Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison – where entertainment recruits cannon fodder for the military

Maria Pia Mascaro, “Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison / Marschbefehl für Hollywood” (2003)

People may be surprised that the United States Department of Defense takes a keen interest in much of Hollywood’s movie output, in particular the industry’s production of war movies, to the extent that the Pentagon has an office in Los Angeles that gives advice to film-makers, vets scripts and makes changes to scripts to portray the military in a favourable light. The military also supplies equipment and provides technical advice to enable film-makers to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal of soldiers in action. But there is a price to be paid in accepting the military’s advice and using its equipment (including hardware): the Pentagon demands that films must show American soldiers as heroic and moral, to the extent that truth and narrative accuracy end up being sacrificed and the results turn into pro-military / pro-war propaganda. This made-for-TV documentary demonstrates that the close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon goes as far back as the 1940s at least and that this relationship has a heavy and deleterious influence on public support for the military, reflected in military recruitment of people. The romanticisation of US soldiers in popular cinema conceals real crimes they commit in other countries during war and peace-time: mass murders, rapes, torture and other atrocities inflicted on enemy combatants and civilians, and even incidents like traffic accidents resulting in the deaths or crippling of civilians, with perpetrators more often than not being exonerated by US military courts.

The documentary relies heavily on interviews with military officials who present their side of the issue in a matter-of-fact way, focusing on details of their engagement with aspects of the film industry, that sidesteps the ethics of their involvement. The interviewer does not probe very deeply into what individuals do – perhaps because these people from choice or compulsion would not co-operate otherwise. The film skips around different aspects of the Pentagon’s complicated relationship with Hollywood, ranging from film directors having to agree to Pentagon interference in writing and rewriting scripts and the military’s refusal to provide hardware and equipment if film-makers do not agree to its demands; to Pentagon interest in developing computer and video games that draw on real wars and incidents and reshape them to the Pentagon’s liking; and to the Pentagon’s practice of embedding journalists with troops so that reporters are exposed only to the military point of view. Some famous Hollywood films like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and his brother Tony’s “Top Gun” are discussed as examples where the Pentagon exercised a great deal of influence in changing the script so as to whitewash American actions or suggest that atrocities or incidents of torture are the work of a lone “bad apple” rather than the foreseeable results of a culture of bullying, misogyny, intimidation, the exaltation of violence and an apocalyptic mind-set within the military.

The film is not very structured and viewers have to follow the voice-over narration and the interviews closely to make sense of what they see and hear. There can be a lot of information to absorb and viewers might need a second viewing to digest it all. Probably the creepiest part of the documentary is where a lawyer explains that Hollywood (in particular, Hollywood actors) seems obsessed with its self-importance and the industry imagines it can have more influence in US culture and society by contacting Washington and offering its services. By doing so, Hollywood and Hollywood actors end up prostituting themselves by virtually agreeing to propagandise for Washington’s interests. The otherwise laudable efforts of actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney in supporting human rights and advocating for particular issues now take on a sinister sheen.

This film best serves as an introduction to a deep and worrying issue of how closely inter-twined the US government and US military are with the nation’s entertainment industries, and how popular entertainment now serves not only as the dominant propaganda tool but also in shaping culture and society to serve a dysfunctional and psychopathic leadership and its ideology.

Chappie: in need of a longer and better format to treat all its characters, narratives and themes

Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” (2015)

In amongst the ruined buildings, the body count, the junk metal and unexploded cluster munitions that form the detritus long after the end credits of this cheerful movie have finished rolling, there’s a garbled message of sorts about taking charge of your destiny and being more than what you were born to be or what your circumstances have made you, along with an investigation of what consciousness and the soul are, whether both can transcend death and the limitations of physical biology. It’s this amalgamated theme that holds the film together and more than compensates for its stereotyped characters, the ragged story-line with frayed loose ends and an ending which needs a sequel to suck up the energy “Chappie” leaves behind.

The actual plot itself is not original and looks like something Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov would have dreamt up together were they employed in an alternative universe as exhausted third-rate script-writers in a factory employing such people 16 hours a day, every day, with no time off for annual leave. I am aware of other reviews that have found bits and pieces of other films like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” in the plot. In a future Johannesburg, with crime rates higher than the city’s tallest buildings, the police force has contracted out SWAT team functions to Tetravaal, a company specialising in automated military security … for the police and similar civilian law-and-order institutions. The company comes up with robot scouts, the dream child of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who spends his free time creating his own robots to keep house and an artificial intelligence program that miraculously bestows consciousness and sentience into otherwise inert machines. Deon needs an actual machine to test his program and a damaged robot police scout becomes his guinea pig. He uploads his program into the scout and – VOILA! – the machine goes live.

Three punks on the run (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser – Jones and Visser are members of South African hiphop group Die Antwoord), who need to steal $20 million to pay off Johannesburg’s biggest crime king-pin Hippo (Brandon Auret), find information about Deon and his robot scouts on the Internet and track him down and kidnap him and his sentient robot. The punks take charge of Deon’s creation (voiced by Sharlto Copley), christen it Chappie and, in their own questionable ways, teach Chappie how to survive in the criminal underground of Jo’burg, accept his differences and, er, somehow become a moral being and know the difference between right and wrong. In his own way, Deon tries to care for his new child in the way Viktor Frankenstein never did but Chappie becomes conflicted between the easy wealth promised by Ninja (Jones), Yolandi and Amerika (Cantillo) and the life offered by Deon which itself is as empty, meaningless and soul-destroying as that of the punks. At least the punks are able to choose where and how they’ll carry out their big heist.

Meanwhile, back at the Tetravaal ranch, Deon’s co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) becomes disgruntled that their boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is head over heels in love with Deon’s robot scouts which are paying off handsomely for the company. (Though she’s not keen herself on Deon’s sentient robot scheme – Bradley is only interested in Deon as an inventor of future cash-cows.) After Bradley tells Vincent that she is cutting off funding for his own Moose automated law-and-order project, Vincent – an ex-SAS employee with psychopathic tendencies born of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fantasies – vows revenge on Deon to the extent that he is willing to sabotage the company’s profits and existence, and next thing you know, both Chappie and Deon are fighting for their lives just as the punks will be fighting for theirs if they can’t pull off their heist with Chappie’s help and pay off Hippo.

The two-hour film simply isn’t a large enough vehicle to deal with the plot as well as the character development, let alone explore its themes and the social context in which Chappie has to learn right from wrong and how to deal with his dysfunctional parents and the local bullies. Chappie’s moral development, which for most humans would take more than a life-time or two (or three …), is collapsed into the space of five days, or however long his battery lasts; unfortunately that of his “parents” is rather slower, at least until near the end where Ninja realises he is losing all his friends to Vincent’s Moose creation. Everything in the movie – the plot, the sub-plots, the characters and the issues that arise – needs more time for a fuller treatment that a linear visual story-telling format cannot provide. The result is a film that, however good it looks, feels very unfinished and in need of at least another six months’ worth of refinement. Characters are as cartoony as can be and Jackman and Weaver hardly raise much sweat as the film’s  potentially more villainous or at least morally ambiguous characters.

The socioeconomic context in which downtrodden corporate worker-bee joins forces with other marginalised people against an enemy that turns out to be another shunned corporate worker-bee – one can sympathise with Vincent’s feelings of rage against his employer – is always present but never questioned or investigated in any meaningful way. One might hope (in one’s dreams) that in a sequel, Chappie can persuade his new family to forgive Vincent and urge him to join them in their struggle to lead a social revolution against the combined forces of corporate and state fascism, represented by Tetravaal and the future South African government.

One worthy message that viewers might come away with is that technological solutions to social problems, be they replacements for human labour (as in Deon’s robot scouts) or drone-operated overkill (as in Vincent’s Moose creation), can create further ethical issues and dilemmas. At least when the robot scouts are disabled by Vincent’s criminal wickedness, Jo’burg’s unemployment problem plunges with 150,000 new jobs – for unemployed human police officers. Other new jobs, such as combing the city’s abandoned outskirts for unexploded cluster bombs or cleaning up the burnt car wrecks and newly made Swiss-cheese buildings left behind by the cartoon violence, are beckoning for willing humans.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Citizenfour: a riveting fly-on-the-wall documentary thriller about media, government surveillance and pressures on whistle-blowers

Laura Poitras, “Citizenfour” (2014)

As both fly-on-the-wall real-time documentary and historical thriller, “Citizenfour” is a riveting snapshot of the period in mid-2013 when US whistle-blower Edward Snowden contacted film-maker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to reveal to them documents he had collected while employed as an IT contractor by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) that demonstrated that the NSA had been conducting a secret illegal surveillance program on millions of US citizens by collecting their telephone data and metadata from various telecommunications and telecom software companies such as Verizon and Skype.

As a more or less active participant in the events of the film, Poitras lets the central characters of Snowden and Greenwald and their actions take centre stage. There is no voiceover narrative but Poitras provides sufficient background information, including a video of US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lying under oath at a US Senate Committee on Intelligence hearing on information gathering: the video apparently galvanised Snowden onto his personal crusade to expose the fact that the US government was indeed illegally wiretapping its citizens’ phone and online conversations. The  narrative backbone starts from Snowden’s initial contacts with Poitras and Greenwald and escalates quickly into their meeting in a ritzy hotel in Hong Kong in June. There, Snowden introduces himself to Poitras, Greenwald and British newspaper reporter Ewen MacAskill, and show the trio the thousands of NSA documents he had collected while employed at the agency. He arranges with Greenwald to reveal his identity as the whistle-blower through Greenwald and MacAskill’s employer The Guardian in mid-June. From then on, Snowden and the others go their separate ways: Snowden to escape the reach of the US government and find shelter in Russia, and Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras to spoon-feed information about the reach and depth of NSA spying on Americans and non-Americans alike through The Guardian, The Washington Post, Brazil’s O Globo, Germany’s Der Spiegel and other Western news media outlets. Not only does Snowden fear for his life and those of his family and girlfriend but Greenwald and Poitras also feel the heat from the US and UK governments: Greenwald’s partner David Miranda is held for questioning by police who also seize his luggage at Heathrow Airport in London in August; and Poitras herself has been harassed by US border agents whenever she travels in and out of her home country.

Certainly prior knowledge of the events filmed in the documentary does help to understand the issues at stake but even viewers not familiar with Ed Snowden and what he did that aroused the ire of the US and UK governments against him, Poitras and Greenwald will be concerned at the threats against citizens’ freedoms and rights to free speech and privacy. Other issues that arise in the course of the documentary are dealt with fleetingly: the Western mainstream media concern with celebrities and personalities rather than with ongoing issues of freedom and democracy and how fragile these are (it’s ironic that Snowden and Greenwald discuss this some time before Snowden reveals himself as the mole and becomes both a media celebrity and target for US government ire); Snowden’s own anguish that what he himself is doing is illegal and how his actions might affect his family’s safety; and the law under which Snowden is being charged with espionage is an old law going back to the early 20th century that does not distinguish between selling secrets to a foreign enemy and divulging secret information in the public interest. The film also exposes the extent to which the UK government co-operates closely with the US in gathering information from its own citizens via the same methods as the NSA does from US citizens, and sharing that information with Washington.

There was not much new revealed in the documentary that I didn’t already know about Snowden and his flight to Moscow, aided by Wikileaks, or about Greenwald and his household of 99+ dogs in Rio de Janeiro. Brief entertainment is provided by vanity shots of Snowden preening himself while looking at the bathroom mirror.

On the whole Snowden and Greenwald are presented in a positive way; even Greenwald’s then employer The Guardian itself is shown as a passive but neutral participant in the film. After the events documented in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian to join US billionaire entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar’s news venture The Intercept, along with Poitras and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, and The Guardian itself has become a propaganda shill for US and UK government policies and agendas. I think Poitras is rather remiss in not showing that she and Greenwald had started working for a new employer during the making of the documentary as the film’s chronological coverage extends to mid-2014.

From a purely technical viewpoint, the film is well made with a definite narrative that provides the drama and tension that anchor the work and keep audiences’ attention steady until the end.

BBC versus President Bashar al Assad of Syria: an example of grace and restraint under pressure and prejudice

BBC News Interview with President Bashar al Assad (9 February 2015)

For an example of grace under pressure, I think few people can acquit themselves as diplomatically and skilfully as the President of Syria, Bashar al Assad, did while being grilled by a relentlessly prejudiced interviewer. BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen perhaps thought that by deploying an attack-dog approach and pounding Assad with deliberately loaded questions about his conduct of the civil war in Syria from 2011 onwards, he would force the president onto the defensive and have the pleasure of seeing his interviewee contradict himself, become flustered and eventually cut off the interview in mid-stream. Bowen would then be able to crow about how he faced down an otherwise implacable dictator and made his façade crack to reveal the man’s weaknesses and duplicitous nature. To his credit though, the softly spoken Assad deftly parried the interviewer’s questions about Syria’s supposed use of barrel bombs or chlorine gas against civilians without raising his voice in anger; instead it’s Bowen who becomes irritated and who rudely interrupts the president with a line of questioning that betrays the BBC narrative of always blaming Syria for various atrocities such as the August 2013 chemical gas attacks against Syrian civilians in Ghouta. (For an analysis of the attacks and where the rockets carrying sarin gas that exploded in that part of Damascus most likely came from, the blog Who Attacked Ghouta? is the best source of information.) Bowen does not come out of the session very well for his conduct of the interview and Assad more or less seems quite relaxed.

Right from the first question, viewers who are neither for nor against the Syrian government nor the BBC can see the slanted nature of the interview questions pushed at Assad. Remarkably Bowen was allowed to ask Assad any question he wanted and straight away he started banging on about Assad’s capabilities in directing his government’s response to the Free Syrian Army and other jihadi groups (including ISIS) in the country, with the constant insinuation that the Syrian army was deliberately killing or torturing Syrian civilians indiscriminately. One question in which Bowen quotes a defector from the Syrian Army saying that he could not bear to see his family being killed by “our Syrian hands”, and flat out twists that man’s words to imply that the Syrian Army was killing his relatives, is shocking in its brazenness.

Viewers quickly see that interviewer and interviewee are operating on two very different yet parallel mental planes, with Assad sticking to what he knows is the truth – that the so-called “moderate Syrian rebels” have morphed into the extremist organisation ISIS, that the Syrian military did not drop barrel bombs or released sarin gas among civilians – and Bowen ploughing ahead with questions based on an acceptance of assumptions about Syrian government policies. Whether Bowen genuinely believes in assumptions about the Syrian government deliberately harassing its people or does not and cynically uses those assumptions to reinforce by repetition stereotypes about the nature of Assad’s government and persuade the British public to support a US-led war on Syria to eject Assad, I do not really know: during the interview, Bowen did look and speak as if he wholeheartedly accepts the propaganda his employer dishes out.

In some of the later questions during the interview, Assad cleverly counters the line of interrogation by pointing out inconsistencies in what Bowen claims to be occurring in some parts of Damascus and northern Syria: that the Syrian government is preventing food and medical supplies from reaching civilians in rebel-held areas while at the same time the rebels in those areas are able to obtain weapons somehow to fight the government! Assad patiently points out that there is a huge propaganda project that has been targeting his government and Syria since 2010 yet Bowen seems completely oblivious to what Assad says and fails to challenge his statement.

That Assad granted an interview with the BBC might say something about his belief that the BBC would allow him to present his point of view to the global public – a belief that has been sorely dashed by the behaviour and aggressive questioning by Bowen. In a region where political and social chaos has reigned since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, and is drawing in fighters from around the world to enlist with and fight for an extremist Islamic regime whose ideology eerily resembles that of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf oil states in a brutally one-dimensional form, the BBC’s apparent snub against the last remaining secular Arab socialist country in the Middle East (and tacit support for the more dysfunctional and psychotic regimes nearby) is very sinister indeed.

The interview can be seen at this Youtube link and a transcript of it can be viewed at the Syrian Arab News Agency website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers,

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

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

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

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

Nausika / Under Southern Eyes