The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor who he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own way, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping: retreating into blandness and relying on stereotypes and a banal plot-line

Richard Flanagan, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” (1998)

If there’s any value to this film at all, it is as an object lesson in how not to make a film based on stereotypes and a narrative that’s been told many times over in other Australian movies. “The Sound …” is ostensibly an exploration of how an immigrant family in 1950s Australia is crushed by poverty, isolation and a generally indifferent society, and how the consequences of family break-up affect the individuals involved. Slovenian immigrant Melita abandons her husband and young daughter Sonja (the delightfully sweet Arabella Wain, three years old at the time of filming), and effectively disappears from their lives. The father tries to bring up Sonja himself but the pressures of living in Hobart, Tasmania, far from family and support, lead him into despair, alcoholism and violence towards Sonja. The girl runs away at the first opportunity she gets. Nearly 20 years later, alone and pregnant, Sonja (Kerry Fox) returns from her dead-end job and no-hoper life in Sydney to find her father to tell him she is going to have an abortion, and perhaps be reconciled with him as well.

The little family’s dreary history unfurls through flashbacks and we eventually discover what becomes of Sonja’s mother but this leaves a great deal unresolved and viewers are left with more questions than answers. What does Sonja really do in the time between leaving her father and becoming pregnant, and who is the father of her child? Does she try to look for her mother and if not, why not? At one point in the film the father (Kristof Kaczmarek) acquires a girlfriend but why does he dump her simply on the advice of his daughter? Does the father truly resolve to give up drinking and attend Alcoholics Anonymous? Why all of a sudden does he offer Sonja furniture for the baby? Why does Sonja decide to keep the baby and stay in Hobart? Does the baby realise there’s a huge responsibility on its tiny shoulders to preserve the family unit and stop Sonja and her dad from drifting apart again?

For a film about love and the need to belong, to know where one has come from and to be able to connect with others in order to survive among strangers in a remote and harsh environment, the narrative is a mess of various stereotypes about the social and cultural barriers immigrants must navigate around and the culture shock they experience in a society whose depth and variety are as non-existent as unicorns and dragons. The characters of Sonja and her father are flatter than pancakes and the usually capable Fox seems completely at a loss as to how to portray the adult Sonja. As an 8-year-old schoolgirl Sonja (Rose Flanagan) is a passive and apathetic observer lacking in energy and spirit. It’s a wonder her later adolescent self manages to summon up the determination to run away without first going through a stage of surreptitiously sharing and smoking cigarettes with other naughty girls in the school toilet cubicles, getting expelled from school for failing grades and then running around with the local teenage motorcycle gang – and falling pregnant to the gang leader. (At that point we might have had a really interesting story.) Scenes tend to be simplistic and unoriginal, and I’m sure we all have seen similar scenes of dad hitting daughter / daughter screaming at dad / dad crashing out in drink / dad later sobbing for the bad things he did to his wife that made her run away in the first place, in other films done with more originality and emotional depth. The film’s resolution after a no-climax climax is hackneyed and unconvincing beyond belief.

The only thing the film has going for it is the moody and slightly sinister Tasmanian landscapes but even then the film does not interact much with its settings and for all I know the movie could have been set in parts of mainland Australia, New Zealand or other areas with mountains and small towns with no change in dialogue. Apart from the settings, the film really has no redeeming features. It seems that at every moment when something interesting might happen, the film turns away from it and retreats into blandness.

Spirited Away: a lavish film representing the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and the start of its decline

Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” (2001)

In many ways, “Spirited Away” represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and innovation, and the beginning of its decline as a creator of imaginative anime films aimed at children and families. Technically the film cannot be faulted and its production values are very high, colourful and lavish, even overdone. Its narrative is easy to follow and its theme of a young girl who learns responsibility and caring for others, and who matures a great deal during her Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, will be apparent to most people. There is a definite message about caring for the natural environment and a condemnation of capitalist society and the ways in which it corrupts people with easy wealth. At the same time, I feel that the film lacks zest and a carefree quality that was present in earlier Studio Ghibli films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, and that the plot’s resolution gives it a suffocating circular hermetic quality and condemns its young heroine Chihiro to living in a world that will deny her further spiritual and moral development.

Chihiro is delivered unexpectedly into the fantasy world by her parents when they lose their way to their new home in a new semi-rural community and stop at the wall of what they believe is a theme park. The three enter the place and the parents come across a sumptuous buffet which they tuck into without hesitation. The adults are turned into pigs and Chihiro is forced to appeal to strangers such as a young boy called Haku within the fortress for help. The fortress is actually a bath-house for spirits and to survive, Chihiro has to apply for a job there. Her employer is the witch Yubaba who steals the girl’s name on the contract and forces her to answer to the name of Sen. Sen is forced to undertake the toughest and dirtiest jobs such as helping a filthy river god to bath and divest itself of accumulated pollution and junk (with hilarious results) but almost comes a cropper when she allows a mysterious spirit called No Face to enter the bath-house and cause havoc and chaos when it tries to buy her affections with gold it conjures up and instead turns into a voracious monster gobbling up food and bath-house staff alike.

By chance and through the kindness of the other bath-house employees, Sen learns that Yubaba has Haku under an evil spell and she breaks the spell by returning a stolen gold seal to Yubaba’s kindly identical twin sister Zeniba. To do this, she has to travel all day and all night by train over a vast sea with No Face who has sobered up from his manic eating and vomiting spree. She helps Yubaba’s spoilt sumo-wrestler baby as well and the baby becomes an ally of hers. Through her ordeals and adventures, Sen learns love and discovers the true nature of Haku, and together they work to break her contract with Yubaba and force Yubaba to restore her true name and release her parents from their porcine forms before they are sent to the abattoir.

Some parts of the plot are a bit wonky – it’s never clear as to why Chihiro’s parents start munching away on food in an apparently abandoned restaurant, and Chihiro’s own transformation from spoilt brat to dependable young woman, and the admiration and respect she gains as a result from the other bath-house workers, is a bit too speedy for my liking – but the plot is clear enough and proceeds leisurely and gracefully from start to finish. Japanese cultural tradition is laid very thickly and the nostalgia that Miyazaki feels for a lost pre-1867 world is very real. Haku’s transformation from boy to dragon and back again hints at a shamanist past in Japan. Quirky Japanese humour is evident in such characters as the giant crybaby sumo-wrestler child and the guide that takes Chihiro and No Face to Zeniba’s cottage.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the film’s richly layered style, the didactic messages it delivers and its conservative view of the world, “Spirited Away” seems very overwrought for a story that probably needs a more minimalist style. The initial shock of seeing the huge bath-house and the unusual clients it attracts gives way to the mundane realisation that Yubaba’s workers are as much exploited and trapped as Chihiro and Haku are – yet in all the shenanigans the two youngsters are forced to undergo, there’s no indication that they want to or try to help the workers overthrow their tyrannical employer and institute a form of workers’ democracy. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 10-year-old girl and an equally young water spirit (not to mention all the other nature spirits who patronise the bath-house) to know anything much about socialism and lead a revolution that will throw out Yubaba and force her either to treat the workers fairly or to go into exile. This means that at the end of the film, Chihiro is reunited with two adults who learn nothing from their error and are completely oblivious to their daughter’s new ways, and it would seem that the bath-house will continue to labour under Yubaba’s capricious rule. Chihiro and Haku part in a way that suggests they will never see each other again, though Haku may continue to think about the girl and treasure his memories of her.

The film perhaps would have worked better if Chihiro and Haku had been older, and a real love story allowed to develop between the two. The two by their example would have inspired the bath-house workers to rise up against Yubaba and send her packing. Chihiro’s parents would have been allowed to make amends for their greed and everyone would have learned something about the nature of the capitalist society that encourages selfishness, undermines loyalty and co-operation, and ultimately corrodes traditional Japanese values and customs. The ending could have been … well, open-ended, with Chihiro and her parents on the brink of choosing whether to return to their humdrum suburban lives working for The Man or remain in a vivid world that promises real values and a more authentic way of living and being.

Marguerite: a rich film of how loyalty, control and hypocrisy intersect with innocence and free spirit

Xavier Giannoli, “Marguerite” (2015)

The inspiration for this film may have been the American socialite and amateur opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins who was notorious for her bad singing but the subtext of “Marguerite” is very rich in what it says about the politics and social values of the period in which it is set, the various hypocrisies of the people who rely on the film’s central figure of Marguerite and how they manipulate her and end up destroying her, and above all the plight of women dependent on their husbands, no matter what their social status may be.

The film starts off as comedy and ends up as tragedy. It essentially pivots around rich socialite and arts patron Baroness Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) whose husband Georges (André Marcon) had married her for her money so he could run a successful business (and keep a mistress on the side). Neglected by Georges, Marguerite retreats into a world of opera music and singing, imagining herself a great opera singer, to gain her husband’s affections, because this is all she knows and all she can do. She is encouraged in her pursuit by loyal butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) who takes photographs of her as various characters in her favourite operas and who may secretly be in love with her – except that his is a love that can never be requited because of the class and race divide between them. (One can appreciate the irony of someone from a socially inferior class and ethnic group controlling the fate of somebody else who is supposed to be superior in class and biology to him.) She gives recitals at her rich socialite friends’ regular music clubs and everyone who attends loathes her singing but claps politely anyway: she is after all the patron of the club.

One day two anarchists Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Kyril (Aubert Fenoy) attend a recital, at which upcoming opera singer Hazel Klein (whom Marguerite has supported financially) also sings, and Kyril writes a review that damns Marguerite with faint praise. Before long, Marguerite is mixed up with Lucien and Kyril’s bohemian set and is manipulated into performing as part of a dadaist cabaret act. Nevertheless she presses on with her singing and performing and Lucien finds her a singing teacher in the form of operatic has-been Pezzini (Michel Fau) who, along with his friends, also starts sponging off Marguerite. This sets in train a series of events that eventually leads to Marguerite’s tragic downfall, during which Georges resolves to end his affair with Marguerite’s business entrepreneur friend Françoise (whom Marguerite admires for her independence and courage in striking out on her own) and be faithful to his wife; and Madelbos finally tires of maintaining the pretence and decides to marry one of Pezzini’s friends and be his own independent man.

Set at the end of World War I and at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, the film contrasts the world that Marguerite aspires to joining, and which is on its last legs, with the world of jazz, bohemian and avant-garde art, and freaky fringe characters such as a bearded lady whom Madelbos eventually wants to marry, frequented by Lucien and which he invites Marguerite to join. The irony here is that while Marguerite can never hope to join the exacting and perhaps exhausted world of opera – Pezzini, for all his talent, is down on his luck and his future prospects are very grim, hence he has no choice but to become Marguerite’s singing teacher just to survive – a world beckons in which one can be an off-key singer and be accepted. The world that Marguerite desires to join is a world of artifice but the world of jazz, at least in the early 1920s anyway, celebrates the joy of life and living, spontaneity, freedom and individuality: this could have been a world that accepts the aspiring diva on her terms.

On one level the film can be viewed as a love story: Marguerite sings because she wants love and connection with a distant husband who manipulated her for her money, her social status and her connections to the people he needs to impress; there’s another unrequited love story of the butler Madelbos who may or may not love Marguerite but finds through his manipulation of her fantasy an artistic outlet for himself. Marguerite’s plight, contrasted with Georges’ lover Françoise (Astrid Whettnall) who is a successful businesswoman and Hazel Klein (Christa Théret) who becomes a successful singer in both opera and more contemporary / avant-garde music, might say something about the position of women at certain levels of society who are barred from developing their talents and abilities properly and who end up retreating into fantasy.

(At this point it should be said that there is a moment in the film where indeed Marguerite is actually able to sing but it is cruelly cut off by the Cosmic Joker who then sends the singer into hospital, from which point her life starts to go downhill.)

The film being a French film, eventually this fantasy attracts the attention of rationalism in the form of medicine, which then proceeds to destroy the fantasy – and with it, Marguerite’s purpose for living and her individuality. All the people who are charmed by Marguerite’s guilelessness and innocence, her bravery and risk-taking attitude, and above all her free and generous spirit, cannot or will not help her. So on another level, it’s a film about control and the ways in which people use pretence and falsehood to prop up a deluded individual, because of what they see in her that is genuine and authentic, and how eventually another form of control – this time, state control – cuts away that pretence and destroys the individual.

The acting is superb with everyone playing his or her part well, and in particular Catherine Frot as the eponymous Marguerite gives the performance of her life, playing the doomed songstress as a wide-eyed naif who is also surprisingly intelligent and aware of the talk behind her back. Marguerite’s bravery in undertaking punishing singing lessons from Pezzini so that she can perform professionally is jaw-dropping and inspirational. Mpunga also deserves credit for playing the butler who supports and indulges his mistress in her fantasy and uses her to advance his own interests.

It seems that everyone who appears in this film or who works on it has been inspired to give of his/her very best, and I would put that down to a highly sympathetic script (written by director Giannoli) that explores themes of loyalty, truth, manipulation and the role of hypocrisy and pretence in society, and how these intersect in a narrative that turns out to be rich and devastating. We end up grieving for Marguerite not only as an individual built up and destroyed by the system, but also for the loss of the authenticity, innocence and free spiritedness that she embodies for the people who come to love her.

I can’t help but think that the British screen version of Florence Foster Jenkins’ career with Meryl Streep as the deluded singer will be very second-rate compared to this film.

The Hawks and the Sparrows: a rambling road movie enquiry into the social and political conflicts of Italian society in the 1960s

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Hawks and the Sparrows / Uccellacci e Uccellini” (1966)

A bit confusing and rambling, this road movie about a father and his son roaming aimlessly through Italy is an investigation of the social and political conflicts that threaten to pull 1960s-period Italian society apart, in particular the conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and modern secular society at the time, and the conflicts between landowners and working-class rural folk. The Italian comedian Toto and Ninetto Davoli play the father Innocenti Toto and son Ninetto who have several unusual adventures on their walking journey. Along the way they are joined by a talking raven (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) who represents a left-wing intellectual tradition strong on rational thinking and who comments on the men’s backgrounds and the adventures they have taken or are about to take.

First up, the raven tells the men a fable about two mediaeval monks (Toto and Davoli) sent out by St Francis of Assisi to convince hawks and sparrows to accept God in their lives and live with love. This requires an extreme ascetic life-style lasting well over a year but finally the two monks master the languages of the birds and broadcast the Gospel among them. Yet no matter how earnestly they teach the birds, the birds are still at the mercy of their instincts and habits, the hawk still kills the sparrow for food, and St Francis pressures the two monks to try harder to convince the birds to overcome their natures and live in peace.

The fable takes up about half the film’s running time and the other stories that follow are not nearly so deep or complex. In two scenes, Toto and Ninetto threaten to evict a poverty-stricken family from their farmhouse if the money the mother owes the two men is not forthcoming, and Toto and Ninetto themselves are threatened when they appeal to their landlord to have mercy and waive their debts and the landlord refuses. The duo also meet a travelling troupe of actors representing minority groups in Italy and watch the troupe perform a play that is forced to end when one of the actors goes into labour and must deliver her baby. Not long after Toto and Ninetto witness the baby’s birth, they are caught up in crowds following the cofin of a local Italian celebrity figure. Later the two men take turns dallying with a prostitute (Femi Benussi) before being overcome by hunger and greed while looking at the raven …

The film is in neo-realist style, using non-actors to play most roles, and with some very stunning cinematography work showing off landscapes and featuring close-ups of people’s rugged faces. Toto and Davoli are fine actors just as much at home with Marxist notions on the nature of class-based struggle and the clash of Marxist ideology, Roman Catholic dogma and human nature, as they are with slapstick humour that owes a debt to old Charlie Chaplin silent films. The film flows smoothly and well, with each skit blending seamlessly into the next with no break in pace, mood or character.

It does try to say a lot within its 88 minutes, maybe too much for its length and road-movie fantasy narrative. Most contemporary Western viewers would be confused by the way Pasolini sets out the Marxist premise only to subvert it with examples of human greed. Pasolini fails to appreciate that much human greed is itself culturally shaped by societies and cultures that exalt greed, individual competition or low animal cunning that takes advantage of others or manipulates them as worthwhile values. The adventures of Toto and Ninetto might best have been served in a mini-series format that could have explored and explained in more depth and detail, at a level and pace suited to mainstream audiences, Marxist philosophy and its aims, and how it might adapt to or change the Italian society and culture of Pasolini’s times.

Whistle: a bland and modest sci-fi thriller that saves its killer punch for the last

Duncan Jones, “Whistle” (2002)

“Moon” director Duncan Jones’ first feature is a 29-minute short that initially looks bland and banal, and moves slowly in its first half, but which packs a punch in its last couple of minutes. The plot turns on the stereotype of the hitman with a conscience who tries to help the family or friend of his last victim. (The classic example of a film based on this stereotype is John Woo’s “The Killer”.) In Jones’ version, Brian (Dominic Mafham) has just moved his family to a bucolic neighbourhood in Switzerland, and though he and young son Michael (Charlie Hicks) enjoy the scenery and the fresh bracing mountain air, his wife (Sarah Winman) isn’t all that impressed with the weather and the dairy cows with their tinkly bells, and lets everyone within earshot know. The film spends a considerable amount of time detailing Brian and Michael’s close relationship, whether cycling together into town or agreeing to go up to a mountain glacier with a group of other people. Father and son’s relationship contrasts very strongly to their rather more distant relationships with the significant woman in their lives. (Since Jones wrote the script, one wonders if the family dysfunctionality might be based on his own experiences with his parents.)

But Brian also has to work and from time to time he receives orders from his employer’s agent to take out undesirable people with the drone machine mounted on the balcony of his new home. Each time he receives an assignment, Brian seems to have a premonition of how well or badly the job will go, and becomes very tetchy, even depressed, so the agent also has to phone the missus to make sure Brian does as he is told to do. One day he is lining his sights on a man known as Estrada in London, and lets fly a drone with his finger on the remote … but as the missile flies unerringly towards the target, Estrada reaches out to his own young son, and Brian cannot undo what he has just unleashed …

Guilt-stricken after the successful strike, Brian evades his wife to travel to London to meet the victim’s wife but after the cabbie has picked him up from Heathrow or Gatwick and taken him to the area where the Estradas live, Brian is in for an even more unpleasant shock when he meets a stranger …

The clear  pictures of beautiful postcard scenery in Switzerland where the family lives turn are a clever device to lull us into a false sense of security about Brian, his wife and their child, that disguises the sordid reality of the work that sustains them all and enables them to live comfortably in a way others would envy. The scenes where Brian tracks his victims and releases the missile which then efficiently delivers its payload provide the clinical and sharp technological edge and cold sci-fi thriller aspect. Apart from this, the acting is very much so-so and the characters remain flat and one-dimensional. The wife comes across as something of the villain of the piece, a thoroughly amoral bitch as well as Brian’s cold-blooded minder for the employer whose nature remains unknown. The music soundtrack is very good, even outstanding in parts (especially near the beginning).

There is a message about taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences they cause, which underlies the devastating impact of the climax when Brian attempts to contact Mrs Estrada and comes face to face with the person he least expected to see. At this point the film ends on a cliffhanger note and we are not sure if Brian will come away from this encounter well … or even if he comes away from it at all. His family is potentially in danger as a result of his rash actions. I’d have liked the film to have lasted a bit longer and not to have cut out so abruptly but that might have diminished the shock of the realisation of who Brian’s victim really was.

Apart from the underlying message which adds gravitas to an otherwise undistinguished film, “Whistle” is a modest little first effort made on a tight budget that might not suit most audiences but is worth checking out by fans of Duncan Jones’ work.

Moon: using familiar ideas and concepts to generate thinking about the nature of individuality and identity

Duncan Jones, “Moon” (2009)

Like father, like son, no? … decades ago David Bowie sang songs of doomed astronaut Major Tom and in 2009 son Duncan Jones announces his arrival as a film director by making a movie about another doomed astronaut. Anything else that the film “Moon” might have in common with Dad’s songs and career? The film also turns on themes of personal isolation, paranoia, the fragility of identity and its dependence on memory, an individual’s link with humanity and how all these issues can be manipulated by a cynical corporate culture. On their own, these problems are quite weighty to deal with in a single film, let alone a debut film with a conventional plot and a fairly simple one at that. It’s no surprise then that “Moon” sometimes falters under the burden of its themes which more or less parallel aspects of David Bowie’s career as it progressed over nearly 50 years from 1967 to his death in early 2016 and its concerns with alienation and isolation, identity crises and transformations, and compromises with the commercial music industry, often to Bowie’s detriment as an artist.

The plot revolves around one character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the sole worker on a mining base, Sarang Station, operated by an energy company called Lunar Industries on the moon. The company’s business is to extract helium-3 from the moon’s surface and bring it to Earth for use as fuel. The entire mining facility can be operated by one person; all that Bell needs to do is oversee the harvesting machines and send the fuel to Earth in canisters. He is coming close to the end of his 3-year contract and looking forward to reunion with his wife and young daughter. A communication problem between Sarang and Lunar Industries means Bell only gets occasional drip feeds of messages from his wife Tess. The only other company Bell has is the facility’s HAL-like computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) who attends to his every need with obsequious diligence.

Sam begins to experience hallucinations and one such hallucination causes him to crash his rover into a harvester. The next thing he knows, he is in an infirmary with no memory of the accident. While recovering, he overhears GERTY ordering a rescue team from Lunar Industries and receiving instructions not to allow him outside the base so he tricks GERTY into allowing him outside by faking an emergency. He retrieves the crashed rover and discovers his likeness lying in the vehicle. Bringing his twin back to base and helping to revive him, Sam now has to contend with which one of them is real and which is the clone, and what Lunar Industries has intended for both of them. GERTY is forced to admit that they are both clones, so the two Sams search the base and discover beneath the base that there is an underground facility stocked with hundreds of hibernating Sam clones.

Initially the film is a bit slow, so as to immerse viewers into the space environment and empathise with Sam’s isolation and its psychological effects (the hallucinations, the strange dreams), and the pace quickens after he discovers his clone in the rover. From this point on, the plot moves more briskly and many initial assumptions that viewers might have made about Sam are turned on their heads: the hallucinations he suffers are not due to his extreme social isolation but to the deterioration and shutdown of his circuits. Viewers gradually realise that the serious, cynical Sam of the film’s pre-crash first half is not the same serious, cynical Sam in the film’s post-crash second half; that’s right, the first serious Sam becomes the secondary, more jokey character (played by Robin Chalk) who sacrifices himself so that the “main” Sam character can fool the incoming rescue team (who will really serve as executioners for both Sams) and escape to Earth with a message about how Lunar Industries has been manufacturing clones to save on hiring proper astronauts and pocketing the wages that would have been paid.

The acting performances are good and the settings are also good, given that the film was made on a small budget in one studio with very few CGI effects. The actual premise of the film doesn’t quite make sense logically: if a society is advanced enough to create an apparently sharing, caring computer like GERTY, surely it is also advanced enough to make Sarang Station completely automated? Oh yeah, check, it is “completely automated” if one treats the clones as mass produced machines. But why would the clones be made to wear out after three years? Wouldn’t there be more sense in creating a clone that can last several years – unless Lunar Industries execs believe that after three years, a clone might have accumulated enough information and experience (as Sam has) to suspect it is being manipulated by its employer, start rummaging around the base and discover the awful secret about itself and its fellow clones?

If one puts aside the more implausible aspects of the plot – do the Sams really believe that people on Earth will believe their message about Lunar Industries’ unethical hiring practices? – then the film actually serves as a generator of ideas about how we think about the nature of individuality; whether it’s possible to regard clones, robots and other non-biological beings like them as more human than humans themselves if clones and robots become more than what their nature is intended to be, and humans less than what their potential is; and whether such creations are deserving of the same rights and freedoms as humans, that is, the rights and freedoms to be autonomous creatures capable of making decisions, and not to be subjected to exploitation and slavery. In this way the film pays tribute to earlier sci-fi influences like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” which dealt with similar themes.

While not completely original, the film’s creativity is expressed more in the way it uses familiar ideas and concepts from other science fiction films and reinterprets them to suggest something new or overturn viewers’ expectations. The result is that “Moon” appears fresh despite riffing on familiar sci-fi movie motifs. Perhaps this is what makes this film unique even though much of it is derivative.

The one downside is the blaaah music soundtrack … couldn’t Jones have swallowed his pride about refusing help from Dad and asked him to create a half-decent soundtrack appropriate for the movie?

The Image: a tiny study of mental crisis, homoeroticism and creepy atmosphere sets a template for David Bowie’s future career

Michael Armstrong, “The Image” (1967)

Notable mainly for being singer and sometime actor David Bowie’ first film role, this 14-minute horror short is an eerie surrealist piece. With not much story to speak of, and including some very hokey horror-movie stereotypes, this film is big on atmosphere and suggestions of mental breakdown and homoeroticism. An painter (Michael Byrne) working on a portrait in an apparently abandoned house becomes unnerved when the subject of the portrait, a young man (Bowie), appears to him outside the window, on the stairs and in other parts of the house. The apparition looks and feels so real that the painter makes numerous attempts to kill him, only to discover that the ghost keeps returning again and again. Despairing that he cannot rid himself of the ghost, the painter decides instead to kill off his painting but the effect on him is catastrophic.

Not much acting talent was required from its tiny cast but Bowie is effective at portraying the mystery ghost, thanks to having studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Where the film excels is in creating an atmosphere of heightened tension throughout the house with stills of windows, the long staircase with rubbish all over it, the locked door and various empty rooms. Filming in black-and-white film helps impart the necessary murky, shadowy look. There may be influences from German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the prominence of the long staircase in some scenes. The pacing and quick editing of shots of the painting and of the ghost, from one to the other and back again and again, are well done and suggest an imminent mental crisis for the painter.

The insinuations of mental breakdown, the homoerotic attraction between the painter and the young man whom the painter knew before the latter’s death (which is hinted at in the painter’s confrontations with the ghost), the violence (not too explicit) and the all-enveloping creepy atmosphere and isolation are communicated well, and I guess that’s really all that can be said in the film’s favour.

The film was made in the same year that David Bowie released his first album which was self-titled and both film and album quickly sank without trace. Yet the character that Bowie plays in “The Image”, with its ethereal quality featuring hints of dark and strange sexuality and a frisson of violence, was to inform other personae he adopted throughout his musical and acting career.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: mocking the middle classes for their hypocrisy, sense of entitlement and shallow values

Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie / Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” (1972)

This comedy-of-manners film about six people who constantly make arrangements to have dinner together but never really succeed in doing so thanks to random coincidences, misunderstandings and their own faults and misdeeds is a vehicle for director Buñuel to mock the French middle class for its hypocrisies, empty rituals and shallow values in which style and surface sheen triumph over seedy and sterile substance. The narrative relies on a repeating social ritual – three couples from the upper middle class trying to meet for dinner several times and failing every time in different ways – so that the film becomes no more than a series of absurdist Pythonesque comedy sketches. Initially the film is bright and straightforward as the dinner guests meet but as the movie continues, it becomes increasingly darker, unsettling, paranoiac, and ends up being trapped in banality and trivia, reflecting the sordid nature of its main characters and the society they move in.

The ensemble cast (Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig) acquits itself speedily and efficiently if blandly; they represent particular aspects of the French bourgeoisie that Buñuel found especially irksome or ripe for satire. Audran and Cassel’s married couple snub a man dressed as a working-class gardener and turn him away, but when he returns dressed in his bishop’s garb, they fawn and grovel before him. Seyrig and Frankeur may look like the perfect married couple but Seyrig’s character is secretly having an affair with Rey’s ambassador of the Republic of Miranda. The ambassador is highly regarded in French polite society but on the side he is running a cocaine ring with Frankeur and Cassel’s characters, and he deals with a would-be student Marxist rebel assassin by arranging for her to be kidnapped and “disappeared”. We learn much more about the kind of corrupt Third World hell-hole that the Republic of Miranda is in someone’s nightmare in which a cocktail party given by an army colonel goes disastrously wrong.

Buñuel can’t resist taking pot-shots at the Roman Catholic Church by including a sub-plot (which might not sit easily with viewers) in which a kindly priest hears a confession from a dying man. The aged man confesses that, decades ago, he murdered a couple and left their child an orphan. The priest then reveals to the man that he was that orphan. Nevertheless he forgives the man his sins on the authority of God and Christ Jesus … then calmly walks over to where a loaded rifle is resting against a wall. While this sub-plot is an amusing comment on the hypocrisy of the RCC and shows that the priest is human after all, it adds very little to the overall narrative.

There are other gags in the film that have no bearing on the narrative other than to poke fun at authority generally and authority figures in particular. Two soldiers talk about their childhood or their dream of death, and two police officers chat about how their superior tortured a student prisoner and ended up assassinated. Frequently the gags take the form of dreams and dreams within dreams, to the extent that the second half of the film all but groans with them and the thin line between fantasy and reality disappears. From this point on, the film becomes very repetitive and turns on trivia and banality, for good reason: the dreams that the dinner guests and various others have reveal their fears and neuroses, their selfishness and lack of care and consideration for others, and ultimately their thuggishness, all hidden under a veneer of discretion and politeness.

There are many highlights in the film but probably the best ones are the cocktail party scene during which the ambassador tries in vain to fend off uncomfortable questions about his country’s corruption, high crime rate and harbouring of Nazi war criminals, and an earlier scene in which a bunch of soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and our drug-running dinner guests then express disgust at the prevalence of marijuana use in the army. The scene in which the dinner guests sit down at a table, only to be exposed to an opera audience who boo at them, is a surreal high point that suggests these characters cannot withstand open scrutiny and crumple up easily if their crimes and peccadilloes were to be exposed publicly.

The film’s technical qualities are highly commended; the presentation is bright and realist, hiding the fact that this is an absurdist film in which dreams seem more real than reality. The soundtrack is important too, with background white noise coming to the fore at critical moments when characters are talking to one another. Randomness as a long-running motif plays a significant role in advancing the narrative and its repetitions.

At the end of the film, the dinner guests are still wandering about in their quest for the perfect dinner party and it’s at this point that one questions whether, for all their wealth, power and influence over elites, that they can get out of jail with impunity, these unhappy people have much free will when their desires are constantly frustrated due to their own indulgent flaws and stupidity, their obsession with a false social propriety, and things happening out of the blue as a consequence of past decisions they made or of their thoughtlessness and belief that they are special and deserving of aristocratic privilege. One almost feels pity for these people who seem to be permanently trapped in an invisible hell of their own making. The ambassador’s dream about himself and his friends being mown down by a bunch of terrorists and someone else’s earlier dream about the six being imprisoned for drug-running offences suggest that there are forces gradually and relentlessly closing in on the dinner guests and their world, and that they will get their comeuppance. Only then might they discover freedom.

Son of Saul: a modern morality play in the midst of extreme evil

László Nemes, “Son of Saul / Saul Fia” (2015)

Of all the stories László Nemes could have chosen to film to launch his career as a director, few are so terrifying as a day or two in the life of a Jewish Sonderkommando unit member working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in 1944. The Nazi German war machine is on its last legs and its death factories are going full-tilt as the regime begins its psychotic self-cannibalism. Hungary has just been swept up into the embrace of the Third Reich and the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau begun almost immediately. On arrival at the camp, the strongest men among these Jews are separated from the rest by Nazi administrators and forced into Sonderkommando work units under threat of death. Their duties are to collect the clothing of people herded by Nazi guards into the gas showers and to search the clothes for gold, money and other valuable trinkets needed for the German war effort; to haul away the dead and throw them into the ovens; to dispose of their ashes; and to clean out the shower rooms for the next lot of victims.

One such Sonderkommando unit member is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) who gradually becomes numbed to the dreary and tough physical work he has to do, day in, day out, under close supervision from the guards, with little time for himself … in case he starts plotting with other men like himself to fight back against their oppressors, blow up the camps and escape to alert the rest of the world to what’s been happening there for the past three years or so. One day while helping to dispose of yet another batch of asphyxiated victims, he discovers that a 13-year-old boy survived the gassing. A prison doctor comes over to examine the boy and smothers him. Saul however becomes obsessed with the boy: he believes the child may be his son whom he abandoned many years ago as the child had been conceived and born out of wedlock. With great difficulty and putting his life and others’ lives at risk he retrieves the boy’s body. He then searches for a rabbi among his fellow prisoners and new arrivals for chambers who can say a kaddish (a hymn of praise to God) for the boy so he can be given a proper burial. Saul endures unimaginable suffering and torment from both the Nazi guards and other Sonderkommando work unit inmates to find the rabbi; at the same time, he is also part of a scheme worked out by his work unit leader and other Sonderkommando work units to collect enough gunpowder to make bombs that will blow up the camps and help the prisoners escape into the outside world.

By focusing on Saul’s point of view and following him closely, the film relays the horrors of the death camps and the indignities suffered by Jewish prisoners at the hands of their jailers effectively without delivering any sermons or passing any judgement. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to condemn Saul for risking his life and other prisoners’ lives for the dead boy. For Saul, the child represents an opportunity to redeem himself for not having taken care of his son while he was alive; at the same time the dead boy also represents a continuation of the Jewish people since by being buried his body will be evidence of his people’s former existence if they cannot be allowed to live in the present and into the future. As the film continues, the dead boy may be viewed as representing all the victims who perished in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In his obsessive search for a rabbi – so much so that he risks his own life and at least one other man is killed as a result – Saul in his own way upholds the importance of the spiritual life and the traditions and rituals associated with spirituality and communion with God. Saul is mocked by his fellow prisoners in his search but they do help him find the boy’s body and help lead him to a rabbi, risking their own lives in doing so. Saul’s obsession causes him to fail in his allotted part in the scheme to help blow up the camp but the rebels pull him along with them in escaping from the camp. One would think that, having failed his friends, Saul would have been left behind to face the tender mercies of the authorities when the pathetic rebellion fails as it was bound to … so it is all the more remarkable that they rescue him not once but twice during the rebellion. This might say something about the level of camaraderie that the Sonderkommando prisoners have managed to develop and the depth of humanity they retain in the midst of all the hellish, machine-like evil they are exposed to.

The dialogue is extremely minimal and matter-of-fact and Röhrig is stoic in his facial expressions that seem to say more than words could possibly ever express. This narrative approach allows for multiple interpretations of Röhrig’s motivations and actions, and those of his fellow prisoners, whether they are justified or not in the context of his environment. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, relying on a hand-held camera and following Röhrig very closely, so closely that the film jumps when he jumps and swims when he swims, is a stand-out feature of the film; it captures the sickening and hellish ambience of the gas chambers, and the brutal and dehumanising work routines endured by the Sonderkommando work units. Another outstanding aspect of the film is its ambient soundtrack of shouting, crowd noises, explosions and gunfire to suggest various horrors occurring off-screen.

Whatever message the film carries, for most viewers it should surely carry the message that even in the midst of great evil where absolute hopelessness dominates, and people, jailers and prisoners alike, are stripped of all that makes them human, an individual may still be able to find some remnant of humanity within his / her being and through that defy oppressors and gain some redemption. The film drives home the point that morality is very much a personal choice and how one deals with the consequences of making that choice in one’s immediate situation is what saves or damns that person. “Son of Saul” is perhaps best read as a morality play in which a protagonist must decide how best to live his / her life in the midst of unrelenting bleakness, suffering, brutal violence, oppression and hopelessness.