in Book Reviews, Books, Pop

January Reviews

[A few years back, I stopped doing my monthly book reviews.  I’m going to try and get back into that as well as maybe doing some film and documentary reviews.  Rather than doing formal reviews, I’m mostly going to use these texts or films as springboards for thought so I won’t always be providing very detailed analyses of whatever title happens to be under discussion.  I’m sure google can lead to any number of more traditional reviews.  Also, I’m happy to hear in the comments about what other people are reading or watching and enjoying!]


1. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.


Jamaica is more than Bob Marley as the CIA knew full well in 1976 when the Rasta who sang against downpression and isms was shot.  Although Papa Doc Duvalier was firmly established by violence and terror and money in Haiti, the Cuban revolution had succeeded against all odds.  Granted, Che was already dead for nine years but his witness and words — ¡hasta la victoria siempre! — lived on.  In the mid- to late twentieth century much of the Caribbean was in flux and it was hard to know where the cards would fall.  Would the the people manage to shake off the yoke of colonial imperialism, foreign powers, and client rulers willing to betray their own people for personal profit, or would those powers triumph and beat the people down in order to maintain ever growing disparities between the rich and the poor?

Marlon James knows all of this about Jamaica and his book, touted as a story of the characters involved in the shooting of Bob Marley, is about much more than the singer.  A Brief History of Seven Killings is a story of what happens when characters who aren’t supposed to speak up, rise up, sing and embrace one another, begin to do so.  What happens when the poor unite and overcome neighbourhood feuds or old turf wars to confront their common enemies — the wealthy elite whom they greatly outnumber?  What happens when a people unite and challenge their foreign overlords? What happens when someone arises who gives voice to these people and sings what is in their hearts in such a way that the world listens?

Well, what happens, as James documents so thoroughly, is violence.  And killings.  A lot more than seven.  In many ways, Jamaica itself is killed.  Its prophets silenced, its MLKs and Jesuses and Gandhis imprisoned or killed.  Its leaders bought off.  With money, you can always find someone young or stupid or addicted or selfish enough to do anything.  And if that person turns on you, begins to think, grows a conscience, or gets too sober or old, there’s always someone else who can be paid to replace that person in an even more spectacularly violent manner.  And much of the violence in James’ book is spectacular in its viciousness. The people yearn for songs of freedom and what do they get?  A dick in the mouth and a bullet in the head.  So what people experience as freedom changes.  Instead of liberation and overstanding people are led to believe that money is what makes a person free.  Sell enough drugs in Kingston and soon you can live the highlife selling drugs in New York City or Miami.  But this is not freedom, brothers and sisters, this is Babylon.  And if there is one thing James makes clear it is that Babylon is all around us and we are, forever, living in exile.  But Babylon is not content with just being around us — it wants to be inside of us, too.  And if it can’t get inside of you, sufferah, it casts you out.  And since Babylon is everywhere, the only out it casts you to is the realm of the dead.

But if you ask I, Babylon is scared that death is not the end and maybe Jah remembers what vampires try to forget.  So James’ narrative is haunted by the duppies of those who have been killed.  Duppies with earth in their throats or no throats at all.  Duppies who see, who hear, who know and who are not dead.  Babylon fears the dead, the duppies, and the revenants.  Sufferahs need not fear them.  Because sufferahs have been trodding on the winepress much too long and they know the dead who rise will be on their side.  They, too, echo the cry: Rebel, rebel.

2. Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority by Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton.


Last year, I decided I would finally sit down and do some serious reading about Haiti.  I made myself a mini-syllabus and this was the sixth and last book on my list (the others being The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C. L. R. James, Haiti: The Aftershock of History by Laurent Dubois, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss [all but the Buck-Morss – which I think starts with a captivating idea and then basically goes nowhere with it – were fantastic]).  I worked my way forward chronologically but left the Engler and Fenton book for last since, as a citizen of Canada, it felt appropriate to conclude with a more narrow focus upon Canadian imperialism as practiced in relation to Haiti.

Yves Engler, in my opinion, is one of the most significant people writing about Canada today (he has a website here).  This book about Haiti, co-authored with Fenton (with whom I am unfamiliar) was one of his early books, but he is also well known for, amongst other things, his Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, and his latest book called Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation (expect to see that one reviewed in the near future).

This book on Canada’s involvement in Haiti, could be an appendix to Peter Hallward’s more thorough analysis of happenings in Haiti from the 1990s onwards, but it does cover some points that Hallward does not – notably, emphasizing the presence of the RCMP as well as municipal police (like the former chief of the notorious Montréal force) and the way in which they provided training, tactical, and armed support to the death squads that were rounding up supporters of Aristide after the coup (which also took place with assistance from the Canadian military and with a justification – Responsibility to Protect [R2P] – developed by Canadians and used to justify otherwise illegal wars of aggression).  Also significant are the number of Canadian humanitarian organizations and otherwise left-leaning groups (like some major unions) that were brought on board and used to assist Canadian imperialism (others have also explored the close connection between Canadian aid and imperialism, notably, Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay in Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism and Todd Gordon in Imperialist Canada).

Haiti is, I think, and important but forgotten (or never mentioned) part of Canadian history up until the present.  Not only that, as the only successful slave rebellion that we know of, Haiti is an important part of human history.  In many ways, I think it provides us with a microcosm of the world of in which we live.  Understand Haiti, and you will understand why things are the way they are not only there but here and everywhere else that capitalism, imperialism, and settler colonialism have gone.  Haiti shows us the best of us (who are not us, but who are Haitians) and the worst of us (who are us), and it shows us that the best are always rising up, even as the worst are always pressing down.  And, although the worst often get the best of the struggle for longer, they always lose eventually.  Of course, the best don’t win for very long, but breakthroughs come at the most unexpected times and places.  So what is the lesson?  Check what side you’re on.  If you’re on the wrong side, change teams.  Then realize to that live is to resist, and to be is to struggle.  If you fail, others will come after you who do not.  Even though they¸too, will be swept away.  But that’s not your business.  Your business is to fight til you die.  Fight for life.  Life for all, not just for some.  And if there is a small minority (say 1%?) who categorically refuse to stop taking life from all others in order to hoard it for themselves, then along with L’Ouverture and Aristide, we need to remember Dessalines.

3. Trauma-Informed Youth Justice in Canada: A New Framework toward a Kinder Future by Judah Oudshoorn.


My brother Judah published this book last year (one of two he published – the other being The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Sexual Abuse, which he co-authored with Michelle Jackett and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz).  Although I’m biased, I believe Jude’s book, which comes from years of experience working within Canadian prisons and community-based supportive agencies working with people who are released from prison, and from teaching in academia, ranks up there in importance with some of the other authors I’ve mentioned (Engler, Gordon, and Jay).  I’ve decided to write a more comprehensive review of this book which I will use to lead into an author interview, as Jude has very kindly agreed to be interviewed by me regarding his text.  More to follow!


1. Borgman directed by Alex van Warmerdam.


Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about Borgman is how little I can think to say about it after I stop to reflect upon it.  Granted, there are many extremely well set and framed shots within it – the appearance of the dogs within house, the teddy bears that are gutted and filled with sand, the bodies floating upside on the bottom of a river, with heads anchored in buckets of cement, and several shots of the titular character, whether he be rising out of the earth, sitting in the bath, appearing in the doorway of the children’s bedroom, or crouching naked over Marina while she sleeps next to her husband (which is clearly a reference to Fuseli’s Nightmare) – but upon reflection is feels like a single course of haute cuisine.  It looks great when you first see it and you can’t wait to eat it… but it goes fast and leaves you as hungry as you were before.  I think a number of critics have tried to get around this (intentionally or otherwise – perhaps they saw the artistry of many of the shots and mistook that for substance?) by overplaying the loose ends that exist within the narrative.  Mostly, though, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that Borgman and his companions are demons of one kind or another who are interested in taking over the bodies of others in order to expand their number (the opening line, printed on the screen, says as much and van Warmerdam has stated that everything that follows in the movie is an outworking of that line).

But there are several loose ends – whether or not Borgman and his companions were shape-shifters, whether or not Marina was haunted by nightmares Borgman planted in her brain or whether she was recalling past or present abuse from a husband who had a clearly demonstrated violent streak, whether or not Marina was mentally unstable and in some kind of psychosis where she imagines Borgman (whom she may or may not have encountered in the past when she was or was not a nurse who became involved with a patient at the hospital) all dangle before us at different moments, as does the suggestion that there is a certain class-related punishment taking place, before being whisked away.  These loose ends up feeling a lot like filler used by a Director who has some ideas for some marvelous shots but is unsure of how to fill it all out into a feature length film.  I have no general beef with open-ended films that offer multiple or contradictory interpretations (or even no apparent narrative-based interpretation at all) but all of these loose ends seem too obvious or played-out to really open on anything exciting and so they are forgotten almost as quickly as they appear.  Borgman almost feels to me like what might happen if a photographer were to make a movie.

The one exception is the suggestion that Marina and her husband Richard are somehow being punished, or are given over to demonic possession, because of their wealth accumulation.  Marina explicitly states this idea but it is given a little more substance after Borgman kills their gardener in order to replace him and become more integrated into the household.  The obvious racism of Richard becomes apparent when all the people of colour who apply for the job are rejected immediately.  Borgman then gets the job, yet it is Borgman and not the others who is the threat.  What is the takeaway lesson here?  That the wealthy, white elite do not so much fear the Others whom they dismiss out of hand (and whom they think really don’t have any kind of power or agency to do anything but what they’re told – in this case, go and be as quickly forgotten from the lives of the characters are they are forgotten from the rest of the script), as they fear those who look like them but are not committed to the same interests.  What is scary about Borgman is that he can “pass as one of us” – he is not obviously Other like the giant black man or the Arab fellow who are rejected for the gardening job.  The rich, in others words, do not so much fear those whom they dominate (these people don’t even register in their thinking at all), as they fear those who can move among them but are still different from them (hence, all the etiquette and manners of speaking and branding and institutional affiliations that are brought to bear in order to demonstrate who is in and who is out).  The rich fear class-traitors (and gender- or race-traitors) more than the Other because they don’t ascribe any real agency or power to the Other and want to think that only someone who is like them could harm them.  This is why, for example, a Toussaint L’Ouverture or a Jean-Bertrand Aristide seem to arise out of nowhere like apocalyptic figures of judgment.  These people come from nowhere because, to the rich, they are nobody.  They don’t exist.  When they force their existence onto the wealthy it is, for the wealthy, the end of the world (as they know it).  But, hey, now I’ve gone well beyond the script and probable intentions of the author.

However, speaking of the author, it’s interesting to note that van Warmderdam (who both directed and wrote Borgman) said that Borgman is essentially himself if he were free to do whatever he wanted to do without any regard for morality or consequences (here it’s interesting to note that he plays the character of Ludwig).  He speaks about being inspired by the Marquis de Sade although, in his own defense (as some kind of justification?), he notes that he is a mere toddler compared to the horrors of Juliette, Justine, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  That may be true but we’re all saints if that’s our point of comparison.  And, really, I’m tired of watching male fantasies that involve the sexual domination and death of women.   But it seems like film and theory never tires of this… and that leads me to my next film.

2. The Piano Teacher directed by Michael Haneke.


Borgman was nominated for a Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2013 but lost to Blue is the Warmest Colour.  The Piano Teacher was nominated for a Palme D’Or in 2001 and won.  I’m starting to have some serious questions about the judges at Cannes…

Technically, The Piano Teacher really is exceptional.  Each of the actors does an incredible job, especially Isabelle Huppert, who plays Ericka, the lead character who is in a co-dependent and abusive relationship with her elderly mother — which then manifests itself through bondage and submissive fantasies as well as in other ways that are considered sexually deviant.  All the characters are very well developed and very well acted.

However, in terms of content, I find the film much more troubling and can’t help but feel that all the art and technique is an excuse for a male Director to have the rape of a woman performed for the male gaze.  The key to this is framing the performance in a way that permits both the Director to feel justified in directing the rape and the audience to feel justified in watching it (that which justifies the direction, performance, and viewing makes all the difference between an underground porno and a Palme D’Or apparently).  I find all of this exceedingly problematical, but I’ve discussed this at great length elsewhere (see this post here, where I also happen to discuss Blue is the Warmest Colour).

For me, the take away lesson is to start reading more about movies before I decide to watch them.  Once I hear a movie spoken of highly, I try to learn as little as possible about it in advance so as to be as open as possible in my viewing of it.  But I’m finding too much sexual violence appearing in films that are praised a lot, especially those praised by film critics.  I really have no desire to watch that.

3. Knight of Cups directed by Terrence Malick.


Having raised some questions as to what is going on in the minds of the film critics and the film festival circuit judges, it makes sense to mention Malick’s latest, given that it is about a movie director going through some kind of existential crisis following his success within the money, sex, and glamour of the movie industry (although despite external successes, he’s still tortured internally, especially due to family matters like a brother who died young and another brother who is an active illicit drug user).  I admit, I came to this film with high hopes.  I like a lot of the cast.  I’ve watched all of Malick’s other movies and The Tree of Life is one of my all-time favourites.  Perhaps it was because of this that I was so disappointed in Knight of Cups.  I felt like Malick was mostly repeating himself but not in any new or exciting ways.  In fact, it felt more like someone trying but completely failing to do what Malick has already done before (for all his theological and Heideggerian brilliance, a friend commenting on Knight of Cups said, “I think [the kids movie] Inside Out, had more insight into human character”) .

Additionally, and I think this is true to varying degrees with Malick’s other movies, this movie felt a lot like a film made by a self-absorbed, well-to-do white man for self-absorbed, well-to-do white men.  Women appear… mostly topless, often with their faces but not their breasts outside of the shot, and almost always their voices are silenced so that we can hear Christian Bale’s voice over.  People of colour are objectified in a similarly silenced and eroticized but also exotic manner.  Ugh.  If this had been my first Malick movie, I doubt I would have watched anything else by him.  Not recommended.


1. Fear Itself directed by Charlie Lyne.

Meh, I kinda gapped out watching this.  I read a positive review of this movie, which explores fear in relation to horror movies and what we go looking for when you go seeking fear in films and what that says about out us… but I found the reflections to be pretty uninspired.  The only fun thing about the movie was that it was composed entirely of clips from horror movies and I was surprised to discover that I had watched the majority of the films referenced (from Suspiria, which was also kind of disappointing, although not without its moments, to Martyrs, which really messed me up as I talk about in this post).

2. Point and Shoot directed by Marshall Curry.


This, too, was a documentary that received a fair amount of praise last year — telling the story of an American, Matthew Vandyke, who ended up fighting with revolutionaries in Libya and who was captured and spent considerable time in solitary confinement before being freed in a hostage exchange, and how he ended up there because of his quest to try and learn what it means to be a man seeking adventure and danger in the world — but it didn’t rock my world.  It felt as though the directors felt like there should be a story here, but when they went to seek it out, they didn’t discover as much material as they hoped and so ended up using a bunch of fill.  Wait… I already said this about Borgman.  Hmmm… maybe the problem is with me as a viewer.

That said, one of the more interesting points was how war that is filmed — and the revolutionary war in Libya was filmed all the time, everywhere by people with cell phones if not by new agencies — is performed differently than war that is not filmed.  Soldiers being filmed want to look like soldiers in films.  Vandyke, too, found himself falling into this trap and struggled with the idea that perhaps his filming was not doing a good work of documenting something important so that others would see it but was, in fact, corrupting those upon whom he turned his gaze.  Perhaps this is why, the question of whether or not he feels he has become a man goes unanswered.  Perhaps he feels he has satisfactorily performed as a man for the camera (on his early motorcycle trips in Africa and Afghanistan he spoke of taking hours to create and recreate a shot until he got it just right, even though in the subsequent film it only took a few seconds to show) but does performing as a man on film equal being a man in real life?  The question goes unanswered in part, I think, because Vandyke doesn’t know the answer.

I would suggest two things in response to this: first, that maleness (and gender in general) is ever only a performance and not a thing-that-is.  As Judith Butler says, there is no sex behind the gender.  Gender is not ontological, it is ideological.  Secondly, gender, especially maleness, is dangerous.  In pursuit of being a man, Vandyke not only does increasingly dangerous thing but also does increasingly violent things — culminating in his (purportedly) failed effort to shoot a man from close range.  This, I think, is part of the reason why I’ve never been much inspired to pursue manliness in my own life — generally, people obsessed with that are violent pricks.  I’m more interested in pursuing the idea of being a friend, companion, or lover than I am interested in gender performances.

3. The Wolfpack directed by Crystal Moselle.


Speaking of performances, I thought that The Wolfpack was a phenomenal movie!  This movie is about the six Angulo brothers (and their one sister who barely features in the film… and one can’t help but wonder if there is a darker secret being covered up there) who grow up in total isolation in an apartment in the Bronx.  Deprived of contact with others, they live their lives by memorizing and reenacting movies until they finally start pushing the boundaries established by their tyrannical father and start going out to explore the world outside (in one scene I found especially striking they were walking on a path that had three or four trees on either side and they were so amazed by the size and number of the trees that one of them says, “I feel like I’m in the Fangorn forest in ‘Lord of the Rings’!”).  This raises all kinds of questions and themes, ranging from patriarchal violence to sibling-solidarity, to the impact of imprisonment, socialization and pop culture upon development.  Discovering the Angulo brothers is kind of like discovering a lost tribe living amongst us… only all this tribe knows is pop culture… so it’s more like discovering children who have grown up in the post-apocalyptic ruins of our world without any contact with others.  I imagine under the eye of a different director this could read a whole lot more like Cormac McCarthy story.  But I think Moselle is just really excited to discover the brothers and they, in turn, are really excited to discover her (those living through movies now become a movie).  I was also pretty excited about it all.  Recommended viewing.

4. The Nightmare directed by Rodney Ascher.


I came to The Nightmare with pretty high expectations because, although I am far from being a fanboy of either Stephen King or Stanley Kubrick, I though Rodney Acher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 (which is about Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining) deserved all the praise it got.  In The Nightmare, he picks a perhaps more horrific subject matter and explores the topic of sleep paralysis, the truly terrifying nightmares that accompany it, and how eight different individuals respond to it (fun fact: Fuseli’s Nighmare and his image, which is mimicked by Borgman, is said to be inspired by his experiences with sleep paralysis).  One of the things I found most interesting in the documentary was how it shows that the nightmares that manifest in sleep paralysis tend to be common across geographical, cultural, and historical boundaries.  Along the way, actors are hired and sets are built so that the nightmares of the folks who experience sleep paralysis can be reenacted.  A few things become clear: first, nobody really knows what sleep paralysis is; second, those who experience it find it absolutely terrifying and just as real or more real than what they experience in their day to day life (and, yeah, I’m greatly relieved I don’t experience this because this shit is scary and seriously fucks people up!); and, three, those who live with this come up with very different explanations to help them work through what they are experiencing — and very different explanations (from aliens to demonic possession to Jungian archetypes and repressed memories) all seem to be effective for different people.  After watching it all play out, I’ve kind of filed sleep paralysis away in my mind as one of those things that makes me wonder how much is going on around us that we don’t know about.

5. Making a Murderer directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi.


This 10 episode documentary series probably needs no introduction at this point.  Google and Reddit (I gave up on trying to read anything close to everything written on Reddit about the series) also provide some important pieces of information that the documentary doesn’t cover and which works against the perspective of the directors on a few important points.  What do become clear in this case is that (a) police corruption and bias within the courts was a huge factor in this case; but (b) guilt or innocence are not so easy to determine.

Picking up on the second point, this whole idea of coming to a conclusion that is “true” and “just” that is certain “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a very odd idea to me.  After all, I think the Truth is only a product of language games and not related to the Real (which is why we say 1 + 1 = 2 is true, but we don’t say 1 +1 = 2 is real), and I’m not even certain that I’m an I that exists or of anything else really, so there’s no way I could come to any kind of conclusion with certitude (or “reasonable” certitude whatever that is… because any certitude seems pretty unreasonable to me).  And as for justice?  Well, what is a “just” verdict?  Often, even if a person is guilty, sending that person to prison is an injustice (as Jude points out in his book, youth in Canada who commit crimes and then get caught and are convicted are more likely to go on and commit future crimes than youth who commit crimes and are not caught or convicted).  The question then is why do we orient our so-called justice system around these fictions?  What does this language, and this kind of commission and what it takes for granted tell us about us?  How is it related to the hierarchies and capillaries of power as they are distributed through our social body?

In terms of the first point, corruption within the criminal justice system, I think this is the most important thing about this series.  It highlights that corruption (which, in my experience is ubiquitous throughout system) and helps lift the veil of morality or nobility off of the Rule of Law.  That makes this recommended viewing.

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