Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – the early days of a famous swordsman celebrated with ambition and energy

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1954)

One of the most famous people in Japanese culture is the swordsman and mystic Musashi Miyamoto, author of “Gorin no sho / The Book of Five Rings”, and one imagines that in a culture that reveres martial stereotypes of the samurai and the ninja, and the sport of kendo, Miyamoto’s life should be well documented. The fact though is that records of his life seem to be very spotty and he has been the subject of many tall tales. This did not bother director Hiroshi Inagaki who undertook to make a trilogy of movies detailing an imagined life of Miyamoto from his early years to his battle with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima. The films star the notable Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s samurai answer to Hollywood’s cowboy heroes of the same time, as Miyamoto.

The first film of the trilogy, subtitled simply “Musashi Miyamoto”, presents Miyamoto as a young and impetuous village youth, known to his family and community as Takezo. Takezo and friend Matahachi eagerly participate in a civil war (the period is the year 1600, just before Ieyasu Tokugawa became shogun and initiated a long peace of some 267 years) but their side loses badly and the two try to return home. They fall in with two women, Oko and Akemi, who make a living by robbing dead samurai of their arms and money. Akemi tends to Matahachi’s wound and Oko tries to seduce Takezo after seeing him fight off a bunch of thugs single-handedly. Takezo runs away and the women and Matahachi later desert him. Takezo returns to his and Matahachi’s home village to tell Matahachi’s mother and his fiancee Otsu that Matahachi is still alive. Takezo is accused of giving up Matahachi for dead and the village elders order his arrest. Takezo becomes a fugitive but the local Buddhist priest Takuan traps him. Takuan intends to take Takezo under his wing and train him to be a moral man. With the help of Matahachi’s fiancee Otsu (who learns that Matahachi has forsaken her for Oko), Takezo escapes for a time but again Takuan tricks him and imprisons him in Himeji Castle. Here for a number of years Takezo undergoes spiritual and moral training, and starts on the long road to becoming a proper samurai.

The film borrows many plot and style elements from the Western genre including the idea of the main character as a strong, silent lone-wolf figure who will travel from one place to the next taking on various villains and learning through his adventures what it means to be a true and virtuous samurai, and that life, being impermanent, must be cherished and respected. The film may lack the grace and choreography that a Kurosawa might have brought to it but this means that action sequences look all the more realistic and savage. Characters are very stereotyped and what character development exists is extremely limited. The acting is not especially skillful and Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Takezo seems rather wooden. (He was a thirtysomething actor playing a character who was supposed to be in his late teens after all.) Takezo’s early transformation from wild and restless youngster to serious young man trained in proper samuari skills and Buddhist philosophy occurs off-screen in a matter of minutes in a 100-minute film; Inagaki figured that constant chanting of sutras, daily practice with wooden swords and long hours in meditation atop mountains in the middle of winter might not go down well with audiences thirsting for the quick and decisive actions of Hollywood gangster and cowboy films.

The film seems a little uneven given its plot – there’s no great sword-fight at the end and the climax comes from the romantic sub-plot – and there are great leaps from one sub-plot to the next. Matahachi and his women disappear from the film for a long stretch and are brought back near the end. Inagaki manages to pull the different stories together and the film marches resolutely to its finale with its focus firmly on Takezo.

In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat by the US and its allies in 1945, the film’s themes revolve around identity, redemption, rebirth and finding one’s goals and true purpose in life. The general thrust of the film is to show how Takezo comes to take responsibility for his actions and understand their consequences; he becomes less ego-driven and more aware of what others do for him and to use his strengths to defend others without thought for himself. Compared to other samurai films (and especially those of Akira Kurosawa) that I have seen, this movie might not be great technically but it certainly has ambition and energy befitting its main character.

John David Ebert Lecture on Oswald Spengler: a detailed summary of “The Decline of the West”

John David Ebert, “Mythologies of the Evolution of Consciousness: Oswald Spengler” (Astrological Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, March, 2001)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Oswald Spengler was a German historian and philosopher whose main claim to glory is his book “The Decline of the West”, published in 1918 and 1922, which covers most of the known history of the world and which asserts that civilisations are super-organisms that follow a life-cycle and must eventually die. John David Ebert’s talk on Spengler takes up the theme and frameworks of Spengler’s major work and expands them into an investigation of civilisation and the themes that dominate each major civilisation and how those themes are expressed in the arts and sciences. It’s a very detailed talk that  demands considerable general knowledge on the audience’s part, not to mention reserves of concentration, to follow. The lecture was part of a three-day workshop on Rudolf Steiner, Oswald Spengler and Jean Gebser at the Astrological Institute in Arizona state in early 2001.

The talk follows on from Ebert’s lecture on Rudolf Steiner but it can be heard and treated in its own right. Ebert starts off with a brief  biography of Spengler and the personal circumstances in which Spengler came to write “The Decline of the West”. In the first few pages of “The Decline …”, Spengler mentioned as his major influences the writer Goethe and the philosopher Nietzsche: the latter’s early work “The Birth of Tragedy”, an investigation of ancient Greek drama and its themes and concerns, becomes the focus of Ebert’s explanation of how Nietzsche’s beliefs and writings about how Western civilisation is in decline inform Spengler’s own writing. Ebert shows how Greek drama began essentially as a dialogue between two parties that investigates the relationship and tension between an individual and the collective will of society. Later Greek playwrights like Euripides were to muddy this relationship by introducing analytical elements. Nietzsche saw in this and in the Greek culture of Euripides’ time the beginnings of the downfall of Classical Greece due to an imbalance between the Apollonian (the world of the intellect, questioning and analysis) and Dionysian (subconscious tendencies of the society, spontaneity, spirituality) with an over-emphasis on the intellect. He drew from this that Western civilisation was also in the early stages of its twilight with the Age of Enlightenment and its emphasis on questioning tradition and custom, the products of the intellect and the society that is produced. This becomes the basis for Spengler’s own quest.

From there, for Spengler all civilisations pass through a definite life-cycle of religion passing into an artistic / lyrical phase and then going on into rationalism, politics and war. Ebert then goes through the eight major world civilisations that Spengler regarded as High Cultures and points out what for Spengler were their distinctive characteristics, themes and concepts of space. Spengler singled out Russia as an example of an incomplete civilisation that will become a High Culture. Ebert then treats the themes of Classical culture (the physical body, the polis, individual destinies subject to capricious fate), the Magian culture (Middle Eastern: the sacred text representing the Word of God, the rule of consensus, the concern with fulfilling religious duties and rules that govern one’s life, one’s destiny predetermined by God in advance) and the Faustian culture (Western: quest into infinite space represented by upthrusting spires of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, emphasis on a personal relationship with God, one’s destiny unfolding from within one’s character and personality traits). Each of these High Cultures develops its own mathematics and sciences, its distinctive music and arts and architectures.

Ebert continues with an explanation of how creativity develops during the duration of each High Culture, as manifested in the culture’s arts, literature, music and sciences. He uses examples from Western civilisation to illustrate how its arts and architecture mirror the development and maturation of the culture’s themes as one century passes into the next.

Ebert concludes his lecture with Spengler’s presumption to predict how Western civilisation will decline: politics will revert to what the High Culture began with as political institutions become deadlocked and can only be dealt with by force and war; the intellect recedes, there are fewer scientific and artistic geniuses and innovators, literacy declines and reason is replaced by belief, irrationality, the proliferation of religious cults and a return to spirituality. Populations will decline.

Ebert’s talk requires at least two hearings for most of his summation of Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” to sink in. If the listener will allow for the possibility that the time periods in which a culture’s growth, maturity and decline may vary a great deal – with the period of decline perhaps lasting hundreds of years in comparison with the culture’s youth and maturity which altogether might last less than 100 years – then Spengler’s proposition is easier to accept. Ebert does not say whether the period of decline might be highlighted with brief phases of rejuvenation from within the culture’s own resources or from outside.

Naturally Ebert’s audience seemed a little perturbed and uncomfortable with Spengler’s predictions of downfall for the West. If they were more familiar with Spengler’s work itself, they might also be a bit uncomfortable with the German’s assumptions about human nature and what he may have overlooked. It may be that Spengler was very pessimistic about human psychology and its potential for change. Spengler’s argument that all High Cultures experience a definite life-cycle might be founded on examples he selected merely to bolster his view: Ebert does not spend much time talking about the High Cultures of the Mexicans or of East Asia and if one were to live in Japan or Mexico for considerable lengths of time, one might find how aspects of indigenous cultures in those countries have blended in with and enriched the imported Western cultures. Indeed, from what I could gather from Ebert’s talk, Spengler seemed to have nothing to say about how some cultures gain the creativity and energy in the first place to grow and neighbouring cultures that start with the same advantages and limitations don’t. Why is it that some Indo-European cultures (Greek, Roman, Germanic) became dominant in Europe while others (Celtic mainly) didn’t? Couldn’t luck and coincidence have played a role?

The fact that Spengler’s book and views have become popular almost immediately after “The Decline …” was first published might suggest that if and when decline does come and deluge follows, they will be self-fulfilled prophecies. If Western civilisation does fall, couldn’t that be partly because certain of our elites were so influenced by Spengler and his followers’ views that the creativity and energy needed to revive this culture ended up being sapped by fatalism and a deterministic outlook?

The value of Ebert’s lecture is as an introduction to Spengler’s work and beliefs. Interested people may investigate further and try to read Spengler; others who just want a basic sketch of what Spengler thought and wrote about can start and stop with Ebert’s lecture.

 

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.

Late but not entirely forgotten – a 2014 Review Round-up!

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers,

Yes I did forget to post my customary round-up of the films I saw in 2014 and before we knew it, January 2015 had already gone and February 2015 was set to fly past as well!

Well the usual bad news is that whatever Hollywood put out that I deigned to watch was not great even where it covered subject matter that I was interested in. Point in case was Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” which in spite of its ambitions and production was an underwhelming experience. Other disappointing films were the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”, a work which I felt did a disservice to the life and outlook of US folk guitarist Dave von Ronk whose experiences provided source material for the movie; Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” which used its source material to create something that was frankly pornographic and depraved; and Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” which for me was frankly dishonest in brushing over the suffering of people during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo and the fire that followed, and whitewashing the course of militarism and aggression that Japan followed in the 1930s – 40s.

So the main cinematic joys of my year came down to independent cinema and old Hollywood crackers like Frankenheimer’s classic “The Manchurian Candidate”; the Spierig brothers’ quirky “Predestination”; Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” and Michael Leigh’s sprawling “Mr Turner”. Some movies that could have been very good but ended up being sunk by their plots or narrative structures were Bandele’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” and Sissako’s “Timbuktu”.  The Acquisto / Reis film “A Guerra da Beatriz” was a moving story of justice and reconciliation and a welcome highlight of the year.

Well it’s time to put my head and neck back to the grind-stone to find more interesting, informative and, above all, entertaining films that actually have some integrity and which mean what they say. Happy film-going for 2015!

Nausika / Under Southern Eyes

An affectionate if subjective review of a musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)” (2011)

I had expected the second part of this documentary on George Harrison to be more interesting than the first and to be quite deep – it covers the second half of his life after all! – but the reality is that it is no more than an affectionate series of snapshots and fond reminiscences by family members and friends who loved him or worked with him. There is little exploration into why Harrison was so drawn to following esoteric Hindu and other Indian traditions and philosophies, how he was able to reconcile being a major celebrity and popular music icon, with enormous wealth and influence at his finger-tips, with following a spiritual path which must have beckoned him at some stage of his life to renounce his material life-style and possessions. One suspects that Harrison’s understanding of the Eastern traditions might have been a bit naive or self-serving, and not very self-critical or engaged in self-examination; there is mention in the documentary of his cocaine habit and his infidelity to his first wife Pattie Boyd (who divorced him in 1977 because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his alcohol and cocaine abuse) and later to second wife Olivia Arias, so his spiritual quest was certainly an odd one that permitted self-indulgence. Since the point of the film is supposedly to investigate how a famous celebrity comes to follow a personal spiritual quest in order to deal with the pressure of fame and the emptiness of easy wealth, and how that person lives with the contradictions that arise as a result, the documentary’s failure to do so in a meaningful way to those audiences not familiar with Harrison’s music or musical history leaves the whole project looking like a moving scrapbook of memories and selected highlights that might or might not be interesting to know.

The format that Martin Scorsese uses to make the documentary – allowing interviewees to ramble at some length and slotting them together in a meandering chronological narrative along with snippets of old photographs and film – strains at its limitations: everyone interviewed speaks warmly of Harrison and his generosity with money and material possessions, his puckish humour and various eccentricities. Harrison’s boundless generosity, stemming from his beliefs, leads him to an unexpected career as a film producer, providing financial backing to various British films in the 1980s through Handmade Films and helping to keep the British film industry afloat during that decade. The interviews generally present a positive view of Harrison and he comes off looking a like a saint. The film-making approach makes a sober assessment of Harrison’s life and spirituality impossible. (The fact that Olivia Harrison was a co-producer might partly explain the film’s generally forgiving view towards her late husband.) Large gaps in Harrison’s musical career in the late 1970s,  part of the 1980s and most of the following decade are glossed over. Inexplicably there is no mention of the recording and release of his album Thirty Three & 1/3 in 1976 which revived public interest in Harrison’s career after a creative slump in the early to mid-1970s.

Anyone wanting an evaluation on how significant Harrison was as a musician and song-writer during his life, even as some sort of guide or exemplar of living a spiritual life, and whether the legacy he left after his death has stood the test of time and grown, won’t find the answer in what is essentially a hagiography.

The Theory of Everything: an amazingly lightweight romantic drama

James Marsh, “The Theory of Everything” (2014)

Despite the title, this biopic about English cosmologist Stephen Hawking is less about his work and its importance to science and more a fictionalised romantic drama about Hawking and his first marriage to Jane Wilde: the film is based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The movie’s structure is strictly chronological, starting in 1963 when Hawking first meets Jane at Cambridge University and follows the couple as they cope with and try to overcome the considerable obstacle of Hawking’s motor neurone disease which not only affects Hawking himself but Jane’s life and the lives of those whom they meet, all the way to 1990 when they separated. Naturally we expect that Jane gives up her own career ambitions to care for Hawking and their three children, and she does, very dutifully … maybe too much so to her cost and that of the marriage. But other obstacles arrive that the couple does not foresee, obstacles that also derail the marriage: Hawking’s own fame as a physicist and cosmologist which means that he must travel to receive awards, make speeches and give lectures; Jane’s attempt to have a life away from looking after people, which attempt brings her into contact with another man, Jonathan Hellyer Jones,  for whom she develops romantic feelings; and Hawking’s need to have constant care as his condition deteriorates, which need brings another woman into his life with whom he eventually elopes.

The film is basically a study of character and a relationship and in this it excels. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do excellent work in portraying the Hawkings, infusing both characters with warmth, individuality and, in Redmayne’s portrayal, humour and cheekiness if not that much of the intellect that sent the original Hawking to university at the age of 17 years. Jones’ Jane comes away as a saintly figure whose conventional and conservative outlook contrasts with her husband’s curiosity, wit and sharpness: no surprise then that these two individuals with not much in common in their personalities will eventually drift apart. Redmayne and Jones receive ample support from the rest of the cast, especially from Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Emily Watson makes a brief surprise appearance as Jane’s mother in a role that makes no demands on her considerable talent.

The cinematography is often glowing and lovely with soft lines. It is clever in the way a number of scenes play out in ways that reflect and even demonstrate some of the discoveries and predictions Hawking makes in his theoretical work and calculations on black holes and their effects on the stars they come across.

As a romantic drama, the film fares adequately in showing how a devastating chronic illness can affect a relationship and accentuate the differences between couples in surprising ways. Caring for Hawking and their three children not only requires Jane to give up her own ambitions and dreams and strains her relationship with her husband, it also throws her into a mental straitjacket beyond which she cannot see ahead what Hawking’s increasing celebrity and the increased nursing he needs might mean for them both and the marriage’s survival. Hawking’s stubborn determination that he be treated as a normal person not deserving any more consideration than other people would does not help either him or his wife: the result is an increasingly fragile relationship that totters and collapses once carers have to be employed to help the Hawkings. Astonishingly the Hawking children are mere wallpaper figures whose existence apparently has no effect on their parents’ increasingly fraught relationship though a scene in a car suggests the Hawkings had different ideas about bringing up their children – Hawking himself appears like an overgrown playmate to his kids – and must have come to blows over disciplining them. The film fails to dwell very much on the adults’ different spiritual beliefs – he, an atheist and she, a devout Christian – and how the professor’s atheism and work in cosmology challenges, even threatens his wife’s religious faith and their relationship.

The general respectful approach the film adopts towards the Hawkings ensures that the couple is shown mostly in a good light – even Hawking’s elopement with the nurse occurs off-screen – and the whole project ends up rather staid and lacking in spark. In failing to grapple with its subject, warts and all, the film comes off as amazingly lightweight.

Puce Moment: a nostalgia piece that foresees the arrival of pop music videos

Kenneth Anger, “Puce Moment” (1949)

In the space of just 6 minutes, this short acts as a homage to Kenneth Anger’s grandmother, a dressmaker and designer who owned the flapper-style gowns displayed in the film, and as a nostalgic and whimsical celebration of Hollywood’s silent-film period of the 1920s and the glamour and mystique associated with the major celebrities of the time. In that celebration is a sharp and witty criticism of how far Hollywood had slumped by the late 1940s. This criticism would continue in Anger’s documentation in book form in his “Hollywood Babylon” series that began in 1977. In its idolisation of the silent film era, using no other audio soundtrack other than music (originally music from an opera was used, to be replaced by two pop songs in the 1960s), “Puce Moment” becomes a precursor of the pop music video: music and visual montages are juxtaposed in such a way that the music seems to comment on what the audience sees. The film sequences are arranged so as to suggest a narrative that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

What would merely have been a film of a young woman (Yvonne Marquis) choosing and putting on an evening gown, reclining on a chaise longue that moves of its own volition and later taking four borzoi hounds for a walk acquires a decadent and opulent lushness under the gaze of Anger’s camera. The film focuses hungrily and wistfully on the beautiful dresses and closely follows the woman’s hand fondling various coloured ornaments and glasses, and selecting her jewels. An air of languor and luxury surrounds the lady and the various objects. There is something quite jaded and even ritualistic as if this activity is all the lady lives for.

Originally intended as part of a longer film, “Puce Moment” is at once a fond romantic idealisation of a past era of popular culture and a portent of what was to come in the second half of the 20th century.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

A survey of social and cultural changes in 1960s Britain through one musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)” (2011)

A really very thoughtful and fascinating documentary (in its first half at least) on the life and career of the British rock musician icon George Harrison, as told by the people who knew him and worked with him, in more or less chronological order from his days as a working-class Liverpool schoolboy jamming with the kids who together would become one of the world’s most beloved and influential rock bands. Hollywood director Martin Scorsese performs a very deft job tracing Harrison’s development as a musician, a song-writer and a man on a personal spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Harrison’s maturation as a musician and person took place during a period of social and cultural ferment in Britain, one in which his band The Beatles was itself a major player, attracting other musicians, artists, photographers and various hangers-on, not all of whom had something worthwhile to give. The pressures of fame, wealth, the power and influence that come with having money and celebrity, and the often unwelcome attentions of a media hungry for sales and profit or of groupies, drug dealers and others, were deeply felt by the band members both individually and collectively, and Harrison felt such strains perhaps more deeply than the other members – hence the sub-title, in which living with such easy wealth pushed Harrison into questioning the direction and purpose of his life and heading onto a more spiritual path.

Part 1 deals with Harrison’s time with The Beatles: his career then is more or less synchronous with the band’s musical evolution right up until 1966 when meeting the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar exposes Harrison to a very different musical tradition and culture which leads him to investigate meditation and spiritualism. The documentary moves with the ease and flow of classical Indian improvisational music through the 1960s and shows something of the rapidly changing musical and cultural scene in Britain. The creative conflicts among The Beatles crop up as a motif throughout the documentary.

One expects that the former surviving members of The Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ring Starr) will appear in the documentary and they do. Ex-wife Pattie Boyd and best friend Eric Clapton (who was in love with Boyd while she was married to Harrison and who married her after the Harrisons divorced) also appear. Though there is a lot of talk about the internal politics that drove The Beatles apart, there is very little about how Harrison approached the song-writing process, how he became a talented and capable composer in his own right such that Frank Sinatra adopted one of his songs “Something” into his own repertoire, and why his talent was slow to develop to the extent that it was overshadowed for a long time by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

(Of course one of the problems in making a documentary about a dead person based entirely on interviews with the people who knew him is that they will often be inclined to speak well of him, rather than criticise his shortcomings, and this is certainly the case here with this documentary with the result that Harrison perhaps comes off as a better person than he actually deserves to be. His martial infidelities which cost him his marriage to Boyd are passed over. Plus one hardly expects the likes of McCartney to rue his and Lennon’s treatment of Harrison as an inferior in the song-writing department to the extent that Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles’ collective work were held to much higher standards than Lennon and McCartney’s compositions.)

Fittingly Part 1 ends with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, one of the great Beatles classics and the first such song to feature a guest musician (Eric Clapton on lead guitar) in a significant role, thus signalling Harrison’s eventual break away from The Beatles into his solo career and life which I presume will be covered by Part 2.

The documentary is aimed at people who know The Beatles’ music and something of their history and the times in which they lived. For others (mostly young people born after the 1970s), the documentary may be confusing and even pointless: Harrison wasn’t the most prolific member of the band and was certainly very self-effacing, and his otherworldly songs are not always the most pop-friendly chart-topping pieces. But perhaps that is all the more reason for Scorsese to have made a documentary about him. The film’s narrative structure seems very loose but that is deliberate: it’s intended to flow in a wandering way yet it still goes from A to B all the way to Z.

The Charlie Hebdo False Flag in Paris: Theory, Evidence and Motive – analysis of the attacks as a covert operation to disguise and to deceive

Stuart J Hooper, “The Charlie Hebdo False Flag in Paris: Theory, Evidence and Motive” (21st Century Wire, 13 January 2015)

If like me, you suspected something odd about the official accounts of the shootings that took the lives of 12 people and injured 4 others at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in early January 2015 and you believe there’s far more behind the massacre that’s being withheld from the public, this essay by Stuart J Hooper ought to stir your interest. The article can be read at the 21st Century Wire website or you can listen to the audio transcript. Both prose and audio transcript go into considerable detail and range widely in examining the broad geopolitical context behind the killings so readers and listeners alike may need two or more excursions through the material to digest it all.

The essay posits that the killings may be a false flag operation as defined by US commentator Dr Webster Griffin Tarpley in his book 9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA. Tarpley’s definition of a false flag incident includes a setting in which unseen actors perform heinous acts and force patsies to bear responsibility for them under a privatised and controlled hidden command structure. The acts are reported by a controlled corporate media interested in currying favour with its owners and masters over proper investigation and analysis of the acts and reporting the truth to the public. What Tarpley might have added is that for such a setting with such actors and institutions to exist, a particular culture with certain political, economic and social conditions, values and belief systems exists that favours its development and continuation. Governments and corporations, be they private, public or in-between, feel no compulsion to be accountable to their publics and lying, opacity and disseminating propaganda are so widespread as to be a necessary part of living as breathing is. The people are trained to want to be lied to. Citizens are treated with contempt and as cyphers to be used and abused by governments and others with political, social and economic power.

Hooper’s essay then examines what is known about the attacks to see if details about them suggest the attacks could be a false flag. The perpetrators were masked: because they were masked, their shouting of “Allahu akbar!” and that they had avenged the Prophet Mohammed don’t mean much in identifying them as radical Islamic extremists – anyone can shout such exclamations regardless of his/her faith, including you and I. What the utterances do though is to frame the attacks and push them into a particular narrative to be taken up and repeated by an unquestioning news media, and to be exploited by governments and corporations, sure in the knowledge that the public accepts the narrative, to advance their own agendas. All other alternative explanations about the perpetrators and their motives are shut out. The men on whom the killings are blamed appear to be patsies: what is known about Said and Cherif Kouachi’s backgrounds and histories suggests they lacked the ability, skills and experiece in planning and executing a professional hit on 16 people. The getaway driver turned out to be a teenage boy at school at the time of the murders.

If the attacks had been done in such a way that none other than professional killers could have performed them, how could the killers be so remiss as to leave their passports behind in the getaway car? An explanation may be that leaving ID papers behind was part of the killers’ mission to frame the Kouachi men and the teenager in order to distract the police and throw them onto a wild goose chase after the patsies. The killers would then have time to escape, blend in with the French public and maybe even leave France.

The fact that the Kouachi men had been tracked by the US, UK and French governments for years and that one of them was linked to al Qa’ida in Yemen ad to Anwar al Awlaki, himself killed by a US drone in 2011, could suggest that these men were being used as assets by an unknown organisation with a command structure.

Perhaps the most important part of the essay is its investigation of the prevailing geopolitical situation to find possible motives for the attacks to occur in France in the way they did at the time they did. A number of such motives exist: the French President François Hollande recently broke ranks with his fellow NATO leaders in a radio interview in stating that Russia did not want to annex eastern Ukraine, that economic sanctions against Russia had to stop and that France would not participate in unilateral military intervention in Libya. It so happens also that France is under pressure from Russia and from French ship-building unions to deliver two long-overdue Mistral warships to that country; the likely legal and financial consequences of non-delivery and the effect on France’s business reputation must be weighing heavily on Hollande. The insinuation is that the Hebdo attacks are a warning to France to follow the NATO narrative and agenda without question regardless of the impact on French national interests and the EU project. This  suggests that a hidden command structure of the kind Tarpley’s definition of a false flag requires does exist. Some websites have raised as a possible motive the fact that in November 2014, the French lower house of parliament had voted in favour of supporting Palestinian statehood. This is more difficult to prove but there an eerie parallel could exist with Malaysia, which hosts a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur that convicted Israel guilty of genocide against Palestinians in November 2013; the following year, Malaysia Airlines lost two passenger jets in separate incidents, one of which (the shoot-down of MH-17 in Ukraine in July) appears very strongly to be a false flag incident as per Tarpley’s definition.

Hooper’s article does quite a convincing job of making the case for the Hebdo attacks being a false flag, in tying up and reconciling various anomalies and contradictions in the details of the attacks. Subsequent developments after those attacks: the march of various world leaders in Paris to show solidarity favouring freedom of the press; terror raids in Belgium, France and Germany; cyber-attacks on 19,000 French websites; the increased police security around Jewish public places in France while Muslim communities suffered increased anti-Islamic attacks and discrimination but no extra police presence; Israel pressuring the French Jewish community to leave France for its own shores; and governments in various European states including the UK ramping up repressive measures – all insinuate that the Hebdo attacks have become an opportunity to shock and scare Europeans into accepting police state measures they otherwise would have decried, even demonstrated against. One could be forgiven for being paranoid and imagining that an unseen command structure or institution is indeed manipulating events and shepherding Europeans and others through fear, terror and uncertainty into a dark direction.