical to cinema time and time again.

Special credit must also be given to Daniel Pemberton, who has composed yet another unique and energetic score after gracing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a more satisfying movie overall). From what I’ve gathered, mainstream critics don’t pay nearly enough lip service to the role that music plays in motion pictures, which contributes to a cyclical pattern of mainstream action entertainment coasting by on extremely bland and homogeneous soundtracks. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I otherwise enjoyed, blatantly riffs on a Fury Road theme in the first five minutes, and Fury Road itself wasn’t that original in the music department. So whenever someone like Pemberton breaks through the mold of sameness and mediocrity, I feel both overjoyed and irritated, knowing the accomplishment will mostly go overlooked. If King Arthur’s score invites comparison with anything, it might be with Inception, but this is still a singularly medieval piece of work that tinkers with metallic clinking noises, elephantine rumbles, and even human hyperventilating.

In spite of its unimaginative title, most of King Arthur revolves around a meek and immature outcast who hasn’t yet grown into his social vocation. The crux of Arthur’s development is his struggle to endure a particularly scarring vision of his father’s demise, which is filtered to him through physical contact with Excalibur. The movie wisely doesn’t peddle any hackneyed message that the leader of a nation can come from anywhere; in fact, it kind of says the opposite, making the strongest case for merit-based monarchy since The Lion King.

In this Arthurian world, one is born to power and has a duty to accept that charge. The nameless enchantress who can enlarge and speak to animals (and doesn’t do much else) succinctly spells out the movie’s theme when scolding the squeamish and whiny king for averting his eyes from the past. “I look away. We all look away. But that is the difference between a man and a king.” Color me surprised that so many critics despised this in the current day and age, when many people seem eager to look away from the uglier aspects of history, when politicians recoil from “crude and disgusting Youtube videos”, or the public from live-streamed violence, when the president himself refuses to release a “graphic” picture of a deceased terrorist who murdered thousands of innocent people, or even to call him an Islamic terrorist.

If only Warner Bros. had the kingly mettle not to look away any time someone in the film dies by the sword, which happens a lot. This is a film in which multiple throats are slit off-camera, in which the main antagonist stabs and sacrifices his wives to a hideous tentacle monster for a momentary rush of power, and Ritchie paints this ruthlessness in the most blunted and bloodless of strokes. Despite the epidemic of poorly-reasoned, leftist articles complaining about unrestricted movies having “more gun violence” than restricted movies, the PG-13 label has truly been regressing into kids’ territory ever since Marvel movies became the standard-bearer for the category, to the point that studios no longer dare to depict violence either accurately or impressionistically. I don’t need every movie revolving around war or swordplay to resemble Hacksaw Ridge or 300, but when the company behind Suicide Squad and the Hobbit trilogy repeatedly waters its films down with the aim of maximizing profits, it has the cumulative effect of limiting what future art can show under that rating. This video handily traces the rating’s decline by the example of Gremlins, Titanic, and a bunch of 80’s remakes, but I’d also point to The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, both of which secured a PG-13 while showing decapitated heads being lobbed over a wall and adventurers being devoured by giant leeches.

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Arthur fights a misty, nondescript, CG boss and is lectured against turning a blind eye to suffering, and yet the movie does just that, over and over again. There’s a smorgasbord of issues I haven’t even touched on: forced racial diversity in a place where it doesn’t make sense, an unfulfilled romantic subplot, discreetly photographed mermaids, a 15-minute portion in the middle that does basically nothing, and just how terrible some of the action is. I’d tell Warner to get their act together for the sequel, but that probably won’t be necessary after all, since this has currently made back around $134 million of its $175M budget before advertising.

In other news, the CG remake of Beauty and the Beast has become the 8th highest-grossing film of all time in the States (not adjusted for inflation), just ahead of Finding Dory and just behind Rogue One. Thanks, America!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hail to the Thief – The Pro-Trump, Alt-Right Protest Album We Needed, But Didn't Deserve

When it first came out back in 2003, Hail to the Thief was declared Radiohead’s most aggressive album to date and summarily pigeonholed as an invective of the Bush administration. One could easily be forgiven for thinking that that’s all it was, just going off of statements from Thom Yorke like:
* This society is still run by a bunch of misguided priests who are willing to sacrifice the people on a high altar in order to maintain the economic status quo. – 2015
* The west is creating an extremely dangerous economic, environmental and humanitarian timebomb. – 2003
* I can’t say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron. I can’t believe he’d like The King of Limbs much. – 2013

Hail has since been dismissed by music fan consensus as one of the band’s weakest, most dated works, but this speaks more to their listener’s political ignorance than to the record’s actual content, which is the most prescient poetry they’ve written in light of Donald Trump’s upset victory over the Democrat establishment and over his own, slightly less liberal party.  In spite of its less forward-looking sound, Radiohead’s sixth album speaks more directly to the contemporary grievances of the alt-right and Middle America than do any of their more hallowed, experimental albums, something that’s been entirely overlooked by staunchly leftist music critics. It’s certainly true that Hail to the Thief came out during a time when writing anti-Bush opuses was the fashionable thing for artists who wanted to be taken more seriously (P!nk, Maroon 5, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails to name a few), but Radiohead is far from an ordinary band, nor have they ever shown themselves to be trend-followers. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they played an instrumental role in getting Trump elected (it’s safe to say that the majority of Trump voters aren’t Radio-heads), I will assert that pretty much every word Yorke spares to bashing the president of a country that’s not his own could just as well be construed as an endorsement of Donald Trump.

The record kicks off with the absolutely livid 2+2=5, as overt an allusion to 1984 as one could request. Stanley Donwood’s liner artwork includes multiple shout-outs to “doublespeak”, which further reinforces Radiohead’s cautionary state of mind and the dystopian backdrop of the album. Doublespeak, a variation on doublethink as Orwell calls it, is the practice enforced by Big Brother of clinging to one idea while accepting an idea that directly opposes it.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself… Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink. ~ Orwell, 1984

Aside from the literary allusions, it’s also worth noting the cheeky caveat tucked away in a footnote, alerting parents to the presence of words they may find capital-O offensive. The speaker of Hail to the Thief (and Yorke does sing in a much more talky, didactic style throughout) wavers constantly between social revolt and the contradictory or submissive modes of thought foisted on him by political correctness.

But as for the lyrics of the opening song, Yorke asks, “Are you such a dreamer / to put the world to rights?” In conjunction with the next two lines that echo the title, this sets up the conflict of idealism and stagnation that will undergird the whole record. Radiohead aren’t just making passing references to the classics for intellectual brownie points, although there is a hint of irony in the band invoking another avowed socialist whose most famous books are cherished by conservatives. 2+2=5 reads as a bona-fide indictment of low-information voters who have intentionally shuttered themselves away from political affairs, burying their heads in trendy and trite social justice “issues” that don’t make logical sense instead of seeking common ground with the rest of the electorate, which they deem deplorable. Yorke zeroes in on the outrage and incredulity that have dominated the youth’s response to some new government, presumably a Republican one, and comes to the grim conclusion that they fully deserve everything their puerile resistance has incurred.
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
Because you have not
Been paying attention! (16X)
The night that Donald Trump was elected, I remember the faces of dismay and disbelief, the general air of depression that was sweeping virally over Pepperdine. “Let’s change the channel away from CNN,” one girl said in the electoral college viewing ‘party’ (dry of course, per school regulations). “These numbers aren’t accurate to what Google shows.” But changing the channel did little to allay her or anyone else’s fears. Twitter fits were thrown, tears were proclaimed to be shed, and professors made several cantankerous remarks in the coming days – one of them solemnly pulled out Maya Angelou at the beginning of class, but since it was a Creative Writing course, I was probably alone in thinking that extremely petty. Nearly everyone I spoke to about the election, which shouldn’t have numbered more than 20 people since the majority had already sequestered me to “the wrong side of history”, professed that they had been assured of Hillary Clinton’s victory. With the exception of one red-pilled philosophy student, even my friends who had the boldness to out themselves as Trump voters said they didn’t expect him to win for one second.

“I honestly hadn’t considered this was a real possibility until now,” wrote someone that fateful night, in a manner typical of many in my generation. Like the speaker of Hail to the Thief, millennials had been living in a la la land of their own imagining, a humanist, altruist echo chamber where transgender activism and 3rd Wave Feminism share mutually compatible goals, Islam doesn’t have anything to do with the oppression of homosexuals or women, and requiring a state I.D. to vote constitutes a reprehensible, racist form of voter suppression. Two and two always make up five, it’s easier to buy an “assault rifle” than it is to vote, and cooling winters support, don’t undermine climate change.

Yorke’s voice and Greenwood’s guitar take on a whiny, agitated inflection as the track progresses, until the former is crying out loud, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in when it’s not! Maybe not!” Whether the band is addressing Alex Jones listeners or leftists whose cultural arrogance helped elect both Bush and Trump, the message translates the same: when your whole engagement with politics consists of regurgitating unfounded clich├ęs, doomsday prophesying, and demonizing your opponents as Hitler reincarnate, you don’t have much of a right to complain about the consequences of such rhetoric.

There isn’t much to dissect lyrically about the next track, Sit Down Stand Up, which both continues the theme of doublethink and emblematically portrays the Democrat Party’s eternal condescension towards Republicans. We see this condescension especially in regards to identity politics: notice the endless spate of articles every election cycle pointlessly chastising the GOP for a lack of dark people or women or some other special interest group at their conventions. But whenever the GOP does present qualified candidates for office matching those physical characteristics, one can anticipate an equally endless spate of articles maligning said candidates’ intelligence, anonymously accusing them of groping some employee thirty years ago, or describing them as token figures. “Sit down, stand up” is basically the anthem of the mainstream media when it comes to counseling conservatives on how to win. Wealthy businessmen who run for office ought to uncover their tax returns, even though no one really has a right to see them. So the reasoning goes, that if Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have followed the law, then they should have nothing to hide from the public. If, however, it turns out that said businessman wasn’t hiding anything and filed by completely legal means, then he must have cheated the system, and his willingness to exploit the law to keep more of his own fruits proves he can’t be trusted to hold office. Sit down, neo-con cis scum. Stand up.

There’s another popular theory online linking the title of this song to Vice-President Joe Biden’s famous gaffe, whereby he told Senator Chuck Graham, “Stand up, Chuck, let them see you – oh, God love ya, what am I talking about?” Or maybe Radiohead was referring to the one-time Speaker of the Texas House, Gib Lewis, who issued the same exhortation to an entire crowd of people in wheelchairs. But even I think this is a stretch; our media circus interpretation makes much more sense overall, and far be it from the Author to besmirch one of the band’s most evocative compositions with such a ridiculous exegesis.

After these first two tracks, Sail to the Moon may sound relatively neutral to the unversed ear, but politically savvy fans will know better. On a literal level, Yorke is obviously paying lip service to Newt Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon, as well as the short rush of liberal enthusiasm for space travel coinciding with liquid being found on Mars and with Ridley Scott’s masterful return to sci-fi, The Matt Damon. Deniers of this reading may object that no one could possibly have anticipated these developments, but any man as intelligent as Yorke could easily have extrapolated Gingrich’s lunar leanings from his impeccable congressional track record.  On a second, metaphorical level, Radiohead is dryly mocking refugee resettlement operations gone haywire, comparing them to a massive, life-giving ark in the midst of perilous rising waters.
Maybe you’ll be president
But know right from wrong
Or in the flood you’ll build an Ark
And sail us to the moon.
Whether the lyrics are poking fun at the colonization dreams of Newt (who actually wants to do it) or of leftists (who won’t stop making movies about people doing it and think they have a monopoly on morality), the object of derision is the same. Career politicians have long been oblivious to the concerns of ordinary Americans, wiling away countless hours on climate negotiations (so sailing to the moon will be a privilege, not a necessity), trying to achieve some abstract goal of 100% coverage, bullying states that don’t believe in same-sex marriage, and solving other crises that they made up.

Next up, the underrated electro-banger Backdrifts signals a turning point in Obama’s presidency, when the criminality of the Democrat Party was finally starting to crystallize for many people. “We’re rotten fruit, we’re damaged goods,” intones Yorke over swirling, gale-like beats. “What the hell, we got nothing more to lose. One gust and we will probably crumble. We’re backdrifters.” There are almost too many parallels to the cursed Clinton campaign in these lyrics to enumerate. Back in 2003, who besides maybe Bruce Springstreen was more qualified than Thom Yorke to synthesize the desperation of the Democrats into music, a desperation that would drive the DNC to rig their primary for a former first lady who was mainly renowned for lying to Americans’ faces, shielding rapists, and deleting thousands of records of unknown significance?

What the hell, they had nothing more to lose indeed. Moreover, Democrat voters and leadership intentionally erred on the safe side of history, nominating someone who fancied herself a “progressive”, not a liberal, while rejecting the marginally more radical Bernie Sanders, paragon of college-age Marxists. Strategists hoped that backdrifting into the mold of Woodrow Wilson would propel them ahead of Trump’s populism; we needn’t review how that turned out. Backdrifts is alternatively titled (Honeymoon is Over), implying a marital component to this malaise on top of the social/political one. Still, the song isn’t over, and Radiohead’s axe keeps on grinding.
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footprints give you away so
You’re backdrifting.
Later on, Where I End And You Begin is replete with images of separation and insulation, coupled with a frenetic bassline and Yorke’s unhinged delivery. “There’s a gap in between, there’s a gap where we meet,” says the singer, bemoaning the incumbent party’s detachment from the common people. He continues:
I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can’t
And I can’t come down
I can watch but not take part.
This calls to the mind the famous Limbaugh theorem, which postulated that President Obama was never perceived as governing and effectively enjoyed dissociation from any policies he enacted. Likewise, in stark contrast to pop music by OneRepublic or political hip-hop by A Tribe Called Quest, much of Hail to the Thief is written in a somewhat haughty first person singular, maintaining a distanced, even accusatory tone. “I could have told you this would happen,” is the gist of Radiohead’s message. “But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

A track with a name like We Suck Young Blood begs little explanation; this is the Democrats’ field, not Republicans’. Who could forget Obama’s coolness when it came to iPods, rappers, or Jedi mind melds? Or how skillfully he harnessed compliant movie stars’ Twitters to manipulate and mobilize the youth? Who could forget the day when Clinton said, “I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokemon GO to the polls!” A Punchup at a Wedding is similarly straightforward, invoking the flurry of pseudo-philosophical articles published by toxic landfills like VICE or Salon questioning whether punching a “Nazi” unprovoked can be “ethically” justified. The lyrics themselves ridicule the perpetually offended subset of the Left that derives electoral and cultural power from sowing strife where none should rightly exist. In this case, they have poisoned the most joyous of all social occasions, which our Supreme Court and White House have since debased into just another legal proceeding.
I don’t know why you bother
Nothing’s ever good enough for you
I was there
And it wasn’t like that
You came here
Just to start a fight

You had to piss on our parade
You had to shred our big day
You had to ruin it for all concerned
In a drunken punchup at a wedding.
The passages highlighted here only comprise the more lucid cases of coded messaging by which Radiohead predict (and celebrate) the presidency of Donald Trump. If any fan who accidentally happened upon this analysis remotely agreed with it – an unlikely occurrence, seeing as I know exactly one Republican and zero quasi-Randians who like the band –, we would surely delve more into A Wolf at the Door, arguably the only rap song Radiohead have penned, as well as their best album closer. For now, though, we think it’s sufficient to notice the subtitle: (It Girl. Rag Doll).

In recent news, Thom Yorke has shot down Roger Waters’ arrogant petition for him to cancel shows in Israel, stopping short of calling the long-irrelevant musician a conceited moron, yet soundly denouncing the implication that he as a 48-year-old man can’t judge basic right from wrong. While I’m still on the fence over that implication, Yorke’s response confirms what Hail to the Thief suggested 13 years ago: the environmentally conscious British cuckold act is just a ploy to get good ratings, and Radiohead really are neo-Nazi, Zionist, alt-right trolls.