Young and Innocent: a girl finds truth and wisdom through deception in light-hearted crime thriller comedy

Alfred Hitchcock, “Young and Innocent” (1938)

A plucky teenage girl aids a young man on the run from bumbling police who suspect him of murder by driving him in her police-chief dad’s car through the English countryside. Sounds like the kind of young adult crime thriller fiction Enid Blyton might have once wanted to write but in fact this is the synopsis of a light-hearted and entertaining film by Alfred Hitchcock. The original source material is a whodunnit by writer Josephine Tey but as was his habit Hitchcock reworked the story into another variation of the meta-movie running in his head in which an innocent man, falsely accused of a heinous crime, must prove his honesty and character by finding the real culprit with no help other than a feisty and resourceful blonde lady by his side. Whom he falls in love with, naturally. A link object – in this case, a raincoat – provides an implausible yet valuable clue to finding and identifying the murderer who conveniently gives himself away at the film’s climax.

Seventeen-year-old actor Nova Pilbeam, boasting past childhood acting experience, steals the show as the determined Erica who is unwillingly drafted by Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) into helping him but who ends up taking charge of the search for the real criminal. The character of Erica could have been very one-dimensional jolly-hockey-sticks / senior high-school prefect and while Erica does veer very closely to that stereotype, Pilbeam works into the character spunk and warmth and not a little desperation at times. Tisdall on the other hand is blank and isn’t much help to his own cause even when the couple fetch up at a pub and a fight breaks out there which traps Erica; Tisdall’s attempt to rescue her ends up with her rescuing him. The romance which develops between the two is very fleeting and not at all convincing, and one has the impression Hitch himself was rather uncomfortable with it due to Erica’s very young age (she’s 16 years old, Tisdall is over 30 years of age) and the circumstances in which Erica and Tisdall are thrown together.

The adults in the film are laughable stereotypes: there’s a kind-hearted tramp who could have easily taken advantage of Erica when they’re alone together; Erica’s suspicious aunt and easy-going uncle are a comic couple; the police chasing Erica and Tisdall get into all kinds of silly scrapes; and the crook himself turns out to be a nervous wreck who undoes himself by overdosing on tranquillisers when he sees police surrounding him. (He does not know that they’re actually after someone else which is part of the situation comedy in the film’s ballroom scenes.) The only adult who comes out looking sensible is Erica’s father, a benevolent and comfortingly patriarchal presence.

The film has impressive technical chops as well with a tracking camera shot gliding across the huge ballroom scene to focus on the crook playing drums in a jazz band. While Hitch at the time was not very good with co-ordinating and filming crowd scenes generally, the same can’t be said for his mass ballroom-dancing scenes which are well done and include some slapstick comedy. Quick camera shots here and there and a rescue scene in an abandoned mine herald similar scenes in future Hollywood works like “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “The Birds”.

The film is well-named: Erica, initially innocent in the ways of the world, becomes aware of its injustices in her effort to prove Tisdall’s innocence and by film’s end, she is a very knowing and transformed character while Tisdall has barely changed. Erica has learned that to get to the bottom of things to find the truth, one must practise deception and practise it better than everyone else in the film does. Familiar motifs running through the film include trains, distrust of police, resistance to authority, and birds and seascapes as heralds of disaster caused by human sexual jealousy and violence. Although “Young and Innocent” goes easy on the suspense and menace, and often overdoes the comedy especially in its later ballroom scenes, it’s an enjoyable comedy crime caper that even young people today might thrill to. Enid Blyton might well have wished she had scripted this flick.

 

The Way of All Flesh: a broad introduction to an unlikely heroine in the history of medical research

Adam Curtis, “The Way of All Flesh” (1997)

As told in this fascinating documentary, the story of Henrietta Lacks – or rather, that of her cancer tumour and the cells collected from it by scientist George Otto Gey in 1951 – is also the story of a particular direction in cancer research and the ups and downs it took over the years. It is also the story about human indifference and greed, politics and a universal emotional rollercoaster of triumph turning into despair which in its turn becomes hope, anticipation and triumph again only to plunge into despair yet again. Narrated by Curtis in his superficially neutral and unassuming manner, the film plays out as a fairly straightforward documentary with a mix of interviews, films of cell activity and old newsreels. The musical soundtrack is dreamy and wistful and, based as it is on repetitions of the Maurice Jarre melody known as “Lara’s Theme”, seems appropriate for the film given that, just as Henrietta Lacks’s family fought to have their mother recognised and acknowledged as a pioneer in cancer research, so too in the film that the music was originally written for, “Dr Zhivago”, a character searches for Lara’s lost daughter and, believing he has found her, tells her of her parents’ history (but she’s not convinced).

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman living in Baltimore, consulted a doctor about abnormal bleeding after giving birth to her son. The doctor referred her to John Hopkins Hospital where the doctor there found a tumour in her cervix and cut pieces of it to send away for tests. The tests confirmed she had cervical cancer. During treatment, part of her cervix which contained both healthy and cancerous cells was cut away and sent to a scientist, Dr George Otto Gey. Gey propagated the cells (now known as HeLa cells) which he then donated, along with the methods and processes he used to develop them, to any scientist who requested them. At the time, permission from patients or their families was not required or sought by custom and neither Lacks nor her family knew that her cells were being used for study and experimentation.

The cells were used by Jonas Salk in testing his polio vaccine and were also used in medical research studies other than cancer research. Because the cells grow easily and are very hardy, and were passed around laboratories all over the world, they ended up contaminating other tissue cell cultures. When scientist Walter Nelson-Rees blew the whistle on HeLa’s widespread contamination of other tissue cell cultures, millions of dollars’ worth of cancer research, particularly research on possible cancer viruses and other cell research (some of which went back to the 1950s), went up in smoke.

The film does a good job of detailing the government hoopla surrounding cancer research and the search for a possible viral cause for cancer in the 1960s. A wealthy socialite benefactor donated generously to research and many Hollywood celebrities joined the TV campaign urging the public to support cancer research. Considerable time is given to the political stoush that almost occurred when Soviet researchers had announced a breakthrough in their cancer research which led to US and Soviet exchanges of cell tissue material and the Soviet material was found to be contaminated with HeLa cells! Later, when HeLa cells became the focus of gene mapping and researchers began to seek out Lacks’s family for information, the children finally learned about what had been done with Lacks’s cancer cells and the film documents in a general way the family’s long fight to have their mother acknowledged as an unwitting pioneer in medical research. There is some mention of the family’s fight for financial compensation but it is superficial and viewers end up with little knowledge of the family’s financial situation at the time the film was made (mid-1990s).

Generally the film serves as a broad introduction to the life and history of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells which continue to thrive, wanted and unwanted, in cell cultures around the world. What’s missing is some insight into the process of scientific research and how stringent its controls and regulations are or are not, and what aspects of human behaviour, both positive and negative, are illustrated in scientific endeavour. It seems that too many scientists neglect to check cell cultures they receive for possible contamination before picking up their tweezers and syringes. You’d think they’d get warnings about checking their equipment and materials before doing any work drummed into their heads at school so much that they’d be doing it in their sleep. Human error and other shortcomings, such as people taking for granted that someone has already cleaned the equipment, simple ignorance or seeing what you want to see, should have been mentioned also. Then of course there’s the pressure from employers such as pharmaceutical firms on people to get results as quickly as possible before other researchers hit the jackpot, forcing researchers to take short cuts or even to fake results. Beyond the presentation of facts, the film barely grazes the social and ethical issues brought up by the history of the HeLa cells and their wayward journeys around the world and viewers interested in more information and the fate of Lacks’s family (who at the time this review was posted still can’t afford the medical insurance to buy the treatments and medicines that the HeLa cells made possible) should read Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, published in 2010.

Since “The Way of all Flesh” was made, there have been developments in cervical cancer research of which director Curtis must surely appreciate the hidden irony: the cancer that killed Lacks has been attributed to the human papilloma virus and a vaccine (Gardasil) has been developed for it. The vaccine itself has become the subject of much controversy due to various side effects (including death) and the fact that in some parts of the US, its maker Merck Inc has been aggressively lobbying state governments to make it compulsory for girls aged 11 and 12 years before they can attend school.

The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough): informative enough for a general audience

Adam Curtis “The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough)” (1995)

Curtis sure doesn’t do things by halves and his “The Living Dead” trilogy which explores the manipulation of memory and history for political and social ends is no different. Episode 2 of the series revolves around the history of mind control and brainwashing and the eagerness of psychiatrists to co-operate with governments and intelligence agencies on moulding human beings to create the perfect spy or assassin. Curtis builds up a persuasive argument with an entertaining and often whimsical mixture of interviews, newsreels, previous documentaries, science education films and excerpts from movies like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, embellished with a music soundtrack that often comments ironically on the incidents it accompanies.

The film traces the history of a particular strand of neuroscience that starts with Canadian surgeon Wilder Penfield who found that he could stimulate parts of the brain with electrical probes and thus map areas of the brain corresponding to the functions of limbs and body organs. His work raised the possibility of changing people’s memories and the creation of rational human beings. Scottish-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was introduced to and inspired by Penfield’s work and he became convinced that by changing people’s memories and thinking through psychiatry, he could get rid of nationalism, prejudice and other undesirable mental traits that had encouraged the rise of authoritarian rule in Germany during the 1930s and led to the outbreak of World War 2.

Cameron was recruited by the CIA in the late 1950s to work on experiments that involved erasing the minds and memories of patients and then rebuilding the subjects’ personalities according to his whims. The wider political and military context of these experiments is shown in the film: the US government was alarmed by reports of apparent brainwashing of American POWs by the Soviet Union and China during the Korean War and the CIA wanted to keep abreast of psychology experiments the NKVD (later the KGB) was supposedly conducting. Curtis later wanders away from Cameron’s experiments to focus on the CIA’s obsession with assassinating Fidel Castro and the possibility that US President John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been brainwashed during his time in the Soviet Union. Eventually the CIA stopped funding mind control experiments and along with the US military began to fund research into developing technology with computer software that mimicked characteristics of the human mind such as memory and visual recognition.

Overall, “You have used me …” is a cleverly made and informative film for audiences not familiar with the history of mind control experiments and other unethical experiments sponsored by the US government and its agencies. Each topic touched on in the film is worthy of a 60-minute documentary in its own right so if you’re looking for some fairly in-depth information into the nuts and bolts of how Cameron was approached by the CIA and agreed to work for that agency and what exactly he achieved for the CIA, you may be disappointed. Curiously, nowhere in “You have used me …” does Curtis actually utter the magic term “MKULTRA” as that was exactly what Cameron was working under: his experiments formed part of the MKULTRA project. The omission of the entire MKULTRA project and the related Project BLUEBIRD (later Project ARTICHOKE) seems strange; at the very least, Curtis could have acknowledged that Cameron’s work was one part, albeit a very important one, of the umbrella project that involved the use of chemical, biological and (gulp!) “radiological” methods of achieving mind control.

The film’s conclusion that memory can hold individuals and societies back is chilling. Surely Curtis’s intention here is tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even satirical. The historical context he refers to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which among other things led to various ethnic rivalries, long suppressed by the Communist government, in that country breaking out. A better argument for what happened is that various ethnic groups, denied the political tools to negotiate and hammer out an agreement and a compensation process to settle overlapping territorial and property claims, and all residing in a country with a weakly developed (and probably corrupt) legal system, ended up resorting to violence once the old authoritarian fetters fell away. I also can’t imagine Curtis fronting up to groups like, say, Armenians and Jews, and telling them that focussing on past historical traumas of repeated genocide is holding them back and they should let go of these memories! The loss of memory was not sufficient enough to hold back hundreds of Cameron’s former patients from suing the CIA for compensation: in 1984 the CIA settled out of court with eight plaintiffs who brought a class action lawsuit against it and in 2004 (admittedly beyond the film’s scope) a Montreal court decision allowed over 250 people to claim cash compensation.

The upshot of the failed mind control experiments – Project MKULTRA was terminated in 1973 – was that the US government, the CIA and others concluded that it’s easier to manipulate history than to manipulate minds. History not only can be rewritten to suit the victors and make losers like Nazi Germany the supreme evil bogeymen, it can also be scripted in advance: many countries around the world with leaders not to the taste of NATO, the US, Israel or the EU and suffering invasions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” will surely agree.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power): film cherry-picks facts to fit its premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power)” (2011)

A curious and challenging visual essay, the first in a series of documentaries about how humans have transferred power to their machines and how technology dominates and moulds our thinking and culture, this film posits the idea that eccentric Russian-American author and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) is the spiritual grandmother of our modern social and economic system and its global networks, and how her ideas and beliefs have indirectly destabilised global financial systems, wrecking economies and bringing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 through the so-called California Ideology adopted by the Silicon Valley IT community. A mix of voice-over narration, delivered by Curtis in a droll accent and sometimes feigning astonishment, with interviews and a soundtrack of songs selected for ironic comment on the narrative and the visual information, much of which is previous newsreels, old movie clips and Curtis’s own footage, makes for a distinctive and rather dream-like piece in which the documentary’s premise becomes more plausible than it actually is.

Through her novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, both of which maintain an on-again/off-again modest popularity with the general public, and other works, Rand espoused a philosophy that decried religion, philosophy and all other belief systems as forms of control by which elites kept the masses in psychological and physical slavery and which argued that individual pursuit of self-interest and happiness alone would result in stable societies and peace. Rand’s ideas attracted several followers, known as The Collective, of whom one was Alan Greenspan, the future US Chairman of the Federal Reserve and finance czar to the Clinton government in the 1990s. Rand’s philosophy appealed to people working in information technology, the finance industry, politics and economics, and the notion that computer networks could monitor and stabilise financial and economic systems and networks, bolstered by some dodgy human psychology experiments and other research in game theory, probability and risk management, caught on. With computers controlling and stabilising the global finance industry, people become free to follow their dreams and find happiness as Randian heroes.

The film hops between detailing Ayn Rand’s affair with one of her followers, Nathaniel Branden, and Greenspan’s advice to US President Bill Clinton to let the markets self-regulate. The New Economy so unleashed delivered mixed results and led to a financial crash across east and southeast Asia in 1997. Countries affected were forced to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, prompting international investors to bail out which in turn led to economic collapse. This had very serious consequences: among others, rioting broke out in Indonesia and led to President Suharto’s downfall after over 30 years of corrupt authoritarian rule.

The last part of the film deals with China’s apparent undertaking to manage the US economy (and so stabilising the world economy and avoiding a repeat of the 1997 Asian financial crisis) by pegging the yuan at an artificially low exchange rate to the US dollar. Cheap Chinese-made goods flooded the US and other Western markets and the money earned was invested by the Chinese government in US government bonds. US banks were flush with money which they then lent out to individuals, businesses and corporations with no regard for borrowers’ credit worth. The result was a property bubble, a huge accumulation of private and public debt and the US government being able to conduct wars and proxy wars in several countries. Of course China’s attempt to tinker with the global economy was bound to end in tears as the offshoring of industry and jobs from the US to China led to households and businesses defaulting on loans across America.

Curtis’s argument looks very persuasive but this reviewer had the impression he was cherry-picking his information to make it all fit his film’s premise. He seems unaware that Rand’s ideas were attractive to business, political and science leaders in US society because that society already adhered to a set of values that privileged individual action over collective action and which defined freedom as the absence of restraint and external control over one’s destiny. This negative definition of freedom, often in alliance with escape and remaking one’s identity, is a very American idea arising in part from the nation’s revolutionary birth, its subsequent conquest of territory and the waves of immigration the US experienced over the 19th century. Rand’s emphasis on “rationality” and “objectivity” finds its parallel in capitalist economic theory that assumes consumers in a free market act rationally. As for the notion that people act in self-interest and try to maximise their happiness as measured in accumulation of money and material goods, this can be traced back to ideas and concepts developed by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, all of whom lived before Rand and whose ideas may have been absorbed into capitalist economics as assumptions. Global financial crises were occurring as far back as the 1890s at least before Rand and Greenspan came along. Rand’s ideal human, free to pursue happiness and self-actualisation, is not different in essence from its equivalents in philosophy (think Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist idea that people must decide who or what they want to be) and in psychology (Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs); and we shouldn’t discount the possibility that her admirers have interpreted and changed her ideas to suit their self-serving agendas.

The film’s notion that China attempts to manage the US economy in the way suggested by Curtis is a laughable idea: there are many different reasons why China has deliberately pegged its currency at a low rate relative to the US dollar, not all of them to do with “regulating” the US economy. Some are more about making Chinese Communism look good while keeping potential problems under control. China needs industry and jobs to keep its restive population in check. The country has over 100 million unemployed people and there are an estimated 40 million men who will never marry due to a severe gender shortage caused by the one-child birth policy; these men are viewed by the government as a potential source of discontent and strife. Add to that the perception many Chinese have of their government as not trustworthy or ethical and it’s no wonder the Chinese government pegs all its faith in and throws all its effort behind relentless economic and material progress and advancement; should the economy falter, the fragile political contract between ruler and ruled will crumble.

At least Curtis aims very high, striving to explain the philosophical basis for the way various modern technological phenomena have developed and the role they may have played in the development of rolling economic crises throughout the world since the 1990s. Although the presentation is artistic and original, combining the kitsch with more serious matter and featuring a musical soundtrack that often comments ironically and light-heartedly on the images it plays over, Curtis’s structuring of the issues and ideas he wants to explore is hodge-podge and the connections between and across issues can be very tenuous. Given that Curtis’s focus is on technology and its role in shaping the global financial landscape of the past 30 years, I find it curious that he doesn’t pay attention to the rise of IT companies like Apple Inc and Microsoft and their corporate philosophies, whether these incorporate Ayn Rand’s beliefs and how such philosophies and the companies’ structures and culture might influence the structure of IT systems and networks. How these networks in their turn influence the thinking and actions of individuals and institutions who purchase Apple and Microsoft products might be a topic worth investigating.

Ironically, global political power is shown to pass from governments to the financial industry and its elite through blind trust in technology. This finds its parallel in the lives of Ayn Rand and US President Bill Clinton, both of whose love affairs with Nathanael Branden and Monica Lewinski respectively destroyed their integrity and leadership and dissipated power to others. It is a wonder Curtis doesn’t seize on these parallels and make more of them than he does.

 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

The Third Man: excellent character study of people coping with a changed world where old certainties are subverted

Carol Reed, “The Third Man” (1949)

Here’s an excellent movie character study about the testing of loyalties and trust in a world that’s just come out of a long war where such notions as brotherhood, friendship, doing what you believe is right and the ethical concerns that might arise from personal action are subverted and corrupted, and people end up living and surviving for selfish reasons alone. An unemployed American writer, down on his luck and burnt-out from writing too many trite Western horse-opera stories, comes to Vienna at the invitation of a friend just after the end of World War II. Already the city has been partitioned into four zones by the victorious Allied powers which are now squabbling among themselves. The writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), goes to meet his friend at his apartment only to be told by the porter (Peter Horbiger) that he has just seen the friend, Harry Lime, die in a road accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral where he meets two British Army police officers Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). The writer is contacted by Lime’s friends who had picked him up after the road accident. As time goes by, Martins is struck by the differences in the stories the porter and Lime’s friends and doctor tell him about Lime’s accident – in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men who attended Lime at the accident scene – and determines to find out how Lime really died and if his death had been an accident.

While investigating Lime’s disappearance, Martins meets an actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whom Lime had helped escape from Czechoslovakia with forged papers, and develops feelings for her. He learns from Calloway about Lime’s trafficking of diluted penicillin on the black market and how this has created a public health catastrophe for Viennese children. Martins decides to leave Vienna but then catches a glimpse of Lime (Orson Welles) who has been living in Vienna’s underground sewer network. Martins reports Lime’s exstence to Calloway who then orders the man’s grave to be exhumed; the men discover another body in Lime’s coffin. Russian police officers come for Anna to take her back to Czechoslovakia and Martins tries to negotiate safe passage for her in return for helping Calloway catch Lime.

The plot is fairly straightforward though second and viewings may be necessary to understand all its details. There are no hackneyed twists to manipulate suspense and tension into a rollercoaster ride and the dilemma that Martins faces in doing what is right and ethical at the cost of betraying a friend and losing a loved person supplies the bulk of the tension in the film’s second half. All the action and thrills occur in the prolonged (maybe too prolonged) chase scene in the city’s sewer system. Joseph Cotten deftly underplays the would-be hero who hardly understands what he gets himself into and is out of his depth coping with life in Vienna; he achieves a good if difficult balance of making Martins look capable when he isn’t without making the character look too bumbling. Viewers see how Martins came to be in the situation that he finds himself at the beginning of the film: he can only write trashy fiction because he lacks self-knowledge and understanding of human psychology, and is basically superficial and ignorant.The baby-faced Welles plays his dubious Harry Lime role very well indeed: initially he seems callous in his dismissal of the children’s deaths caused by his black market activities in his “cuckoo clock” speech that compares the cultures and histories of Italy and Switzerland but one might consider his motives which may be selfish, altruistic or both in stealing a wonder medicine from military hospitals and selling it to hospitals desperately needing it to treat children, and in assisting Anna and maybe others like her flee Communist rule. He delivers the film’s best acting performance in his lone scene where he is trapped on a staircase; weakened by a gunshot wound, the strain showing on his face, he makes desperate efforts to escape the police and Martins homing in on him. Valli plays the basically passive Anna subtly and gives the impression of a complex woman who has moral depth but can also be naive about human nature. Mention also should be made of Howard as Calloway: he plays his part straight but turns out to be as much a master manipulator of Martins as Lime himself.

Taking Martins’s point of view, the cinematography by Robert Krasker emphasises many shots taken at crazy angles to reflect the man’s bewilderment and failure to connect with and appreciate the world he has just flown into. Vienna itself becomes a significant character with otherwise purely historic and harmless buildings made to look sinister and menacing due to camera placements and streets at night denuded of traffic and pedestrians so as to resemble an American Wild West ghost-town of Martins’s imaginings, where stand-offs and shoot-outs could occur. Some scenes are filmed at a considerable distance to emphasise some aspect of the plot or the relationship between characters: the film’s closing scene in which Anna walks past Martins contemptuously is filmed at a distance from them both to show Martins’s alienation in a world he has failed to understand and which now rejects him.

The musical soundtrack by Anton Karras, composed almost entirely on zither, has a Western flavour that comments ironically on the film’s setting in post-WW2 Vienna, on the edge between the capitalist West and the Communist East, a place of promise and opportunity but also a hive of vice and corruption, just as towns springing up across the American West in the 1800s as a result of mining and farming booms could either be successful cities or abandoned ghost-towns. The sharp, vigorous melodies don’t behave as a musical soundtrack should do, accentuating tension where needed and bringing it down: instead, the music can be abrupt and intrusive to the point of being annoying. The purpose is to encourage viewers to “see” the events as Martins might be seeing them through a familiar mental framework that allows him to participate in them. The possibility that he might end up wrecking his life and the lives of others doesn’t occur to him.

By film’s end though viewers have no sense that Martins has really learned anything from his experience: he appears to want to resume a relationship with Anna and seems genuinely puzzled when she ignores him. The reasons she rejects him are many and could include resentment at being used as bait or anger that someone she loved, however flawed he was, is gone. Although the film is very much of its time and deals with issues springing from a particular historical event, its enquiry into misplaced loyalties and betrayal, and how people cope with changed circumstances in which good becomes bad and bad becomes good, remains relevant to modern audiences in a world where the political and economic order established by the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II has been breaking down for a long time and might now be in its death throes.

Repulsion: slow but very good psychological horror character study of sexual attraction / repression

Roman Polanski, “Repulsion” (1965)

A good psychological character study of a young woman suffering mental illness and falling apart while alone and isolated in her sister’s apartment, “Repulsion” was the English-language debut for both director Roman Polanski (his second full-length directing feature) and lead actor Catherine Deneuve who was 22 years old at the time she made the movie. The plot is a basic one that just manages to sustain the 105-minute running time though there are a fair few passages in the film that could have been edited for length. In much of the latter half of the film there is not much dialogue and Deneuve herself utters no words as her character gradually loses the power of speech.

Carole Ledoux (Deneuve) is a recent migrant working as a manicurist in a beauty salon in London and lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a busy part of London in the 1960’s. Their life is precarious: they are always behind with the rent payments and Helen is having an affair with a married man Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael moves into the apartment, much to Carole’s disgust. She has an aversion to men and there are hints throughout the film that she is both repelled by and attracted to men in ways she can’t understand or control; on top of that, men themselves are attracted to her because of her beauty and blonde hair and misinterpret her timidity and whispery voice as provocative come-ons. Michael and Helen go on a holiday to Italy, leaving Carole to fend for herself in the apartment. Losing her job at the salon, Carole is cut off from the world around her in the apartment: her social and physical isolation combine with her sexual fantasies, feelings, traumas and paranoias to bring 0n a full-blown mental breakdown which has catastrophic consequences when two men, a would-be boyfriend (John Fraser) and the landlord (Patrick Wymark), enter the apartment on separate occasions to confront her.

Deneuve does a great job carrying the film as the fragile Carole. Initially she is shy and dreamy and viewers see her discomfort in a world that has no time for dreamers and dawdlers. Indications of her disintegrating mental state come early with nail-biting, scratching, chewing her hair and repetitive actions suggestive of wiping or cleaning herself. The camera often focusses closely on Deneuve’s flawlessly sculpted face with its frequently blank expression and wide-open vacant stare. Something of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s influence might be seen in the opening and closing scenes of the film with the camera lingering and then respectively zooming out of or into Carole’s eye. There may be a mix of under-acting and 0ver-acting on Deneuve’s part throughout the movie but most of the time she has a blank look that does not over-strain for effect. Carole’s actions throughout the film are filled with horrific portent (and are sometimes blackly humorous with sexual suggestion as in a scene in which a co-worker at the salon sees a rabbit’s head sticking out of Carole’s hand-bag) but seem credible. One can almost believe Carole is capable of murder in her increasingly addled state. The support cast is very good if deliberately one-dimensional to emphasise the lack of empathy and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and material goals among the people Carole lives and works with.

With most of the action taking place in Helen’s apartment, background details are important and as Carole descends into madness the apartment’s dimensions change from cosy and cramped to wide with cracked walls and floors. The cracks that suddenly rip across the walls have much blunt sexual symbolism as do the hands that reach out from the walls in the hall-way. Indeed the apartment’s floor-plan suggests the interior of the female reproductive system with rooms leading off from the hall-way which itself ends in the bathroom. Needless to say the bathroom ends up in a very sorry  state of mixed fluids.

The film can be slow in its early stages, setting up the social context in which Carole lives and works and building her character and the various social interactions between herself and others, and among the various characters. Women express disgust with men and their sexual aggressions and behaviours, men talk about women as if they are animals to be broken in and controlled roughly. With all this talk going on around Carole, it’s no wonder she decides to retreat from the outside world into her own world once Helen goes away. The problem though is that Carole’s inner world is filled with more horror than the outside world is: flashback memories or fantasies of rape and control play out over and over in her mind. The repetition can be overdone – we only need to see Carole’s rape fantasies twice perhaps to realise her mind keeps dwelling on them – and it’s not necessary for the camera to pause repeatedly over the rotting rabbit on the plate to indicate Carole’s forgetfulness and mental confusion over household routines. Suspense and tension exist but the film’s slow-ish pace, some over-long scenes and the repetition tend to dissipate the build-up of tension.

The soundtrack is significant in the film: bells, alarms, phone ring-tones and the sound of spoons being clapped by a group of wandering musicians pop up from time to time to remind viewers of real life as opposed to Carole’s “reality” and to measure the extent to which Carole recedes from the outside world.

“Repulsion” is well-named, there are several meanings here: repulsion as in rejecting and / or avoiding sexual urges and impulses, memories and fantasies of rape and assault, and the double standards of sexual behaviour that apply to men and women in 20th-century Western society. A lonely and alienated figure, made so by the consequences of those double standards perhaps, rejects this world for her own traumatised world in which memories and fantasies interact and play out over and over. Plus the more Carole withdraws from life, the more the outside world claws at her; even when she is unconscious, there is a suggestion that Helen’s lover Michael finds her sexually irresistible. This is Carole’s tragedy and the “comedy” of the film, that as much as she tries to resist her desires, fantasies, past traumatic events and men’s attention, she keeps ending up in situations where she can’t avoid them.

 

 

 

 

Witchfinder General: dark and serious low-budget exploration of corruption, abuse and violence

Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)

Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.

Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.

Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.

For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious  Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.

The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.

The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.