Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Exposing propaganda at work in “The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story”

“The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story” (21 February 2019)

In recent months, with the 2020 US Presidential year looming on the horizon, there has been talk of a set of programs and policies known as the Green New Deal (named after former US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s that invested in infrastructure construction and stimulated job creation and employment during the Great Depression) to address national issues such as failing infrastructure, climate change and its effects, unemployment and rising social inequalities across the nation. A major objection to the Green New Deal, usually lobbed by neoconservative politicians and think-tanks, is that its programs will lead to hyperinflation and economic / political instability of the kind currently (or supposedly) present in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian socialist government. On this radio talk-show, host Thom Hartmann invited Dr Richard Wolff to discuss this objection and the real agenda behind the false association of the social-democratic policies proposed and the economic situation in Venezuela.

Much of the first half of Hartmann’s conversation with Wolff focuses on the definition of hyperinflation (a situation in which too much money is chasing too few goods) and how the phenomenon can occur in any political / economic environment regardless of the prevailing ideology. Wolff points out that the hyperinflation argument is trotted out in public to dissuade voters and even aspiring politicians (and presidential candidates) from favouring government policies and programs spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance projects that would generate jobs and incomes – and thus more tax revenue – and help reduce social inequalities. Such programs, including a nationalised healthcare system, have their consequences such as reduced healthcare expenditures in the future (because the population ends up much healthier if health insurance is subsidised by the government rather than privatised). Wolff says the issue is that such government policies must be paid for by increased taxation, particularly taxation of the wealthy, and this is the issue that neoconservative politicians, talk-show hosts and think-tanks (and the people and organisations who fund them) object to.

The actual discussion about Venezuela involves a comparison of the people in Maduro’s government and the Constituent National Assembly, most of whom are of mixed ancestry, and the anti-government National Assembly, all of whom are of white European ancestry. Wolff makes the point that Maduro’s difficulties in governing Venezuela and steering the nation’s economy away from disaster stem from the old Venezuelan white minority elite’s determination to maintain its power and control of the country’s resources at the expense of the majority poor, and US sanctions on the country which include the freezing of Venezuela’s financial and other assets held in foreign countries.

The discussion is densely packed with information and jumps from one topic to the next, due to the restricted time allocated to Wolff. I daresay though that viewers and listeners will learn much more about the political and economic reality in Venezuela, and the US propaganda use of that country’s dire economic straits to browbeat Americans into accepting agendas that impoverish and degrade them even more than they currently are.

Cynicism and citizenship for sale in “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas”

Francis Plourde, “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas” (Enquete, September 2018)

In 1986 the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government pioneered investment programs encouraging wealthy migrants with at least $2 million in assets to settle in Canada and Quebec province respectively, provided that, among other conditions they had to meet as immigrants, they invested a minimum amount of $1.2 million (as a loan to the respective governments) into the country or province to generate business, revenues and jobs. Since 1986, thousands of immigrants have gained permanent residency in Canada through these programs. In 2014, the federal program shut down over concerns about its effectiveness but the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (hereafter QIIP) continues. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s current affairs program Enquete in 2018 reveals that QIIP has degenerated into a financial scam that encourages tax evasion, money laundering and the Canadian economy’s dependence on money – much of it from China and Hong Kong – sloshing through banks and other financial institutions to prop up excessive property speculation in Vancouver and other major cities.

The Enquete investigation takes a multi-pronged approach to covering all aspects of this investment scheme and its consequences for Canada’s economy including hiring a Hong Kong man to pose as wealthy prospective businessman investor Mr Chen, with plenty of money and a shady history of businesses and tax evasion to match his wealth, who approaches an immigration consultancy to inquire about obtaining permanent residency in Quebec and a Canadian passport. What journalist Francis Plourde discovers through “Mr Chen” and his “secretary” using hidden cameras is that immigration consultants and lawyers connected with QIIP are prepared to overlook the huge gaps in the would-be migrant’s business and tax affairs and even suggest that he change his name to “Bruce Lee” (ha!) and acquire citizenship in a dodgy Caribbean tax haven place to evade both Canadian and Chinese tax authorities by establishing a trust fund based there.

Interviews with Quebec government public servants who worked in Hong Kong dealing with QIIP applications and the immigrant consultants and lawyers who represented or were asked to vet wealthy clients wanting permanent residency status in Canada reveal the extent of the corruption involved; the undercover operation using the fake investor Mr Chen confirms the sloppy way in which applications were processed and how consultants turned a blind eye to applicants’ shady financial pasts. The officials who worked in Hong Kong speak of not having enough time to do full due diligence work on applicants’ documents and of being pressed by the Quebec government to accept applicants in spite of not having the time or the resources to check and authenticate their papers.

The investigation also examines whether the QIIP program has delivered economic benefits to Quebec in the generation of new business and jobs in that province. While bureaucrats and new small to medium-sized firms in Quebec are enthusiastic about government programs that fund their growth and development, what the investigators found that the money loaned by investors (interest-free, for five years) to Quebec was placed with Investissement Quebec (hereafter IQ) which invested the money in funds at market rates. The interest earned would be invested in actual businesses. Further investigation with an economist found that the number of jobs generated by investment by IQ was far less than IQ itself claims. On top of this, the revenue earned from IQ’s investments has been low due to very low interest rates over the past decade (2008 – 2018). If this were not enough, much of the revenue has to be paid to immigration consultants in commissions for referring prospective immigrants to QIIP so the amount invested in new businesses is much, much less than it could be.

A further consequence of QIIP is that most Chinese immigrants – they make up the majority of the QIIP immigrants – end up in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where they drive up the prices of properties and help create property speculation bubbles. Many immigrants commute between Canada, China and Hong Kong, and rarely or even never set foot in Quebec. They pay very little income tax in Canada – indeed, buying property is itself a form of tax evasion – while Vancouver suffers from an overheated property market in which local people are effectively barred from buying their own homes, and Vancouver city authorities suffer the burden of supplying education and health services to foreign families that contribute very little to Canada.

In effect, the whole QIIP project has created a financial monster in which the main beneficiaries are financial institutions and people gaming the project as if it were a giant casino. The program has created opportunities for money laundering and taxation evasion. It appears that neither the Canadian nor the Quebec government seems to care very much about the adverse economic and social consequences that QIIP creates for communities in Vancouver and other cities where wealthy immigrants have flocked to buy up mansions and expensive apartments and to educate their children in private schools, as long as money is flowing into the country. In the process, an elite transnational class of people dependent on rentier income derived from property speculation and with no concept of national loyalty is created.

Above all, the notion that citizenship can be bought at a price, and the conditions attached to the purchase of citizenship can be disregarded, as long as the buyer brings plenty of money, is cynical and says quite a bit about the grubby motivations and aims of the people who dreamt up the idea of fast-tracking residency status and citizenship on the basis of material wealth.

The Coup in Venezuela, Explained: an impassioned presentation on the reality behind the news media propaganda and lies

Aaron Bastani, Gary McQuiggin, “The Coup in Venezuela, Explained” (Novara Media, 2019)

Here comes a very timely report on the recent history of Venezuela’s politics and economy, coming after the country’s Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido declared himself President of Venezuela on 23 January 2019, just after Nicolas Maduro’s second term as President began. Almost immediately the United States, followed by several Latin American countries and many in the European Union, either recognised Guaido as President or pressured Maduro to hold new elections. As the title says, the report provides the background to the rise of the Bolivarian political / economic / social revolution in Venezuela in the 1990s and its achievements under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. It also examines the history of Western hostility to Chavez and Maduro’s governments, the US attempts to overthrow Chavez and Maduro by outright coups and constant sabotaging of Venezuela’s economy. This hostility is put into a wider historical context in which the United States has always intervened, usually violently, in the affairs of Latin American countries, derailed their legitimately elected governments and replaced them with fascist elites who rule through violence and terror, and enrich themselves and their American masters by looting their nations’ economies while the population falls into poverty.

Bastani puts the Bolivarian revolution and the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the Presidency into historical and current political context, by noting that Venezuela was in a parlous state on various economic and social criteria in 1998 when Chavez became President, and comparing that state to what Venezuela was in 2010: poverty levels fell precipitously from nearly 71% in 1996 to 21% in 2010, and the level of malnutrition in the population fell from 21% in 1998 to 5% in 2012, thanks to spending on social welfare programs. However much of the money spent on social programs came from revenues from oil exports: after 2015, oil prices (and thus oil revenues) began to fall due in part to Saudi Arabia’s flooding of the global oil market in order to crash the Russian and Iranian economies, widely perceived to be dependent on energy and oil exports. At the same time, the US imposed economic and financial sanctions on Venezuela and froze the country’s oil refiner CITGO’s ability to send revenues earned in the US back to the country; the combined effect of sanctions and falling oil prices ruined the economy and forced the country to issue more money, leading to hyperinflation. Bastani observes that the American use of sanctions to ruin economies has a long and ignoble history, citing the example of the Nixon government’s sanctioning of Chile in 1973.

The only issue I have with this part of Bastani’s explanation of Venezuela’s economic history is that he omits to mention how Venezuela came to be overly dependent on oil extraction and export for export revenues, to the detriment of other industries (especially agriculture), and how this excessive reliance on exporting raw commodities was partly the result of past government policy directed by US governments which saw Venezuela as little more than a giant petrol station to be exploited for oil which Americans regarded as theirs.

The role of British mainstream news media and of the BBC in particular in propagating and perpetuating the lies about Venezuela, Maduro being a dictator and an incompetent economic manager, and the global support that Guaido is supposed to have as self-declared President, is exposed in Bastani’s parsing of the statements presented and the in-built biases they have. Shamefully the British Labour party is as much at fault as the despised Tories in supporting Guaido as President and in attributing Venezuela’s dire economic situation to Chavez, Maduro and the policies and programs they pursued. Bastani then goes over the history of Chavez’s changes to the Venezuelan Constitution and his election history, finding that Chavez consistently won the popular vote in Presidential elections. A US-supported coup against Chavez in 2002, during which he was kidnapped and held hostage, failed when Venezuelans demanded that he be set free and returned to power. Bastani demonstrates that, far from widespread Western belief, Chavez not only was no dictator but the political changes he brought made Venezuela a far more democratic country than the United States or the United Kingdom.

Bastani is a passionate and persuasive presenter who has done detailed research on his topic, backing up his statements with statistics and comparing the propaganda about Venezuela with the reality of the country and finding the lies blatant and outrageous. His presentation makes clear that the Bolivarian revolution and its principles and agenda are a threat to the greed of elites in the Western world to grab other nations’ resources (in Venezuela’s case, its oil reserves) for their own enrichment at the expense of the people whose resources are being stolen. He urges us all to stand up to our elites and call them out on their lies and propaganda, and to stop them from invading Venezuela and seizing its wealth.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226): rehashing stories ignored by US mainstream news media

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226)” (RT America, 6 January 2019)

The first episode of “Redacted Tonight”, hosted by Lee Camp, is a review of the most important under-reported or unreported news stories of 2018 as determined by the long-running Project Censored. He starts off with reviewing Project Censored stories that have already been featured on “Redacted Tonight” such as a story on unaccounted US Federal government spending of some US$21 trillion from 1998 to 2015, and one about how large telecommunications companies claimed that mobile phones and Wi-fi networks are safe. The vast majority of the stories identified by Project Censored are particular to the United States and may not be relevant – at least, not currently – to overseas audiences. Camp smoothly segues from one story (about the opioid addiction crisis in the US) to the next (homeless people being bussed out of cities and across the US to improve those cities’ homeless population statistics) though he does not do the stories in the order Project Censored orders them on its website. If a viewer sneezes, s/he might just miss some stories that are fleetingly covered. International stories include New Zealand’s recognition of the Whanganui River as a living entity and entitled to legal personhood and legal rights; and a global decline in the rule of law as determined by the World Justice Project.

The way in which Camp wanders from one story to the next (and sometimes back to a previous story) may be a bit confusing for viewers and people are best advised to refer to the Project Censored website to find out more about particular stories in detail.

The rest of the episode focuses on investigative reporter Natalie McGill’s story on how private companies profit from prisoners’ communications with their families; and Naomi Karavani’s story on how the FBI recruited Best Buy Geek Squad employees to spy on Best Buy clients’ computer databases, encouraging Geek Squad employees to actively scout for child pornography to get free change.

As with another “Redacted Tonight” episode I saw, Camp has a shouty style (which goes up several decibels in the first couple of minutes!) which can be a little tiresome, though the humour can be very sharp and witty. I’m surprised the show has lasted as long as it has with its format and style of presentation and comedy.

My only criticism of Project Censored is that so many of the stories featured in its Top 25 unreported or under-reported stories actually seem to come from quite mainstream sources like The Guardian (increasingly a neoconservative cheerleader for US and UK government policies) and not from alternative news sources.

Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230): exposing media propaganda on Venezuela’s political crisis

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230)” (RT America, 1 February 2019)

Lee Camp is a stand-up comedian, writer and activist who hosts weekly TV comedy current affairs show “Redacted Tonight” on the RT America channel. Unlike most TV comedy news shows which satirise politics and other contemporary issues, “Redacted Tonight” presents news stories of actual events and issues that are rarely or never mentioned on mainstream news media outlets including print and online outlets in a style that mocks the powerful and their lackeys. The episodes follow a format that focuses first on a current world issue for the first ten minutes or so, and then on a series of ongoing problems (say, about two or three) particular to the United States for the rest of their half-hour running time.

Amid applause from a live audience, Camp launches straight into an attack on the slanted propagandist mainstream news reporting on the political crisis in Venezuela. News media outlets such as CNN portray the legitimate government under President Nicolas Maduro as inept and corrupt economic managers while omitting to mention the harsh and distorting effect of US economic sanctions on the country’s economy and the living conditions of Venezuelans. Also conveniently left out is the effect of Saudi Arabia’s crashing of global oil prices by ramping up oil production and flooding the global market in 2014, in an effort to wreck the economies of its political rival Iran and Russia as well, both nations presumed to be heavily dependent on oil exports for foreign exchange: this had an adverse effect on Venezuela’s economy which has always been overly dependent on oil exports and oil production thanks to previous governments (before the Bolivarian governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) that treated Venezuela as a petrol pump to be exploited.

By carefully parsing CNN reports on the apparent refugee problem and the poverty in Venezuela, Camp shows how sloppy the channel is in failing to match up its reports with the images it presents, and calls attention to the effect of US sanctions on the country which impoverish most people but help enrich the wealthy by legitimising smuggling-in of sanctioned goods by companies or individuals who then sell the goods at inflated prices. Camp even compares sanctions to so-called “smart” bombs which supposedly target terrorists but actually indiscriminately kill everyone else unfortunate enough to be close to the targeted terrorists. He notes that CNN portrayed Juan Guaido’s self-declaration as President in Caracas as having been witnessed by thousands of people, when in fact 81% of Venezuelans had never heard of him. Camp goes on to fill in aspects of Guaido’s background as a protege of US Deep State neoconservative regime-change forces, Guaido having attended George Washington University in Washington DC under the tutelage of Venezuelan neoliberal economist Luis Enrique Berrizbeitia, a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund. (Camp could have quoted Grayzone again and noted that Guaido could have trained in insurrectionist regime-change methods in Belgrade under OTPOR, a US-funded regime-change organisation that organised the protests that overthrew Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998.)

The segment ends with Camp stating that Venezuelans deserve self-determination, the freedom to work out what government is best qualified to deal with the nation’s problems and end mass poverty without interference from foreign countries.

The rest of the program ranges from covering a climate change protest in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and how it was superficially reported by mainstream news outlets; to the record of US Federal senator Kamala Harris, currently being groomed by the Democratic Party as a future Presidential candidate, who has been funded by Wall Street banks and pro-Israel lobby organisation AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee); to Camp’s hilarious discussion with John F O’Donnell on the food industry, global agriculture and the benefits of giving up eating meat and going vegetarian or vegan; to an investigation by reporter Natalie McGill on the Internal Revenue Service’s budget and staff cuts, rendering the organisation lacking the experience and knowledge in going after corporations for evading their taxation obligations. At the same time the IRS shakes down poor individuals for money (received from welfare services) through audits conducted by private debt collectors who then charge exorbitant fees for their services!

Camp’s shouty style can be irritating for some viewers so it’s probably just as well the program lasts just under 30 minutes and features other presenters like McGill and O’Donnell so Camp’s larynx can get some rest. The discussion with O’Donnell on the commercial food industry and its exploitation of animals and the human end-consumer alike can go right over some viewers’ heads and barely touches how the industry’s pursuit of profit endangers people’s health and wrecks the environment. On the other hand, the comedy format allows Camp and his fellow presenters the capacity to probe issues fairly deeply and seriously in a way that does not alienate or bore their audience, and to expose mainstream news media as complicit in disseminating propaganda and fake news.

Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster): Masha and kasha aren’t a good mix

Oleg Uzhinov, “Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster)” (2009)

Despite its title, this charming little short turned out to be the animated children’s series’ recipe for success, its Russian-language version gaining more than 3.4 billion views on Youtube and as a result becoming the most viewed non-music video on that platform. The story is simple and straightforward but contains a little lesson about how one should accept responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that accrue from them.

Bear is trying to teach himself how to play checkers using a guidebook but gets stuck over a game in which he plays both sides and now White is out-pointing Black by 5 to 1 literally. Bear doesn’t quite get the hang of checkers being a strictly competitive game where the object is to win, and not a game where the competition is in striving to be the best you can be and everyone gets to win. His little human charge Masha doesn’t help by stealing the black piece and trying to play hockey with it. Bear pops her outside the cottage with a real hockey puck and forces Hare, caught stealing carrots from the garden (again!), to play goalie. After a while of hitting goals, Masha and Hare demand lunch so Bear puts Masha in charge of cooking kasha (buckwheat porridge) and goes off into the woods to concentrate on his checkers game. Masha ends up raiding all the cupboards for kasha and pouring it all into the pot, mixing water and milk into it; the resulting boiling mix threatens to over-pour everywhere so she dumps as much as she can into as many pots and pans as she can, and takes them all out to the forest animals to feed them all. Even the wolves resident in the abandoned ambulance van up on the hill get overfed on kasha.

Meanwhile, Bear finally reconciles himself to the fact that Black has lost the game so he packs up and returns to the cottage just in time for the inevitable explosion …

The CGI animation emphasises bright colours and sharp lighting contrasts which give a sunny mood to the cartoon. The action is quick and zippy which allows a lot of story to be packed into a 7-minute cartoon. All the animals featured in the story are mute which make Bear’s patiently stoic and forbearing attitude and the other animals’ surprise all the more funny. The story brings out Masha’s mischievous yet lovable character as she is forced to face up to the mess she creates.

One hopes that Bear has learned not to leave Masha by herself in the kitchen again, but given that this episode has been the most popular of the entire series, perhaps the creators can’t resist having Bear forget what happened when he left Masha at home alone … maybe that’ll be another lesson to be reinforced.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.