This jet fighter is a disaster … So why does US Congress keep paying for it? Military expenditure linked to lobbying politicians and creating jobs

Sam Ellis, “This jet fighter is a disaster, but Congress keeps buying it” (Vox channel, 26 January 2017)

Google the term “F-35” and among the suggestions the search engine offers you are terms like “problems” and “flying turkeys” which indicate the breadth and depth of the issue of technical and other defects surrounding the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-role stealth fighter jet. The most expensive military weapons system in history and surely one of the longest, having started development in 1992, the F-35 fighter jet has been plagued with numerous problems, not only technical problems, but problems with its design, production, testing and pilot training among others. Yet the US government continues to throw money at it, even though hundreds of billions have already been sunk into the project, with no clear

This video goes some way to explaining how the F-35 fighter jet’s development is as much an ongoing political and economic project as it is a military project. Private defence companies depend on the US government as virtually their sole client and hence compete hard for military defence contracts. To ensure support for their projects, they lobby and buy the support of Congress representatives at both House of Representatives and Senate levels. Companies establish plants in as many states as they can so they can lobby as many politicians as they can to push their case for winning contracts. Bought politicians will support those defence companies that will bring jobs to their states. The example of Lockheed Martin in buying Sikorski Technologies in Connecticut, so as to curry favour with politicians representing that state in Congress and beat Boeing in gaining the contract to build what became the F-35 fighter jet, is cited.

Several of the technical problems that the F-35 fighter jet is notorious for stem from the design and production process itself. Normally new products are researched, designed and tested for defects before mass production begins; with the F-35, production begins about the same time that testing is done. The problem with this approach is that jets already manufactured must be returned to the production to be retrofitted with amended parts if flaws are discovered during testing.

The election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 threw a spanner – pun intended – into the works of the F-35 fighter jet production when he threatened to cancel the US government order and ask Boeing to price a jet comparable to and competitive with the F-35. Trump’s decision highlighted the issues with the F-35 and also threatened the delicate network of connections among the US government, defence companies and jobs in nearly all 50 states. Since defence companies not only provide direct employment to people in those states but also work to other businesses through contracts for raw materials, parts and administration, and thus indirect work to those companies’ employees, Trump’s decision has the potential to derail individual state economies, especially those state economies highly dependent on government military contracts.

While very dense with information, at just over seven minutes the video is necessarily an introduction into some of the economics and politics behind the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. Good use of animation, charts and lively graphics explains the close connections between US politicians and defense corporations. The video does not go into any detail as to why a multi-role stealth fighter jet is needed to replace other jets used by the US Army, Navy and Air Force when perhaps a range of more specialised and less expensive fighter jets might be more appropriate to American defence needs. Nothing is said either about a culture in the Pentagon and US armed forces that favours F-35 fighter jets and using huge aircraft carriers to project US power around the world at a time when military technology and tactics have changed or advanced to a point where air forces may no longer be needed for land wars (because the majority of land wars being fought these days are being fought guerrlla-style) and where aircraft carriers and their flotillas become sitting ducks for electronic shutdown and thus targets for missile attacks.

Viewers may need to see the video a few times to absorb the information which comes at quite a fast pace. The presentation may be a bit too sharp and snappy for some but on the whole the video is a good and often shocking exposure of how much US politics and economy depend on pursuing a project vacuuming up billions of dollars with not much to show, at the cost of burdening American taxpayers with tremendous debt obligations that they eventually must pay.

The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda): still retaining the power to shock with minimalist presentation

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 33: Meet Edward Bernays, Master of Propaganda)” (February 2008)

It might be a bit dated, what with social media platforms like Facebook now dominating people’s time (and perhaps moulding their thoughts, opinions and behaviours), and selling their personal details to corporate advertising sponsors and election campaign staff, but this episode of “The Corbett Report” on Edward Bernays and the poisonous legacy he left still has the power to shock viewers. Bernays is famous as the founder of public relations and modern methods of propaganda, based on discovering what motivates people and what they fear and desire, and using those fears and desires to manipulate people’s thoughts, views and behaviours, all to achieve certain ends. These methods are based on the assumption, derived from psychoanalytic theory (founded by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the uncle of Edward Bernays), that human beings are essential irrational creatures ruled by fears, feelings and instincts they are unaware of or which they cannot articulate in words.

Using various sources, of which the most prominent are two documentaries, Alix Spiegel’s “Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations”, made for National Public Radio in 2005, and Adam Curtis’s “The Century of the Self”, made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2002, James Corbett demonstrates how Bernays was able to change public perceptions and behaviour, usually to the detriment of people’s long-term health and security, for the benefit of his private corporate clients – and ultimately himself, since he would have reaped quite an income along with a reputation for dramatic results which would have brought him more clients. The examples used are superb if gob-smacking: Bernays was able to change the US public’s perception of what a hearty, home-cooked breakfast should involve (bacon and eggs) for his client who wanted to increase its bacon sales; he created a strategy to promote cigarette smoking among women, which involved hiring a group of young women posing as feminists and suffragettes to light up cigarettes during an Easter Day parade in New York City, for his client The American Tobacco Company; and he orchestrated a media campaign using the American Dental Association promoting the fluoridation of public water supplies so that the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest lobbyists could legally dump aluminium fluoride waste into water repositories. Through such campaigns, Bernays and his clients may have contributed considerably to harming the long-term health of generations of Americans and others abroad. Furthermore, this harm may have also had an impact on Western societies and cultures as there are studies suggesting that fluoridation of water can damage children’s neurological development. Corbett mentions that Nazi German concentration camps and Soviet gulags put sodium fluoride into their water supplies to induce passive behaviour in prisoners; whether this is true, I do not know as considerable controversy still surrounds this matter.

The most worrying aspect of Bernays’s career as a spin doctor is the work he did for the US government and the CIA in convincing the US public in the 1950s that the somewhat social-democratic Arbenz government of the small Central American nation Guatemala was Communist and therefore a major threat to American security. The success of Bernays’s campaigns led to US public support for the eventual overthrow of the government and its replacement by an authoritarian military government. The ultimate beneficiary of this destabilisation of an entire country (which entrenched it further in a culture of political instability, poverty and violence) was the American corporation The United Fruit Company which resented the nationalisation of several of its properties by the Arbenz government.

Bernays’s influence spread far outside American public relations and political propaganda: his book “Propaganda”, published in 1927, his ideas and campaigns were studied by the Nazi German and Soviet governments who put their new-found knowledge to use in their own public propaganda campaigns. That Bernays was surprised that enemies of the US were using his book and propaganda methods to promote their ideologies and change their populations suggests a lack of insight and reflection on his part. Certainly such news did not stop him from eagerly offering his services (for money of course) to the US government and its agencies to get rid of governments that encroached on the interests of US private corporations. Eventually Bernays seems to have become cynical about human nature as suggested by his daughter Ann in the episode’s last scene; but the quality of thinking, believing and acting by the American public as it developed during the 20th century generally must be seen as a reflection of the predatory and anti-intellectual capitalist society that helped to shape it, and in this Bernays must bear a great deal of the blame for his role in demonstrating the potential of propaganda campaigns in manipulating human emotions, fears and instincts for short-term profit.

The episode is easy to follow but listeners may have to hear it a few times to absorb the information – the presentation is very dense and far-ranging. It ends with recent examples of US propaganda aimed at deceiving the public into believing outright lies about US government policies and actions. A situation has now developed in which the American public has become increasingly estranged from the US government and the elites who dominate it and determine its policies: this strained relationship extends also to the mainstream news media industry which peddles lies and stereotypes, and manufactures or misrepresents propaganda stunts designed and timed to sway public opinion to favour US government actions that promote the interests of global finance, the arms industry and giant energy and other corporations. Were Sigmund Freud alive today, he would be horrified at how his psychoanalytic theories have been used and abused to bring about a dysfunctional world.

“Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)”: two sets of heroes wasted in a mundane plot with a mundane villain

Oscar Rudolph, “Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)” (1967)

Even for the lightweight situation comedy / family show that was “Batman” in the 1960s, these two episodes could have been beefed up a little more with a better villain and a more malevolent support team of murderous myrmidons that would justify having special guest crime-fighters The Green Hornet and his trusty sidekick Kato. In these episodes, The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) come to Gotham City to bust a stamp-counterfeiting scheme run by the cunning Colonel Gumm (Roger C Carmel), a man of many disguises from Argentine to Russian. Local Gotham City masked heroes Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are also aware of this scheme but believe that The Green Hornet and Kato are part of it. Gumm also happens to be the foreman of the Pink Chip Stamp Factory owned by Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain) who inherited it and a valuable stamp collection from her late grandfather Pincus Pinkston. Pinky herself also has two prospective suitors for her hand: billionaire Bruce Wayne and rich newspaper publisher Britt Reid, both of whom are none other than Batman and The Green Hornet themselves!

Dual identities (and responsibilities!), duplicity, deception and mirror-image rivalry (of a friendly sort) constitute the underlying theme of these episodes as Bruce Wayne and Britt Reid both admit to having been rivals since boyhood in many ways. In the second episode they also have a very brief discussion together about whether they would trade their mundane everyday lives for the more exciting life of fighting crime with masked identities and Reid – a little too quickly perhaps! – exclaims he’d like to stay just as he is! To Wayne, that means he’d rather stay a humdrum publisher – but viewers know exactly what Reid is referring to! The theme of polarised duality is carried over into the show’s sets of deep over-the-top pink hues in the factory, the workers’ uniforms and Pinky’s wardrobe and accessories (including her dog Apricot!), contrasting with more sober greens and greys in other scenes.

The tone of the episode ranges from light-hearted and comic to the frankly silly, especially in scenes where McBain appears with her bouffant pink wig and her Maltese terrier; and where Wayne must disappear every time Commissioner Gordon (Alan Hamilton) or Pinky needs to phone Batman. Yet no-one ever asks Wayne why he can’t be in the same room as Batman (even if the latter is just on the phone). Needless to say, no-one ever realises that Wayne and Batman speak in similar voices and use similar vocabulary and aphorisms.

The mundane plot in which Gumm abuses his employer’s trust and reputation by making fake stamps runs through the usual formulaic structure that  always features a death-trap cliff-hanger in which the Dynamic Duo’s lives are threatened in the most improbable way: on this occasion, they face being turned into Flat-man and Ribbon on life-sized stamps. As usual, Batman and Robin save themselves in the nick of time but in trying to accost The Green Hornet and Kato, allow the real crooks to get away. In the second episode, Batman and Robin must scale a building to reach a stamp exhibition and this part of the plot sets up yet another mini-episode in an ongoing gag in which the two converse with a resident (usually played by a famous actor) in the building who opens a window to see who is outside. The resident is played by then well-known Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson who talks about his (real-life) passion for art and his dislike of “pop art” artist celebrity Andy Warhol.

The acting may not be great but at least it’s adequate enough for the plot to sail through smoothly. Williams does not impress much as The Green Hornet / Britt Reid and his character seems very one-dimensional. The fight sequence – there’s always a fight sequence! – looks better than fight sequences usually do in “Batman” episodes, thanks to well choreographed scenes, collapsing tables and Bruce Lee’s restrained kung fu sparring with Robin and a few of Colonel Gumm’s henchmen. Young viewers will probably wish Lee had been allowed to clean up Gumm’s minions by himself while Robin goes after Gumm and Batman and The Green Hornet argue over who will free Pinky from Gumm.

This little adventure could have been much improved had it been extended to three episodes and featured either a more outrageous villain – Burgess Meredith’s Penguin would have been ideal – or two villains, in a plot with twists and turns that would have given Williams and Lee more to do. Another fight scene featuring Lee taking on an entire army of bad guys would have been welcome! As it is, this crime caper remains more notable for its cast and crossover of two heroes from another TV series than for its story. While there is occasional with, there is also much less of the satire and black humour that were hallmarks of the television series.

The Corbett Report (Episode 332: The Weaponisation of Social Media): a brisk survey of government online propaganda methods

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 332 The Weaponisation of Social Media)” (April 2018)

A brisk, and at times even brusque, survey of how governments, the military and intelligence agencies use and exploit social media platforms to influence and change public opinion and to spread disinformation and propaganda, this episode of “The Corbett Report” might need a few viewings for its message to burrow into your brain. Part of the reason is that this 15-minute video breezes across a range of methods and subterfuges the US government and its agencies resort to, to insinuate themselves into social media conversations and discussions through sockpuppets, false online identities, trolling practices and astroturfing campaigns; but the video does not dwell very long on one of these deceptive techniques before flying onto another. For people who have never considered that their governments would deliberately try to manipulate their thinking and behaviour to deceive them and to direct them into agreeing with their rulers’ agenda or to do things they would otherwise never consider or refuse to do, such information will come as a huge shock.

For all that though, and despite its far-ranging reach that includes an interview with US law professor Cass Sunstein, who also served as a public official under US President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012, the video is surprisingly tepid on what individuals can do to recognise manipulation when they experience it online, how to deal with trolls and sockpuppets, and how to lessen their exposure to manipulation in future, not to mention how people can come together to confront government deception and propaganda. The video also does not propose non-profit social media alternatives to Facebook and similar platforms that could be used by children, teenagers and others who find Facebook’s business model repellent.

While the video is very well presented and its pace is smooth if urgent, I couldn’t help but think the film could have been much more effective if it had spent more time on each subterfuge that the US, the UK and Israel engage in (including selective editing of articles on Wikipedia) and where possible show a few examples of each, explore the history behind it and reveal also the consequences where these occurred. Perhaps at a later time, “The Corbett Report” could revisit this topic in greater depth.

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April 2018) – exposing the reality behind the Syrian White Helmets

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April, 2018)

A most unexpected surprise from what I would have considered the least likely medium surfaced recently: US stand-up comedian (and political commentator) Jimmy Dore featured Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz on his weekly one-hour radio / online show. Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Syria – her second trip I think, although I’m not really sure – during which she visited Aleppo and among other things saw for herself the headquarters of the fake humanitarian first-response group the Syrian White Helmets … which happened to be located a couple of metres away from the headquarters of Al Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda). The actress also spoke to several people who had done volunteer work for the White Helmets – which mostly involved acting in the group’s propaganda films – and filmed scenes in sections of Aleppo that had just been liberated from terrorists by the Syrian Arab Army.

I missed seeing the first 20 minutes of the interview but what I did see and hear was in turns astounding, horrifying, depressing and uplifting. One astounding fact was that while volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Army would be paid the Syrian equivalent of US$50 a month for 16 to 18 hours of work, volunteers for the White Helmets could expect to receive a hefty US$1,500 a month. The temptation for Syrian civilians in areas captured by terrorists to work for the White Helmets – especially as the terrorists deliberately withheld food from civilian hostages unless they were prepared to pay hugely inflated prices – must have been immense. Ortiz and Dore do not discuss where the money would have come from to pay White Helmets volunteers but one suspects the most likely sources of funding are donations from Western governments and money from Sunni-dominated oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In her film, in which she enters the White Helmets headquarters, Ortiz points out two Al Nusra flags and states that they could not have been placed there accidentally, as very few Syrian citizens support Al Nusra and most such citizens hate the group. Ortiz notes that nearly all terrorists operating in Syria are from overseas. She reels off a list of actions of the terrorists that demonstrate their callous brutality: they keep civilians in cages and use them as human shields, and commandeer schools and hospitals, thus stunting children’s education and preventing families from obtaining medical help and medicines. People are deliberately starved as well and children die from malnutrition and diseases that could have been treated.

At least twice in the interview, Jimmy Dore mentions the CIA as paymaster for the terrorists to overthrow Assad but the reality may be more complicated than that: several Western governments want Assad gone and each would be using several agencies, including intel agencies, charities and news media outlets, to channel money and weapons to the terrorists, train them and promote them in the guise of humanitarian aid groups and organisations such as the White Helmets and Violet Organisation Syria.

However horrifying the war has been in Syria and especially in Aleppo, Ortiz speaks highly of the Syrian people: she notes that Syrian society has made great advances in giving women leadership roles in politics (the current Syrian vice-president is female and 30% of the country’s ministries are headed by women) and society generally. Since Aleppo’s liberation in 2016, 800,000 refugees have returned to the city and people are busy in rebuilding the city and making it function normally again. Ortiz draws inspiration from Syrians’ upbeat and positive attitudes, their love for their country (which, interestingly, they regard as a “living motherland”) and their pride in their 7,000-year history in which they themselves find inspiration and hope. Ortiz also speaks about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations, and what should be our legacy to them.

The interview flowed freely and quickly – Ortiz speaks quite rapidly and animatedly, and becomes emotional a couple of times – and the conversation bounces smoothly from one topic to another. Ortiz and Dore get on very well together and I am sure Ortiz will be returning to Dore’s show as guest interviewee in the not too distant future. The show is highly informative though viewers and listeners need to have some background knowledge of contemporary Syrian politics, how the current war began in the country and the various groups involved in fighting the Syrian government.

One thing that emerges from their talk, though Ortiz and Dore may not have been aware at the time, is the way in which Western news media portrays Syrians and Arab peoples generally: as backward people obsessed with religious sectarianism and literal interpretations of Islam and Shari’a law in particular. In the mindset of Western MSM news, Arab countries are always unstable and have long histories of tribal and religious conflict; this particular stereotype is not only racist but is part and parcel of a worldview in which Arabs cannot be trusted as stewards of energy resources needed by the West and cannot (and by implication should not) control their own lands. In this view also, Israel is the only country that is stable and democratic, and therefore should be treated favourably – in spite of its genocidal policies towards Palestinians and racist attitudes towards guest workers, refugees, immigrants and even Jewish people with non-Western backgrounds.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

A Tale of Two Traitors: short documentary on two double agents is short on answers as to why spies turn traitor

Ronna Syed, “A Tale of Two Traitors” (Fifth Estate, March 2018)

In the wake of the recent incident in the UK concerning a suspected poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and their continued incarceration in a small general hospital while the official account of how they were poisoned and what they were poisoned with continues to change from one week to the next, the Canadian investigative news documentary series The Fifth Estate revisited Canada’s own answer to Sergei Skripal, a KGB spy codenamed Gideon. In the early 1950s, Gideon was posted to Ottawa where he fell in love with the wife of a soldier and was persuaded by her to spy for Canada. Gideon apparently gave much valuable information about the Soviets to his new masters in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Surprisingly, an RCMP employee, James Morrison, was spying for the Soviets at the same time and revealed to his masters that Gideon had betrayed his country. In 1955, Gideon was recalled back to the Soviet Union and the Canadians presumed that he would be executed. In 1982, James Morrison spoke to The Fifth Estate and admitted having betrayed Gideon to the USSR. For his betrayal, Morrison was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In 1992, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, a former security officer, Don Mahar, received a phone call advising him that a man had appeared at the British embassy in Lithuania claiming to be Gideon. After interrogating the man with questions that only Gideon knew the answers to, Mahar was satisfied that the man in Vilnius was indeed Gideon. Gideon was brought back to Canada. The news that Gideon was still alive and moreover safe in Canada brought relief to James Morrison and his lawyer Peter Cronin, and to investigative reporter John Sawadski who had been following the story for several years. Morrison died and was buried in an unmarked common grave in 2001 with no eulogy and few people in attendance. Gideon died in 2009, having never tried to re-establish contact with the woman he fell in love with and who had encouraged him to turn traitor.

The nature of what Gideon gave to the Canadians, that was apparently so serious that when he returned to the Soviet Union he was presumed to be going to an early grave as a traitor, is not revealed in this short report. The fact that the Canadian security services were so sure that Gideon had been executed for treason that they considered his survival a miracle might say more about their prejudices about the KGB and the Soviet Union, than about the Soviets themselves – but the program does not inquire into this angle as its focus is narrow and extends no further than exploring the shenanigans of two double agents. (The Canadians do not consider the possibility that the Soviets might have regarded Gideon so beneath contempt for betraying his country that execution would have been too good for him, and career and social ostracism would be judged a more fitting punishment.) On the other hand, the report does not go into much detail as to why Gideon and Morrison decided to betray their countries for selfish and quite trivial personal reasons: Gideon’s romance with another man’s wife must have turned out a short-lived fling and Morrison betrayed Gideon for a small sum of money. For such short-lived thrills, the consequences of what these men did stuck to them, millstone-like, for the rest of their lives. Morrison died in disgrace as well.

I’d have liked to know more about how and why agents turn traitor, and why they would betray their countries for often superficial and not well thought-out reasons, or small amounts of money, when surely they would know that doing this would jeopardise their lives and the lives of their families back home, and bring public condemnation on themselves that will last the rest of their lives. The program can viewed at this link.

 

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Batman and Harley Quinn: oddball tag team of superheroes and quirky villain flounders in a thin story

Sam Liu, “Batman and Harley Quinn” (2017)

Teaming Batman and Nightwing together with The Joker’s on-off girlfriend Harley Quinn might have seemed a good idea at the time it was first proposed but the result is just dreadful. A thin story is stretched even thinner with an unnecessary middle section referencing the old campy 1960s television series, too much biffo, inadequate plotting and superficial characterisation that would justify having the quirky and talkative super-villain join the Dynamic Duo in their search for the equally Terrifying Twosome of Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue. Throw in deliberately crude animation, an unsatisfactory resolution featuring a deus ex machina device, and a very shallow environmentally based theme about how best to preserve Earth’s flora and fauna against human greed and destruction, and what emerges is a mess that doesn’t quite know which audience to target so it targets everyone – teens, pre-teens, adults – alike.

Arch-villains Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue, sometimes also known as Floronic Man, band together to kidnap botanist Dr Harold Goldbloom and force him to recreate the formula (stolen from a lab) that turned a scientist into a giant human-plant hybrid known as Swamp Thing. On hearing of Poison Ivy teaming with Woodrue, Batman and Nightwing search for Harley Quinn, recently released from prison, to persuade her to lead them both to Poison Ivy’s whereabouts. After agreeing rather reluctantly – and not without putting up a fight – Harley Quinn piles into the Batmobile with the superheroes and what then follows is an excruciating trip out of Gotham City into the countryside with Quinn blabbing and bleating and pulling off toilet gags while Batman tries to drive and Nightwing tries to navigate. At one point the three pile into a club and stay there too long (wasting viewers’ patience) before the crooks who run the joint finally recognise them and try to stop Batman and Nightwing from leaving without paying – in blood. After trashing the place, the trio continue their way. An encounter with Poison Ivy and Woodrue results in similar mayhem with Dr Goldbloom caught in the crossfire, and the chase starts up again with the Dynamic Duo and Quinn hot on the heels of the super-villains as the latter try to rendezvous with Swamp Thing down in the backwater ways of Louisiana.

Voiced by Melissa Rauch, Harley Quinn is more screechy and ragged than bratty and brilliant as the former psychiatrist turned criminal. Kevin Conroy maintains a stoic and taciturn Batman who remains the same cardboard cut-out enigma at the end as he was at the beginning. The potential of Nightwing and Harley Quinn actually being chums trading smart witticisms exists but remains dormant. Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue are little more than eco-terrorist extremists; in any case the film spends little time delineating their characters and why they should want to work together in the first place.

The film adds very little to the Batman universe and only the most diehard fans who live and breathe everything Gothamesque and who cannot imagine a world without the Dark Knight should see it. Pruned of its unnecessary baggage, the film would have been a manageable 30-minute cartoon.

The Phantom Thread: best viewed as a comedy romance that turns into a tedious and repetitive ordeal

Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Phantom Thread” (2017)

If viewed as a comedy romance about a successful narcissist couturier who aspires to be part of the upper class, along with his sister (who is outwardly submissive but just as ambitious and domineering in managing his business), and who falls in lust with a working-class waitress who ends up extracting as much as she can out of him and the sister for herself, in the confining social culture that is mid-1950s London high society, this film is quite clever satire. There is an insinuation that for all its preening, its careful attention to detail and outward appearance, the social layer which dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) believes he’s part of is as empty of human feeling and warmth, and as self-obsessed as he is. For all that though, the film itself falls into the same trap of worshipping nuance and the result is an overly long work that wastes its actors’ talent in a thin and hollow plot that ends up repeating itself.

Woodcock (jeez, what a name!) is a fussy and snooty middle-aged dressmaker of fixed habits and routines who, as usual, is overwhelmed by overwork (not unexpected, given his need for obsessive control over his creations) and must take a short holiday in the countryside for some nooky. He meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), at a cafe and decides to seduce her. He sweeps her up in a round of wining and dining and compulsively takes her dress measurements. Before long, she becomes his latest plaything. Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a mother-replacement figure who just as obsessively manages his business and household, is initially miffed at Alma’s manners and tries to lecture the younger woman on how to conduct herself. Alma, though genuinely in love with the much older man, has ambitions of becoming his equal in love and business, and resorts to taking extreme measures, at the risk of killing Woodcock and getting into trouble for murder, to force Woodcock to see and appreciate her as a person with her own mind.

While the cinematography is beautiful and crisp, the piano music soundtrack (perhaps the best feature of the film) is flowing and transports viewers into a very different time and place, and the acting is very good, all these elements cannot make up for a thinly stretched plot about three people, at least two of whom are control freaks and potentially sociopathic, and the other using subterfuge and possibly fatal means to exert her own form of control, stuck in a dysfunctional relationship out of which there appears no means of escape. All three are dependent on one another in some way and all three distort and are distorted by the power and control they exercise. Alma becomes as much of a bitch as Woodcock is a brute but whether she is a cunning woman by nature or becomes so because of the weird circumstances she has been thrust into is not clear.

The result is a film which at first begins brightly and flows quickly into developing Woodcock and Alma’s relationship and explores Woodcock’s psychology through his work and the daily breakfast-table spats; but which eventually becomes tedious and gruelling through sheer repetition and a loss of focus. Woodcock’s character becomes physically as well as mentally haggard as Alma gradually exploits her control over him and starts to control his body and health through serving him poisonous mushrooms in his meals, just as he has tried to control her body by dressing her in expensive and flattering gowns. There is no hint of character development though Woodcock himself eventually realises what Alma is doing to him.

While the film is set in mid-fifties London, there is (deliberately so) no hint that the outside world makes much impression on the Woodcock household, and the characters seem so removed from reality that Alma appears not to realise that the doctor she confides in could report her to police. The doctor himself seems so stunned by her story – the whole film is built around the framework of Alma confessing her misdeeds to the doctor – that viewers can guess he will not turn the young woman in to authorities. It seems that the rich really do live on another planet after all, making their own rules to suit themselves and indulging in empty material enjoyments, at the cost of their own mental and emotional health.