Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

God Willing: a brisk slapstick comedy opposing self-complacency and arrogance against humility and faith

Edoardo Maria Falcone, “God Willing / Se Dio Vuole” (2015)

A gentle slapstick comedy, Falcone’s “Se Dio Vuole” won its director top directing honours in Italy’s own version of the Oscars and one viewing shows why: it manages to be brisk, witty and wise with a message about how self-complacency and intellectual arrogance can be one’s undoing and how personal faith and humility can change people’s lives and relationships. Main protagonist Tommaso (Marco Giallini), a rich and renowned heart surgeon seems to have everything: a successful career, a beautiful stay-at-home wife Carla (Laura Morante) and two well adjusted children Bianca (Ilaria Spada) and Andrea (Enrico Oetiker) and a son-in-law dealing in luxury real estate. At least, that was until Andrea decides to unburden himself of a personal secret to everyone. The family steels itself for Andrea’s revelation that he’s gay (or so they think) and then the unthinkable happens: Andrea announces that he wants to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church!

Enraged, Tommaso tries to find out how Andrea decided to become a priest and secretly follows his son to the local youth group where he sees charismatic preacher Father Pietro (Alessandro Gassman) holding his audiences spellbound with inspirational sermons. Tommaso is convinced Pietro is a charlatan so with the help of his son-in-law and a private investigator he tries to find dirt on Pietro and discovers the man does have a past as a jailbird. The trio stage an elaborate set-up to entrap Pietro but this quickly unravels when Pietro unexpectedly visits Andrea at home and bumps into Tommaso. As penance, Tommaso must help Pietro on the weekends for a month renovating an old church that Pietro’s mother visited for solace during the period when Pietro was off the rails, committing crimes and ending up in jail.

As if all this tomfoolery weren’t enough, Carla, bored with her life and lack of purpose, moves out of home and into the family maid Xenia’s room and rediscovers her old passion of college student activism, and Bianca becomes enthralled with learning about Christianity and religion. In their own ways, each member of Tommaso’s family moves out of his or her complacent or stagnant rut, learns something new about himself / herself, and renews connections with one another. Tommaso gradually also gives up his domineering ways and narrow outlook, and under Pietro’s guidance learns what true spirituality really is. The ultimate test of whether Tommaso has matured and become less perfectionist and authoritarian, and more open and forgiving, comes when Pietro meets with misfortune and his life hangs in the balance.

The action is very brisk and the slapstick comes full bore with hardly any pause, but most viewers will be able to adjust their attention and keep up. The sub-plots are very minor and play out more or less completely though there are still a few loose ends at the end of the film. Some of the characters are very uneven (notably Bianca’s who initially is as superficial as can be and yet becomes suddenly profound) and others like Carla, Andrea and the son-in-law are not very well developed. Pietro’s character is mainly the catalyst via whom Tommaso breaks out of his self-satisfied rut and goes on a journey of self-discovery and development.

The comedy skits flow smoothly from one to the next and Falcone directs the action so deftly that at times the film itself can seem a bit complacent and smug like Tommaso. But it then takes a sudden turn at its climax and from then on it sobers up and carries on rather untidily towards an uncertain and open ending. What inner revelation comes to Tommaso when he sees the pear fall from the tree at sunrise? Does he come to realise that, no matter what happens to Pietro, the universe will carry on seeding life and hope?

The film manages to make a case for spiritual belief and belief in Jesus without engaging in Catholic dogma and avoids Bible-bashing. On one level it can be viewed as a buddy movie and a road movie with laughs, on another it carries a lesson about the possibility of self-transformation through faith.

New York, New York: a homage to and a subversion of Hollywood / Broadway glamour, fame and artifice

Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)

One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.

The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.

Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.

The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.

Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

Freaks: a sympathetic work that pleads on behalf of its performers and turns normality on its head

Todd Browning, “Freaks” (1932)

A unique cult film of the kind that can be said to be the only film of its genre – outsider film, perhaps – “Freaks” is actually a sympathetic work highlighting the abilities of several of its cast members who had physical or mental disabilities. The title itself is intended to be ironic, forcing viewers to question who the real freaks in the movie are. All the action takes place in a circus, which itself is significant because for Under Southern Eye readers of a certain age, that was the traditional repository where children dreamed of running away to, if conditions at home were bad, and where they knew they would be accepted for what they were, be they beautiful or ugly or deformed, because everyone in the circus was an outsider of some kind or another. The very venue of a circus becomes a place where “normality” is interrogated and turned on its head, and the audience is forced to consider institutions like family and concepts like loyalty, payback and revenge anew.

The plot is related in flashback, and this in itself turns the whole film into a parable about acceptance and discrimination, and what happens if by threatening one individual, an entire community is threatened. Hans (Harry Earle), a circus midget, falls head over heels in love with normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), despite being engaged to Freda (Daisy Earle, Harry’s sister). Cleopatra treats Hans patronisingly until she discovers that he is heir to a massive fortune. She then conspires with fellow performer and secret lover Hercules for her to marry Hans, get rid of him and abscond with the fortune together with Hercules. She goes through with the first part of the plan but Hans discovers the plot to kill him through her and Hercules’ indiscretion and with the help of the circus sideshow freak community foils the two lovers’ evil plot.

Along the way viewers are treated to character vignettes of the various sideshow freak performers which generate sub-plots that unfortunately go nowhere. The film was originally 90 minutes long but cuts forced by the studio that funded it reduced the film’s length to 75 minutes and most of the 15 minutes that were cut well and truly ended up in the Great Garbage Bin in the Sky. Thus we never learn how the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton) manage to live with Daisy’s husband, a stuttering performer in Hercules’ routine, and the circus owner’s son who woos Violet and asks her to marry him (she accepts), nor whether Venus (Leila Hyams), Hercules’ ex-girlfriend, finally escapes Hercules’ temper and violence and finds happiness with Frozo (Wallace Ford) the clown. We also do not know what really happens to Hercules at the end of the film – apparently in the cuts, there is the suggestion that he was castrated – or, more importantly, whether Hans and Freda find happiness together.

The acting can be very uneven – the Earle siblings are not too convincing as would-be lovers but one doubts that actors who are siblings in real life would be able to play lovers very convincingly – and in parts the plot appears very rushed, particularly in the wedding feast scene where Cleopatra and Hercules reveal a bit too obviously to Hans and the wedding guests their affection for one another.

The film can be read as a plea for viewers to accept people with deformities as humans with all the passions and feelings that the rest of us take for granted, and that they are entitled to the same hopes for happiness, peace and love as all humans should be. The sideshow performers close ranks around Hans when they realise Cleopatra and Hercules are exploiting him. (One might expect that by the same token, had Hans spurned them, the sideshow performers would show him the consequences of his actions – by abandoning him when he most needs them.) All the sideshow cast are given significant roles and perform them to the best of their abilities – even the Human Torso (Prince Randian) gets a close-up scene all his own, if just to demonstrate how he lights up a cigarette.

When first released in pre-Depression America, the film flopped but since 1962, its cult status has grown in parallel with a growing sympathy for people with mental and physical disabilities; at the same time, the increasing rarity of such people in public and the cessation of avenues that highlight their differences might serve to separate them further from the general public so the apparent acceptance of people who look and behave very differently from the rest of us might be superficial.

Chasing Asylum: an urgent film detailing the inhumanity and idiocy of Australian incarceration of refugees in overseas detention centres

Eva Orner, “Chasing Asylum” (2016)

Finding information about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers kept in its detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru, in most mainstream news media and other outlets is hard as journalists, writers and others interested in hearing what inmates have to say are prevented from visiting those places. Eva Orner’s documentary “Chasing Asylum” shows why the Australian government goes to great lengths to wrap these centres in layers of secrecy, lies and other obfuscations: these are places that are all but concentration camps in name. First-hand evidence from and interviews with inmates, people who worked there and other refugees left isolated in Indonesia after boats carrying refugees were prevented from entering Australian waters, along with statistics and interviews with others including journalist David Marr show some of the brutality, violence and absolute despair experienced by people who have had the misfortune to be dumped in the overseas detention centres and left to rot there.

The film pulls no punches in its investigation, revealing not just the indifference of Australian politicians to the refugees who come by boat from impoverished countries in South Asia and the Middle East, but also the stupidity, callousness and incompetence of the Australian government from the top down to the people who run the detention centres in their treatment of the refugees once they enter these Pacific island hellholes. Manus Island is a remote and underdeveloped place and Nauru is impoverished: ideal places to dump unwanted refugees onto local governments that desperately need money and economic development. A former security guard who fled Manus Island after death threats were made against him for complaining about the facility describes the World War II tin-shed building used to cram refugees in such a way that heat stroke and dehydration must have been serious ever-present threats in the hot, humid climate. Some interviewees who worked as volunteers (!) at these centres tell how they were recruited to work there: their descriptions of their recruitment make clear how they were duped into thinking they were going to holiday camp places, only for them to discover that the people they were expected to help needed professional medical help and psychological counselling.

Parts of the film were filmed surreptitiously with cellphones concealed within interviewees’ clothing, giving the film an intimate and personal look that is unnerving and which packs a punch in scenes where inmates are clearly suffering or blood is shown on walls, floors and bedclothes. The saddest parts of the documentary revolve around two Iranian men, Hamid Khazaei and Reza Barati, who died in the Manus Island centre: Khazaei suffered from an untreated infection in a wound to his foot which led to blood poisoning and a fatal coma, with his problem compounded by bureaucratic apathy in Canberra that denied him an emergency flight to a hospital in Port Moresby that could treat his sepsis; and Barati was killed during a riot. The deaths of both men were completely unnecessary and Hamid’s death in particular highlights the dangerously unsanitary conditions of the centres and the lack of a proper medical facility staffed with personnel who could treat common wounds and injuries. Orner travels to Iran to meet the two men’s families to find out why they left their homes and risked their lives to travel to Australia only to end up in Hell and to die such wretched deaths. She also goes to Indonesia to meet refugees left stranded and cut off from family in Australia after July 2015, when the Australian government announced that any new asylum seekers arriving by boat would be transferred to Manus Island and Nauru.

The film is rather scattershot in its approach, mostly out of necessity and from difficulties experienced as a result of Canberra’s efforts to restrict access to the centres. Several politicians refused to be interviewed for the documentary. Orner doesn’t delve very deeply into the global political context in which countries in the Middle East and southern Asia are destabilised by the US government and its lackeys which include Australia. The Australian government has yet to link its participation in invading Syria and aiding the jihadis there to the growing Syrian refugee problem and international pressure on Australia to take more Syrian asylum seekers than it currently does. Another way that demonstrates Australia’s inability to learn from costly mistakes is its recent agreement with Cambodia for that impoverished country to accept and house unwanted asylum seekers, for which Australia promised Phnom Penh hundreds of millions of dollars to build detention centres.

Also what goes ignored by Orner’s film is the reaction of local people on Manus Island and Nauru to Canberra’s hypocrisy in suddenly supplying their governments with loads of money to house unwanted people when for years the islanders themselves were neglected by Australia and forced to live in dire poverty while the wealth of their lands went into overseas corporate coffers. These locals’ resentment at Canberra’s idiocy is unfortunately directed against the refugees imprisoned in the camps instead. A proper solution to dealing with the refugees in Manus Island and Nauru not only requires the camps to be closed down but also requires Canberra to compensate the local communities forced to host the camps with enough funding and appropriate help to clean up or demolish the camps and to develop more self-sustaining economies with adequate infrastructure and welfare systems.

For the time being, “Chasing Asylum” best serves as an eye-opener to one of Australia’s darkest secrets and crimes. It will have to do as an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers until a more detailed exposé of how and why all major political parties in Australia are agreed on dumping asylum seekers in poor countries, why the Australian public itself seems satisfied with that policy and how Australia has changed so much in the last 40 years from being a much more welcoming and compassionate country to one more mean-spirited, self-satisfied and so … American.

Battleship Potemkin: a classic of drama, passion and the power of people to overturn injustice and oppression

Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Although this film was made over 90 years ago and is a silent black-and-white work, it still stands up well against current films thanks to its crisp action and a plot that will still resonate with many people, especially those living in countries experiencing political repression in their daily lives. The film’s emphasis on the people as the grassroots foundation for political and social movements that can overthrow governments and implement new and better ways of living is a refreshing contrast and rebuttal to Hollywood stereotypes about the power of individuals to drive and achieve change.

The action takes place over five episodes that form a narrative arc set during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sailors on the warship Potemkin sympathise with workers rebelling in St Petersburg over their inhumane treatment by bourgeois employers and an autocratic government. The seamen get a taste (literally) of that treatment themselves when their officers try to force them to eat meat tainted with maggots. The captain forces the sailors to assemble on deck, separates those who refused to eat the borscht made with the meat and orders a firing squad to shoot the rebels. Ordinary seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk appeals to the firing squad not to shoot. The shooters put down their weapons and a brawl between the officers and the crew breaks out. In the melee, which the sailors win, Vakulinchuk is shot dead by two officers.

The grieving sailors lay Vakulinchuk ashore at the port of Odessa. Local citizens view his body, see the message attached to it that explains his actions and death, and are moved to rebel against the local government and military authorities. The tsarist government cracks down hard on the citizenry in memorable scenes that take place on the boulevard steps: a boy and then his mother are shot dead in a horrific sequence that underlines the inhuman, machine nature of the advancing troops upon the panicked crowds; a young woman is killed and the pram with her baby runs down the steps, the baby’s ultimate fate remaining unknown; and a woman doctor, appealing to the troops’ humanity and brotherhood with their fellow Russians and Slavs, is mown down along with other innocents.

The Potemkin gets a call for help from the Odessans and the sailors rally by firing on the headquarters of the military authorities, destroying the building. A fleet of warships is soon on the Potemkin’s trail. The sailors know their firepower is as nothing against the might of the Russian navy: how will they and their cause, and the Odessans as well, fare when the battleships catch up with them?

Although the film has probably been over-analysed, not necessarily for the right reasons, and its use of montage, clever and imaginative though it is, has also been over-emphasised, Eisenstein’s work remains compelling in its brisk, no-nonsense way of putting together otherwise unrelated shots so as to suggest not just a story, but a story with a message about revolution, and how revolution and mass movement can only succeed if the people believe in equality and brotherhood, and are not simply out for personal liberty. (And clever montage cannot work without good camera-work that has a feel for drama, emotion and visual artistry, framing each and every scene like a diorama in itself, and equally clever and brisk editing that brings pacing to suggest increasing tension leading towards a climax.) In this film, personal sacrifice is a significant part of achieving a freer and more equal society. Vakulinchuk acts as a catalyst but his role as leader cannot be over-stressed as it would be in a Hollywood film.

Also significant to the film’s enduring success is its cinematography which stresses crowd scenes, often shot in panorama and in imaginative ways to boot, and the clever use of black-and-white imagery that approaches German Expressionism’s use of black and white and all the shades of grey in-between. Violence in the film is not explicit yet the discreet ways in which it is filmed make a deeper impression on viewers than all the cartoon hyper-violence of much current film-making which tends to numb the senses and prevent a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to visual brutality.

The actual plot might be thin and heavy-handed, the acting (all by non-professionals) overdone and the characters very stereotyped, but what Eisenstein brings out of his material is a film of great drama, power and passion.

Ironically, at this time of writing, the people of Odessa (in Ukraine) continue to struggle for freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice for their fellow citizens who were tortured and butchered by neo-Nazis in the trade union building in early May 2014, and whose suffering continues to be denied in the West.

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 whom 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 atomised 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 himself 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 ways, 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, fragmented in mind 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.