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 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 Patti 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.

Full Metal Jacket: how people are dehumanized by war and the culture of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)

According to Wikipedia, a full metal jacket refers to a bullet consisting of a soft core (usually made of lead) surrounded by a harder metal shell casing. This is the clue to a major theme of this anti-war film by Stanley Kubrick: the dehumanization of men by war, in particular by the culture and organisation of war to achieve ends other than what the men themselves have been told about what they are fighting for. The movie is well made, with skilful deployment of the Steadicam camera that follows the actors quite closely so that the viewer is brought right into the action of war and is able to feel something of the sweat, exhaustion, uncertainty and sheer hard grind (physical and psychological) of being on the front-line. The cinematography is magnificent in its portrayal of the claustrophobic environment and the scale of destruction in Vietnam wrought by the Vietnam War.

The film divides into two halves: viewers will be hard pressed to figure out which half features more brutality and violence. In the first half, a platoon of US marine recruits is put through its boot camp paces by the sadistic and implacable Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey, who drew on his experiences as a drill sergeant in the US Army and saw action in Vietnam in the 1960s). Almost straight away Hartman finds fault with one recruit Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he dubs Gomer Pyle after a TV sitcom character because of his bumbling ways. Pyle finds keeping up with the recruits during the hard physical training very heavy going and continually attracts the ire and insults of Hartman. Hartman pairs him with another recruit “Joker” (Matthew Modine) who tries to help Pyle. Pyle makes considerable progress until he is humiliated by Hartman who then starts punishing the entire platoon every time Pyle makes a mistake. The platoon then hazes Pyle. From this moment on, Pyle suffers a slow mental breakdown, disguised as his reinvention as a model soldier, to the horror of Joker who observes his deterioration. This gradual collapse comes to a horrifying and incredibly tragic climax.

The second half of the film sees Joker, now a sergeant and war correspondent for a military newspaper, covering events as they unfold during the Vietnam War. Accompanied by photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker is sent to Phu Bai where they follow a squad of soldiers, one of whom is Cowboy (Arliss Howard), Joker’s friend from boot camp. The men are involved in a number of actions that culminate in their entrapment in an unfamiliar part of an unnamed bombed-out city by a sniper who picks them off one by one. The men lead an attack on the sniper and Joker discovers the sniper’s identity. A shoot-out follows and Joker is left with a dreadful choice to make.

As the moral pivot around which FMJ revolves, the mostly passive character of Joker is important: he represents the ordinary person thrust into extreme situations where he is forced to make unenviable choices, and each and every one of these choices has the potential to cut him down as a moral being. At the end of the film, Joker is glad to be physically alive but whether he is morally and spiritually alive is another question. The men around him represent particular aspects of the human character under duress and some of them, like Pyle, become psychotic to a degree. Because Joker is essentially an acquiescent character who basically does as he is told despite a minor shallow rebelliousness, the film may seem less stronger to many viewers than it might have done had he been more assertive.

Some viewers may gripe about the film’s structure but the two halves complement each other well: the first half is ordered with a definite narrative. Hartman carries out a brutal regime of degradation in a more or less restrained and controlled environment. In the film’s second half, chaos and disorder reign. The psychological degradation is more gradual. The film’s conclusion appears banal but it is a logical summation of the brutality and violence that the US troops have brought to Vietnam. The film is actually very tight in its overall structure. Just as Joker claims to a disbelieving senior officer that he wears a helmet baptised “Born to Kill” and a peace symbol at the same time to represent the Jungian dualities that exist in his nature, so the film conveys a similar duality in its halves that reflect and comment on one another. Should we be surprised that both halves resolve in similar climaxes that test the moral strength of Joker and the audience who witness with him?

Details within the film, especially in a scene in which the soldiers are interviewed by news reporters, delineate the extent to which the soldiers are becoming paranoid and hateful towards the Vietnamese: they believe the Vietnamese are ungrateful at the Americans’ presence and what they believe is a noble fight against Communism. The extent to which the Americans and Vietnamese exist in parallel but are actually worlds apart thanks in part to the Americans having been brainwashed by their own government and media propaganda can be faintly discerned. The Vietcong enemy initially appears mysterious, sinister, larger than large, ominous and multi-tentacled yet when it is revealed at close quarters, the soldiers are devastated to discover they have been picked off by a teenage girl.

A major theme of Kubrick’s films is the cultural construction of masculinity in Western, principally American, society and how manhood can be distorted and undercut by prevailing cultural delusions about war and how it is best prosecuted. The film’s two climaxes demonstrate how fragile this masculinity is and how culture can destroy humans in just as devastating ways as war does.

On the whole, this is a very good film though it lacks the power of Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent “Apocalypse Now” with which it is often compared.

The Imitation Game: another simplistic cog in the propaganda war aiming to demonise Russia

Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” (2014)

One of a slew of historical films from the UK depicting hitherto unknown or unfamiliar aspects of Britain’s role in World War II against Nazi Germany, “The Imitation Game” is a fictionalised account of the renowned British computer scientist Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park in decoding the encryption and deciphering codes used by the Nazi enemies’ Enigma coding machines. The film’s narrative takes the form of flashback recounts made by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) under arrest for indecency offences to a dumbfounded police detective (Rory Kinnear) after a mystery break-in at Turing’s home in 1951. In Turing’s retelling of his World War II work, the story flies back and forth between his teenage years at boarding school, during which time he suffers from severe bullying and develops an intense friendship with another boy, and his efforts in building a machine that will decipher Nazi German messages under various pressures exerted by his initially uncooperative work colleagues led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), his superior Commander Alasdair Denniston (Charles Dance) and above all, time itself, as the Germans continue their sweep across Europe, capturing Paris and several other European capitals, and threaten the security of Britain itself with bombing raids and strikes against shipping in the North Atlantic.

A significant criticism of the film can be made in the way characters and the overall story narrative were changed so as to conform to a simplistic Hollywood story of lone outsider with Asperger-like geek tendencies fighting against an unsympathetic bureaucracy and disbelieving colleagues to fulfill his life’s dream and in the process become a hero. In real life Turing was very friendly and enjoyed good working relationships with others; likewise other characters in the film who are portrayed in stereotyped ways – Denniston as unsympathetic and rigid authority figure comes to mind – were nothing of the sort in real life. Also the film’s plot casts Turing and his colleagues as being solely and heroically responsible for cracking the Enigma machine’s codes when in fact thousands of people (80% of whom were women) from all walks of life – mathematicians, chess players and historians alike, thanks to Denniston’s recruitment efforts – were involved in the code-breaking efforts. In such an environment, the chances that Turing would meet and work with someone like John Cairncross, who was secretly working for the Soviets, were close to being so small as to be infinitesimal. A subtle and quite unnecessary subtext that demonises Russia is present.

In this unrealistic narrative also, an unnecessary plot crisis is invented when, having cracked the Engima machine’s codes and read its recent messages, Turing and his team (which includes one woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) discover a convoy of British ships carrying 500 civilians and a navy sailor brother of one of Turing’s colleagues is about to be attacked by German U-boats in the next 30 minutes. The young colleague understandably wants to save his brother’s life … but to do so by phoning Downing Street, who would then order an attack on the U-boats, risks publicising the British discovery of the Germans’ encryption codes to the Germans themselves. The Germans would then resort to using new codes which would force the British to try to decipher the new codes after years of trying to decipher the current codes. This version of the classic trolley-bus dilemma (should one sacrifice one person so that five others end up being killed, or should one save that person but allow those five to die?) is so contrived that audiences can see it in advance before the young man even tells Turing about his brother. Of course, the answer, given the constricting social and political circumstances, is obvious and in the reality of the time, the young man would accept that his brother, in joining the navy and swearing his oath of loyalty, had already made his choice … but in the world of mainstream British historical film-making, Hollywood dictates rule that Turing alone makes the decision and in doing so, becomes a bit less human in the short term – and perhaps more corruptible as a result – if more heroic in the long term. From this moment on, one senses that Turing’s life trajectory must take a downward turn in the fantasy-land that is current Western mainstream cinema.

The film does very little to follow Turing’s post-war activities except to highlight his arrest for gross indecency (for having engaged in homosexual activity with another, much younger man) and to paint him as something of a pathetic figure forced to undergo chemical castration whose side effects undermine his intellectual work. A definite subtext that protests any action seen as discriminatory towards LGBTI people and impinges on their freedom of sexual expression, whether such action is intended or not, seems to be at work here. The reality is that Turing voluntarily accepted to undergo hormonal treatment to avoid imprisonment which would have affected his future employment and work prospects. The only person who would know if the hormonal treatment had affected his intellectual activities would be Turing himself – his work after Bletchley Park and during his last few years would suggest that the injections had few side effects on his output (though they did feminise his body somewhat). The end titles which state that Turing committed suicide contain a suggestion that his final years were tragic but his mystery death from cyanide poisoning has never really been adequately solved. Given that he had a small laboratory set up in his home and that he was a bit careless with the way he stored dangerous laboratory chemicals, there is a possibility that his death was more accidental than deliberate.

The film’s chief assets are its lead actor Cumberbatch in the pivotal role of Turing and the cast assembled around him. The film is easy enough to follow though it is uncritical of the Second World War and the way in which it was fought. The film’s release during a period in which the UK is pumping out historical dramas set between World Wars I and II for cinema and TV release, at the same time that the US and its allies including the United Kingdom are ratcheting up a new Cold War against Russia and use the crisis in post-Yanukovych / EuroMaidan Ukraine to conduct a proxy war against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation leaves this reviewer feeling uncomfortable about “The Imitation Game” being another cog in a propaganda storm aimed at softening up the public in the West for more global conflict.

In all, if readers of this blog want to know more about Alan Turing, they’d be better off staying away from the cinema and reading this article by Christian Caryl for the New York Review of Books that all but pulverises the movie for turning Turing into a one-dimensional totem.

Troll Hunter: comedy horror flick works in popular Norwegian stereotypes and fears of a police state

André Øvredal, “Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren” (2010)

Inspired perhaps by the example of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog” from the 1990s and “Cannibal Holocaust” from the 1970s, this Norwegian comedy horror flick takes the form of a documentary in process by a group of student film-makers Thomas, Johanna and Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Thomas Alf Larsen) who investigate a series of mysterious livestock and tourist killings by bears. They meet a man Hans (Otto Jespersen) who claims to be a troll hunter and that the deaths were caused by trolls. The youngsters spend the rest of the film following him as he hunts the killers. Before long, the three kids are up to their necks in more than troll stench and troll trouble: not only do they discover that trolls really do exist but that the Norwegian government has long denied their existence and has a vested interest in doing so, and will stop at nothing to ensure that the news media – and the students themselves – know their place and not publicise any information about the trolls.

The main glories of the film are in the subtle ways it works traditional Norwegian folk stories about trolls and contemporary Norwegian cultural stereotypes and hang-ups into its threadbare plot. The plot provides a framework to work various jokes and comedy sketches that enliven it. The sketch in which three sheep are placed on a bridge as bait for a giant troll is a reference to the children’s fairy story about the three billy goats. Another sketch in which Hans and the students encounter some Polish immigrants provides an opportunity to send up Norwegian fears and beliefs about immigrants generally and Polish immigrants in particular, the latter being a constant presence across western Europe after Poland joined the EU and its people got visa-free access so they could escape their country’s chronic unemployment problem. A running gag in the film is that every time Hans despatches a troll to troll Valhalla, the government sends in its agent Finn and his helpers to plant false bear tracks in the area and spread lies about mysterious killings of foreign tourists and others. While such issues might suggest the film will find a very limited audience outside Norway, I had no problem picking up some of the issues worked into the film and I daresay most non-Norwegian viewers will spot them as well and enjoy the film for what it is.

There are references also to the conflict between the Norwegian government and farmers whose livestock are attacked by bears and wolves, and the bureaucratic hoops that farmers must jump through to obtain licences to protect their animals without breaking wildlife regulations; and to the problems of setting up power-lines in wilderness areas.

Although the film plays its themes for laughs, one can detect something quite serious in the way the trolls are portrayed as the last, pitiful members of a dying species and how among other things the Norwegian government is using them to expand its power over people’s lives and the country in which they live. Thus we have the paranoid bureaucratic obsession with hiding the reality of trolls from the public, to the extent of arresting and incarcerating the student film-makers, with only a few titles closing off the film by saying that the students have disappeared. (The interesting twist of course is that the trolls are not responsible for the students’ disappearance.) The news media obediently follows the official government line of never admitting the existence of trolls in spite of a short clip featuring the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg averring that they could exist.

Otto Jespersen puts in a very convincing performance as the troll hunter fed up with the way he has been treated by the Norwegian government who needs his services to keep the troll population in check and away from the public yet refuses to acknowledge his existence and pay him properly. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows him in close-up as he explains the different kinds of troll that exist in Norway, the trolls’ inability to metabolise Vitamin D (which explains their aversion to sunlight and the fact that they explode when exposed to UV light) and their ability to sniff out and kill anyone who is Christian. The actual trolls themselves are obviously computer-generated and much of the film does look very amateurish, what with the swinging cameras, but its ability to hold viewers in suspense despite the comedy and the outlandish premise is in no doubt.

Mr Turner: a microcosm of 19th-century British society through the life of J M W Turner

Mike Leigh, “Mr Turner” (2014)

I confess I always have the time of day for the under-rated British actor Timothy Spall who always had the talent to be a leading man but was always relegated to minor character roles or playing second fiddle, due perhaps to his basset-hound looks. At last in “Mr Turner”, Spall gets to play the leading man, the famous early 19th-century landscape painter and water-colourist J M W Turner who was turning out Impressionist paintings of the sea and early abstract art before either became recognised and accepted genres. The film covers about three decades of Turner’s life just before his father William died leading up to Turner’s last breath in which he utters “The sun is God”. Turner the character might have been talking about himself as there is hardly a shot in which he does not appear and the camera follows him zealously as he travels from his home in London to Margate and then Chelsea, and various parts of the English countryside including Dover and the New Forest, searching for artistic inspiration and suitable subjects to paint, and dallying with two mistresses and the maid who faithfully serves him.

There is no definitive plot as we would understand it: the film makes its audience voyeurs into Turner’s life (mostly fictionalised but based on what is known of his personal life) as he goes about his business, public and private, and the narrative arises from a collage of snapshots tracing Turner’s life from the mid-1820s to 1851 when he died. The film marks the passing of time by making references to the significant technological, social and historical events of the day: the steam train’s appearance marks the 1830s, Queen Victoria appears in one scene and Turner mentions the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851, in a late scene. All major actors in the film give riveting and often quite emotional portrayals but in a minimalist way. The women in Turner’s life occupy major roles here: there is his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), suffering from psoriasis and probably more besides, but always there for him, however badly he treats her, and secretly in love with him; and there is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady who becomes Turner’s second mistress. There is another mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who had two daughters by Turner. A running theme throughout the film is the way Turner treats his women: he lies to them all and dies without their ever being told that they are rivals.

As well as the acting, the cinematography is outstanding with many shots set up to resemble paintings with formal compositional elements. Turner the character is posed in scenes that later become the basis of the paintings that made him famous. The film emphasises Turner’s interest in light and the way in which light governs the mood of a painting which in turn can influence the way people look at the painting. Turner is seen taking an interest in the scientific developments of his day, even going so far as to invite a Scottish woman scientist into his home, and in his old age venturing into a shop to have his photograph taken just so he can see the challenge the daguerrotype – the forerunner of the camera – poses to his profession. One sees here in a subtle way how changes in technology signify the passage of time in this film that otherwise seems to flow without reference to it.

In spite of no obvious plot and the film’s length, “Mr Turner” does not bore: Leigh’s preoccupation with the minutiae of life in the early 19th century and the characters’ conversations, conducted in the idiom of the time, keep viewers occupied – well, maybe not all viewers but this viewer certainly was occupied. There are references to artistic competition and one-upmanship between Turner and another artist, John Constable (James Fleet); Turner’s friendship with Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a fellow artist of brusque manner who was always in debt and who committed suicide in 1846; and Turner’s acquaintance with the pretentious art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

The film does not completely capture or even try to explain the complexity of Turner or why he acts the way he does, nor does it examine why how he became interested in light and how to capture the fleeting moment in a scene that made his paintings distinctive and at times abstract. The desultory nature of the film in which some moments of Turner’s life are highlighted and others ignored mirror Turner’s own interest in catching a particular moment in the day when the sun shone on a landscape in a particular way. Something of the way in which an artist can be held in public esteem, only to fall into public mockery, can be seen in the film’s later treatment of Turner in which as an eccentric old man, he sees people turning away from him, making fun of him in music hall revues and his paintings valued at a paltry 100,000 pounds by an American businessman.

The film does rise and fall with what viewers can gain out of watching the film. Some viewers will be bored by an aimless parade of diorama scenes and will wonder what the whole point of the film is, having no obvious story to tell and saying nothing profound about Turner’s motivations or character. The film shows a microcosm of the world in which Turner lived, how his relations with his women reflected something of the hierarchical social order of Britain, how his career rose and fell with public approval of his work and how eventually the world left him – as it does other artists, scientists and other significant contributors to human culture and society – behind. In that alone, the film has actually said something quite profound.

Funny Games (English language version): an ultimately empty and boring remake that misses the point of violence in American films

Michael Haneke, “Funny Games (English language version)” (2007)

Austrian director Michael Haneke originally had wanted to make “Funny Games” as an American film due to his belief that violence as entertainment was a peculiarly American phenomenon. Perhaps Haneke has not visited too many video arcades, DVD shops and multiplex movie cinemas in his native Austria or Germany next door, and the popularity of his original German-language “Funny Games” and its collection of various film awards would suggest he should reconsider his opinion. Anyway the director went ahead and remade his film about the upper middle class family on holiday being tormented, tortured and terminated by the two young psychopaths, one of whom makes an irritating habit of inviting the film’s audience to passively approve their activities. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the roles of the hapless bourgeois couple Ann and George completely at the mercy of the two young squeaky-clean and Ivy-League-preppy punks Peter (Michael Pitt) and Paul (Brady Corbet) who are no less vicious than their Austrian cousins. In spite of attempts to escape and to call for help, Ann, George and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are on a downward spiral from the moment they meet the polite young men, and the only thing the audience needs to worry about is how long the psycho pair take to dispose of their victims and how many Hollywood movie thriller conventions they break in doing so.

Now Haneke is a very good film-maker as can be seen from the way he generates and layers on the tension in a narrative that arises casually from an otherwise aimless holiday in the country. His style is sparing, quiet and low-key which emphasises the sheer horror of the casual and violent deaths that occur off-screen. The result is a film that seems too unreal, too formal and remote to resonate with its audience. In make Ann and George’s family upper-middle-class generic, Haneke errs in divesting them of the idiosyncrasies that could have made the three characters more human and the deaths they suffer more tragic. We do not know where Ann and George come from, we do not even know what they do for a living and why they are on holiday. Perhaps they have won the lottery and are celebrating, perhaps they have decided to make up after a long separation and getting away from the stresses of everyday life is their way of reconciling. There is no sense that before the film opens, they had a history; consequently the audience is primed not to feel any sympathy for their suffering. Likewise the young men who imprison and torture the family have no history other than torturing other middle class families and the film indicates that they will continue to do so; in spite of their stand-up comedy routine in which Peter teases Paul about his weight and Peter’s appeals to the audience, the duo are no more than robots programmed to play the same circuit of “funny games” each time they meet a new family.

Preoccupied with co-opting its audience as passive collaborators with its villains, and treating the victims as hopeless pampered bourgeois idiots reliant on technology that fails them and grasping at every straw that breaks, the film itself becomes as empty as its psychopathic pair who rampage across an unidentified rural community in an imagined middle class America. At least Lars von Trier in making his films about Americana had the excuse of fearing aeroplane flights. The film feels empty and hollow in making its message about pointless violence as it grinds relentlessly to its conclusion. The actors playing the villains have no chemistry between them and lack the necessary black humour that might have commented on people’s obsessions to cocoon themselves with technology and vacations away from the outside world. While Watts and Roth do all they can in their respective roles – it should be noted that Watts has been choosing roles of mothers in distress with unfailing predictability – the one-dimensional nature of their characters and the film reduce their emotional outpourings to banal gestures.

There is far more to remaking a film in a different language and in a foreign setting, even an avantgarde film like the original “Funny Games”. The cultural context of the film can have an impact that makes or breaks the new version. Violence in Hollywood movies is usually over-emphasised and over-stylised so as to make it seem hyper-real and it serves a purpose in building up and releasing emotion and tension in controlled ways that sensitise audiences to favour the films’ ulterior messages of obedience to authority as represented by police or the military, and the use of force and violence over negotiation and compromise to achieve objectives. Such morality as exists is whatever the wealthy and successful determine it to be and those who wish to strive for justice eventually have to adopt the same dog-eat-dog tactics merely to survive. Hence the need for film conventions such as allowing the victim a fair shot at getting even with his / her tormenters. Violence in Hollywood films does not serve as entertainment, it serves as a propaganda tool and this is what Haneke missed. Therefore what worked in the German film will not necessarily work in the American film and the remake of “Funny Games” ends up putting Haneke in much the same disturbing place as his villains: creepy and boringly repetitive.