Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson): echoes of 1953 death of CIA scientist still reverberating today

Egmont R Koch and Michael Wech, “Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson)” (2002)

Recent news of the death of Chinese physicist Zhang Shoucheng, supposedly through suicide by falling from a building, on 1 December 2018, the same day Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications / electronics company Huawei,  was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the bequest of the United States on vague charges – before the two were due to attend a dinner at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina – jogged my memory of having read about the death of a CIA scientist in similar circumstances more than a century ago. I had forgotten the name of the scientist but remembered he had been drugged with LSD by fellow CIA researchers without his consent some time before his death. Armed with those details, I did a search on DuckDuckGo and Google and very quickly found what I wanted: information on the death of Frank Olson in November, 1953, in circumstances eerily similar to those in which Zhang died – in Olson’s case, falling through a window on the 13th floor of a New York City hotel and onto the pavement below.

More than 20 years later, in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission released some of the details of the CIA’s notorious MKUltra project, a series of experiments aimed at mental manipulation of human subjects to weaken their resistance to questioning, and the US government admitted that Frank Olson had been doped with LSD. The Olson family pushed to sue the CIA; instead the US government offered them $750,000 and the then President Gerald Ford and the CIA apologised to them. In 1993, Frank Olson’s body was exhumed and an autopsy (the second one done on him; the first had been done soon after his death) determined that, in contrast to the results of the first autopsy, no cuts were present but instead Olson’s head and chest had suffered blunt-force trauma severe enough to have killed him before his body was tipped through the window. In 1997, the CIA inadvertently declassified the 1953 edition of its notorious assassination manual which among other things, suggested that … The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface …In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him …, itself eerily close to the way in which Olson died. With this information, the Olson family sued the CIA in 2012, without success.

Koch and Wech’s documentary investigates the circumstances in which Dr Olson was drugged and killed, and traces his career as a biological researcher at the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories and then with the CIA. This work took him through some very murky activities with both employers: Olson worked on the US bio-weapons program, experimenting with anthrax among other disease-causing agents, and later was drawn into the CIA’s Project Artichoke program (which investigated interrogation methods that could force people to confess and which included the use of LSD, forced morphine addiction and withdrawal, and hypnosis) and Project MKUltra. Olson became troubled by the direction the research was going into – the research included drugging people and subjecting them to painful physical and psychological torture – and wanted out. His superiors realised he had become a security risk and plotted to get rid of him. The film then starts to jump back and forth between 1953 and 1993, comparing the results of the second autopsy with those of the first, and discrepancies between them being observed. The film details Olson’s last overseas trip to Berlin where he appears to have done some private research on past CIA activities in Germany during World War II and Soviet methods of interrogation. This trip took place against the background of the Korean War, during which the CIA tortured POWs by injecting or threatening to inject anthrax – the very bacterium Olson had experimented on years before – into them. From this point on, the documentary follows the way in which the US government continued (and still continues) to lie about Olson’s death and avoid admitting responsibility and paying proper compensation to his family.

If one compares the circumstances surrounding Zhang Shoucheng’s death – like Olson’s death, also recorded as a suicide caused in large part by depression (which in Olson’s case could have been brought on by LSD ingestion) – one finds they are also quite suspicious. A tenured physics professor at Stanford University, Zhang was noted for his work in quantum physics (with applications for the global semiconductor industry) and was predicted by some to be a future Nobel Physics Prize laureate. He was also a founder of Danhua Capital aka Digital Horizon Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage and growth-stage technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. Danhua Capital itself is funded by Zhangguancun Development Group, an entity owned by the Chinese government which invests in technology innovations. This background and connection to the Chinese government might have been enough to put Zhang on the radar of a US government agency suspicious of any secret  Chinese attempts, whether real and imaginary, to steal American cyber-knowledge and codes and transfer these to China through Chinese nationals like Zhang working and teaching in the US.

At the same time, the US government is irked that Huawei, being based in China rather than the US, is less amenable to communications ranging from suggestions to requests to threats that it allow US intel and military agencies to gain access into the software in the IT equipment it sells to gather information that could be later used by the Americans to blackmail people or generate disinformation. To this end, the US has persuaded its Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand, and Japan as well, to ban Huawei from supplying equipment for their 5G mobile networks. With Canada now having arrested Meng on charges relating to Huawei trading with Iran (under US economic sanctions), one expects that she will be used as a hostage in China-US trade talks by the US to pressure China to force Huawei into accepting back-doors into its equipment. This behaviour is the kind of sordid horse-trading expected of head-chopping takfiris terrorising civilians in parts of the Middle East.

Incidentally on the same day that Meng was arrested and Zhang died, a factory owned by Dutch tech company ASML, specialising in extreme ultraviolet lithography technology (used in the production of the next generation of semiconductors by Chinese, US and South Korean tech manufacturers), caught fire. This led to ASML advising of delays in supplying this technology to its customers in early 2019. One of these customers is semiconductor maker SMIC which is partnered with Huawei, Qualcomm and Belgian company IMEC to build China’s most advanced integrated circuit research and development programme.

The very strange occurrence of three seemingly unrelated incidents, their connections only becoming clear once the background context to them becomes known, on the same day, and one of these incidents bearing an uncanny resemblance to a death whose causes are still unsolved 65 years after it occurred, is sure to spark off conspiracy theories speculating on who or what may be responsible for them. It is likely that just as Frank Olson’s death continues to be the subject of controversy and his family continues to struggle for justice and closure, so too Zhang Shoucheng’s death will be shrouded in speculation and disinformation. The consequences of what transpired on 1 December 2018 are likely to be very far-reaching as well, not least because Meng’s arrest and the harassment of Huawei raise issues of sovereignty for the Five Eyes Anglocentric nations and their independence. 

How a new empire of global finance was created in “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)” (November 2018)

This third and last episode examines how World War I was used by British and American elites to reshape global politics and society, including the global economy, in their favour; and in the process destroy empires and an entire generation of young men across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, and bring about new polities, political ideologies and movements with consequences that still survive to this day. Among other outcomes, World War I destroyed the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks, either replacing them with weak, unstable states that would later adopt extreme nationalist, even fascist governance, or subjugating their territories to British and French rule that divided them with artificial borders or introduced or encouraged new foreign settlement that itself would result in new conflicts of unrelenting brutality and violence and ongoing instability. The key message of this episode is that not only is war a tool of elites to steal other people’s wealth and territories but is also a tool to reshape society and beliefs and to rewrite histories and traditions to benefit themselves (the elites, that is). Among other things, World War I enabled governments to assert greater control over manufacturing and industry, to mould and direct public opinion by censoring the media and controlling literary, artistic and film output, and (in some countries) to introduce new taxes such as income tax on the general public.

Again with James Corbett’s clear and distinct voice-over narration, easy to follow and to understand, and with archived film footage as a backdrop to his narration, the documentary traces the way in which the Great War fulfilled, for the most part, the goals and ambitions of a Deep State within the British government (and which spread into the US government) in which the United States would be brought back into the British empire as the first step towards ultimate British domination of the world. By installing Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States, American financiers gained financial control of the US economy and of European powers at war by acquiring (through the Federal Reserve) the power to print money, by imposing income taxation and lending huge sums of money to European imperial governments. After 1913, American financiers profited from war financing and gaining ownership and control of major corporations and industries, setting production quotas, standardising products and product lines, fixing prices and developing psychological warfare techniques that would later become useful in mass advertising and public relations.

After 1918, the supposedly victorious European powers Britain and France found themselves so much in hock to Wall Street that in order to pay off their loans, they forced a defeated Germany and its weak new government to submit to paying heavy reparations under the Treaty of Versailles, setting that nation up for political and economic instability and the rise of extremist fascist politics that would dominate Germany. The new post-war financial arrangements also made Europe and Germany in particular vulnerable to the unstable business cycles that dominated the American economy under bankster rule; thus when the Great Depression hit the US in 1929, its effects spread to Europe as well.

The documentary digresses into a brief discussion of how the British and the German governments apparently encouraged Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in their plans to install a socialist government in Russia and even gave them assistance: the German government allowed Lenin and other revolutionaries to travel by train through German territory to Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg, later Leningrad); and Trotsky was briefly detained in Halifax, Canada, by the British while travelling from New York back to Russia in early 1917 after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Russian monarchy was abolished. The documentary insinuates that Trotsky may have been used (perhaps willingly, perhaps not) as a pawn by the British though the Wikipedia entry on Trotsky states that the British government released him from imprisonment in Canada after protests by the socialist Menshevik government in Russia. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Mensheviks in November 1917, Trotsky published “The Secret Treaties and Understandings” that the Russian imperial government had signed with Britain and France to divide up the territories of the defeated Axis powers among themselves. These agreements included the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement which parcelled much of the Middle East between Britain and France, creating new colonies with artificial borders that divided the Arab peoples from one another, and which enabled the British to carve out territory in Palestine for a future Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration, itself initiated by Lord Walter Rothschild who had been a financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, one of the originators of the project to drive the West to war to isolate and destroy Germany and bring the US back under British imperial rule. Thus was the Middle East set on a road leading to repressive and brutal dictatorships, the corruption of Islam by a fundamentalist sect, constant political instability caused by foreign interference and the ongoing brutal genocide of the Palestinians by Israel after its founding by Zionist Jewish settlers in 1948 through acts of terrorism against the British.

Perhaps the saddest and most tragic part of this episode – and indeed of the entire series – comes at the very end when war ceases abruptly in November 1918 and an entire generation of young men, knowing only war and nothing else, suddenly discovers that its life purpose has ended and from then on, its continued existence has no meaning.

This series dovetails with other documentaries and articles I have seen which posit that the British empire has never really ended but has instead mutated into an abstracted global financial empire that continues to brainwash people through dangerous political, economic and social ideologies that keep them divided and weak, and which continually attempts to penetrate those countries such as China, Iran and Russia for their lands and resources by demonising them in attempts to convince people around the world that these nations pose a threat and their governments should be overthrown, by force if necessary. Much recent American politics (at least since 1945) and foreign policy becomes understandable if one assumes that the US has been acting as an extension of the British global financial empire, and moreover is used by that empire to abuse Britain and Europe alike through the European Union. The continuous march towards war against Russia (a nation Britain has hated since the 1700s) and its allies in Iran and Syria who have defied Western regime-change attempts, and the accompanying global propaganda project involving most countries’ news media and cultural industries, should be seen in this context as well.

Apart from the insinuation that the Bolsheviks were tools of the Wall Street elite – it’s more likely that Lenin at least and his followers were happy to use whatever help they could get, wherever it came from, to advance their own aims and agenda, and the idea of using capitalists’ money against their sources would have appealed to the Russians – this documentary series seems fair to me.

 

The rise of Wall Street and the American Deep State in “The Corbett Report (Episode 348: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Two: The American Front)”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 348: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Two: The American Front)” (November 2018)

Having established in Part 1 that a Deep State within the British government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with connections to the monarchy and the civil service, connived to isolate Germany through propaganda and by forming alliances with nations on either side of that country, this three-part series continues with all the major European powers now at war after mid-1914, Germany having to fight enemies on two fronts on its western and eastern borders, and all opposing sides bogged down either in trench warfare in the west or ineffective leadership and strategies leading to constant back-and-forth exchanges of territory in the east. In the west, with both the British, French and German forces locked in stalemate, and all losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in trench warfare, the British government connived with American financiers to get the American people involved in fighting the war against Germany. Part 2 examines how the groundwork was laid to push the US into allying with Britain and France to fight Germany in World War I well before the war even began.

The work begins with wealthy American banker John Pierpont Morgan and his allies in the US finance industry supporting obscure Princeton university professor Woodrow Wilson as Presidential candidate in the 1912 elections and ensuring that he wins by using former President Theodore Roosevelt as a third party candidate to split the Republican vote. Once in, in 1913 Wilson approves the passage of the income tax act and the Federal Reserve Act which creates the Federal Reserve as a central bank with Morgan and several of his friends as shareholders. From then on, these bankers would be in charge of printing money and would charge the government interest on any money it borrowed from the Federal Reserve. Several of these men were members of the Milner Group, that secret organisation formed by William T Stead, Reginald Brett and Cecil Rhodes, which had worked to influence the British government to make Germany an enemy and to turn the British people against Germany, and the American and British members of the Group plotted to turn the American people against Germany through extensive news propaganda – even though most Americans at the time, being of Irish or Germany descent, were opposed to Britain – and to create a pretext to bring the United States into fighting a European war.

The pretext comes with Britain’s war against Germany on the high seas in the North Atlantic, with Britain enforcing a trade blockade against Germany that eventually leads to widespread starvation in that country. Because of this blockade and other trade sanctions against it, Germany resorts to submarine warfare against British merchant shipping. In May 1915, Germany torpedoes the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,200 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The incident helped to turn American public opinion against Germany. In 1916, Wilson was re-elected President, riding high on propaganda that he had kept the US out of war. In April 1917, after continued German submarine warfare on merchant shipping in the North Atlantic (including US merchant ships), the Germans having become desperate due to the prolonged blockade, Wilson declares war on Germany and the US governt begins conscripting and training men to fight in the battlefields of northern France.

Again the documentary does a good job presenting its case that Wall Street financiers and banks created a situation in which they were able to select their own preferred Presidential candidate and install him as President by weakening his opposition, and then connived with their British partners to put a cruise ship and its passengers and crew in harm’s way to pressure Washington DC into agreeing to join the war in Europe. Archival film footage and photographic stills including cut-outs of significant personalities flesh out the voice-over narration and the whole film proceeds at a leisurely pace. Interviews with historians go into considerable detail on how the US government ignored the British blockade of Germany – clearly a war crime – and ignored British interference with American merchant shipping but castigate the Germans for blowing up British merchant ships carrying munitions if American citizens happen to be on board.

In this documentary, the way in which a secret cabal not only gains power behind the British government but also gains power behind the American government, and moreover uses that power to control America’s money supply and money creation functions, to potentially hold the American government and the American people to ransom by demanding interest payments on loans to the government, and (later) to influence post-war European politics and German reconstruction, resulting in the spread of the Great Depression and paving the way for Adolf Hitler to gain power in Germany, is made very clear.

Perfidious Albion’s road of deception and underhand scheming to global war in “The WWI Conspiracy – Part One: To Start A War”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 347: The WWI Conspiracy – Part One: To Start A War)” (November 2018)

At this time of writing, a century has passed since World War I ended, and swept with it into history beliefs in never-ending scientific and technological advancement and empires in Europe (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia). An entire generation of young men was brutally destroyed with grave repercussions for societies across the world that would last for decades to come (and which may still do, in the form of politically conservative societies and cultures with mediocre political cultures and leaders). Yet the ultimate causes of that war remain as puzzling and controversial as they did one hundred years ago.

The conventional narrative of what led to World War I – the various alliances formed by the major European powers that eventually fell into two opposed sides, each jealous of their own political, economic and military power; the competition among these powers for more resources and hence more territory; the nationalism of various ethnic groups in central and southeast Europe, governed by a weak Ottoman empire, which could be exploited by its enemies; the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in 1914 – is well known but does not explain why an incident in a small provincial town should have been the tinderbox event that set off a series of chain-reaction events resulting in all-out war. This documentary, the first of a three-episode series made by The Corbett Report, looks at the background of historical events and trends beginning in the early 1890s, when in 1891, three men – the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, newspaper editor William T Stead and aristocrat Lord Esher (Reginald Brett), a confidant to Queen Victoria and later King Edward VII and George V, met to discuss and form a plan to extend British rule throughout the world and reclaim the United States as an integral part of the British empire.

The plan which also involves the formation of a secret society, complete with an inner circle privy to esoteric knowledge and an outer circle of helpers who will be allowed to know only what is necessary for them to be of value, sounds completely outlandish but as the documentary outlines, it is carried out very cleverly and progressively, spanning two decades, co-opting Russia and France as allies against Germany, Britain’s main political, military and economic rival, and with the collusion of the British press. Firstly, the funding of the plan is secured by the British waging war against the Boers in southern Africa that results in the separate colonies and republics in that region becoming one unit (South Africa) under British control, and the gold wealth of that unit coming under the control of the British South Africa Company. The Boer War was incredibly brutal, with over 66,000 civilian casualties of whom 26,000 were Boer women and children who died in concentration camps along with another 20,000+ black Africans out of some 115,000 also interred in concentration camps. Secondly, British news propaganda increasingly paints Germany as a hostile and malevolent enemy seeking to stir up trouble in different parts of the world, even in areas where the British are the actual trouble-makers. Third, the British assist Japan against Russia when war breaks out between those two powers in 1905 by denying the use of the Suez Canal to the Russian naval fleet and forcing it to travel around Africa and through the Indian Ocean up towards Japan; Japan was able to crush an exhausted Russian fleet. In this way, Japan becomes a valuable ally to the British in the Far East.

The documentary presents its case well, that a Deep State formed within the British political establishment in the later 19th century and schemed to create conflicts, even wars, to achieve its goal of isolating Germany and targeting that nation for war. The voice-over narrative is delivered at a fairly leisurely pace and interviews with historians back up the documentary’s premise. Archival film footage, photographs and maps of the period help to delineate the world in which European imperial powers dominated all continents.

I would add only that the British desire to put the United States into its proper place as a colony within its empire preceded the machinations of Cecil Rhodes and his fellow conspirators; the British are known to have assisted the Confederate States of America during the US Civil War (1861 – 1865) to ensure the break-up of the US into two weak states that could easily be dominated by a foreign power.

Though the events covered by the documentary occurred over 100 years ago, they are worth viewing as the strategy used by the British to demonise Germany is much the same as the current British-American strategy to demonise and isolate Russia. Again, the English-language news media is being used to suppress truth and to incite public hostility against Russia and its allies in Asia and the Middle East.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge: a messy plot and flat uninteresting characters underline this cheap film

Ford Beebe, “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944)

It could have been an interesting character study about various individuals’ motivations and greed, and how far they’re prepared to go to get what they want, but this film, done cheaply and cynically to cash in on previous films based on the H G Wells’ novel “The Invisible Man”, turns out to be a mess in terms of its plotting and character development. The criminal Robert Griffin (Jon Hall) escapes from an asylum and pursues a wealthy couple, Sir Jasper and Lady Irene Herrick (played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard) whom he accuses of having left him for dead in Africa years ago and of whom he demands his share of the wealth they gained from discovering diamond fields during a safari trip. The couple trick him of his rightful inheritance by drugging him, destroying a document they find on his person that proves his claim and then booting him out of their mansion. Griffin finds refuge with a cobbler, Herbert (Leon Errol), who tries to help him with his claim but is unsuccessful. Griffin next comes across crank scientist Drury (John Carradine) who makes him invisible in an experiment. Griffin uses his invisibility to extort money and property out of Sir Jasper Herrick and to claim the hand of Herrick’s daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers) in marriage; the fellow also helps Herbert win a game of darts at his local pub.

Griffin discovers how he can become visible again and murders Drury to regain his normal appearance. However this visibility is only temporary and Griffin must resort to killing another man to recover his appearance so he can marry Julie. The next man Griffin targets for death is Julie’s fiance Mark Foster (Alan Curtis), thus setting up a showdown between the two men for Julie’s affections.

The film intentionally makes all its characters unlikable and not at all heroic. Most characters are greedy and will stop at nothing to get what they think they deserve. Ankers’ character has hardly anything to do at all apart from looking pretty as the love interest. Hall as Griffin lacks charisma and is workman-like in portraying the deranged killer. As Griffin is already a deranged serial murderer, the film does not need to investigate the question of whether a person might remain moral if s/he has numerous opportunities to perform unethical actions without fear of punishment. (It’s possible that as a result, the film suffers from the lack of tension that such an issue would offer.) The Herricks manage to live another day but not without suffering considerable psychological trauma. Foster arrives late in the plot and bravely offers a fight but his character remains flat; he and Julie do not even get a chance to hold hands. Too much in the plot is told, not shown, violating a basic rule of story-telling. Even the sets used in the film look cheap and tired.

The film is not essential viewing for fans of horror unless they are keen to see the entire series of films (all independent of one another in plot and characters) on the Invisible Man.

Bohemian Rhapsody: a boring and forgettable film fails to address its lead character’s complexities

Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

Astonishingly, given the rich source material and the fact that so many people are knowledgeable (or fancy themselves to be) about the career of the British rock band Queen and the life of its lead singer Freddie Mercury, this biopic of the buck-toothed bad-boy diva with the golden angel voice manages to make him and his troupe utterly boring and one-dimensional, thanks to a script that squeezes them into a tired narrative stereotype of innocent youngsters wishing to escape humdrum lives, achieving fame and fortune early, and then falling off their pedestal through being tempted by leeches into dubious life-styles that may doom them in the end. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek, in a bravura performance that may come to define his career), the son of a Parsi Indian couple, works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport during the day and frequents pubs at night to watch bands playing. He likes one band, Smile, and follows the musicians, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), outside the venue; he offers the guys a couple of songs he’s written and they tell him they’ve just lost their lead singer / bassist. Bulsara then spontaneously bursts into song and leaves the two gobsmacked musicians to consider him as a replacement. They waste no time in doing so and promptly find a bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), to complete the set-up. From here on, apart from a few stumbles and glitches on the way, the band, grandly renamed Queen, and led by Bulsara who transforms himself into Freddie Mercury, marches onto a path that includes a string of catchy hit singles and memorable albums that combine epic heavy rock with various unlikely genres of music such as music hall, tours of distant lands and a bewildering array of outlandish costumes and changes of hairstyle, all culminating in the recording of the heavy rock / opera pastiche song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which the band releases as a single against the objections of the boss of EMI Records (Mike Myers). The song and its accompanying album “A Night at the Opera” establish Queen as a major headlining rock music phenomenon across the world.

Alas and alack, fame proves to be no bed of roses or a pleasure cruise as the band comes to rely more on record label managers and employees to help manage their escalating business affairs so they can concentrate on writing, recording and touring their music. Mercury, having realised he is bisexual and breaking up with his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) of several years, drifts into the gay club subculture, egged on by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) who also blocks Austin and other Queen members’ access to Mercury. The band is on the verge of breaking up until British pop musician Bob Geldof organises the massive Live Aid benefit concert that takes place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1985. Queen manage to squeeze into a 20-minute playing slot in the London Wembley Stadium schedule and this gig, in which the band plays as much for its own survival and reason for carrying on as it does for the stadium audience and the Ethiopian famine victims, becomes the focus for reconciliation among the band members and a redemption for Mercury who finally discovers who his real “family” is: apart from his immediate family, this means his fellow Queen band members and the band’s obsessive fan base.

The film’s emphasis on “family” has as an unfortunate underside a sneering contempt for homosexual men and their subculture; and by implication, scorn for outsiders, marginal cultures and the diversity that current Western society always claims to uphold and celebrate (while crushing it and directing it to serve its aims of war and conquest in former European colonies – and ultimately against Russia and China). The Prenter character is cast into the role of villain to shoulder the blame for encouraging Mercury in indulging in endless sexual affairs and the partying and drug-taking that will eventually be his doom. The narrative’s breathless flow compresses 15 years into about two hours of screen-time which means too many liberties are taken with the timeline of events, something that will irk die-hard Queen fans. Even viewers unfamiliar with Queen’s history can see that too much is being packed into particular scenes to ring true to life. Subplots such as Mercury’s relationships with Mary, his family and the man who will eventually become his most devoted companion, the no-nonsense Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), are treated very superficially. The result is that, in spite of Malek’s intense performance in inhabiting his character, viewers are left not knowing any more about Mercury or what inspired and influenced him to become a singer – and a world-famous one at that – at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. One has to know something about the role of Parsi Indians as loyal administrators for the British empire on the Indian subcontinent and their adoption of Victorian British values and customs, such as sending children to boarding school (and unwittingly exposing them to bullying and sexual predation in a closed environment) and imbuing them with genteel British culture as well as their own, and see in this context the foundation for Mercury’s affected style and eclectic tastes in music and culture. One also has to be aware that Zoroastrianism – the religion Mercury was born into – emphasises purity of living and the begetting of children in family environments, and this means it abhors sexual practices such as anal intercourse and homosexuality generally. The religion also has a dualistic, perhaps polarised worldview in which one either sides with Good or with Evil, and there is no other alternative. The inner conflicts this must have set up for Mercury may go some way to explaining his flamboyant style of performance, in particular his emotional style of singing, his song lyrics that often deal with being alone and the accompanying anguish, restlessness and the desire for new experiences that led him into a debauched life-style and becoming infected with AIDS.

Other characters in the film are as flat as pancakes in their portrayal; even the other Queen musicians, though they have their quirks and Roger Taylor has his temper and obsession with girls and the rock’n’roll life-style, seem rather like cardboard cut-outs. For all its concern about the band’s internal dynamics that drove their creativity and how they wrote their songs, the film gives the sketchiest of details about what inspired individual members to write particular songs (mostly of the bland stadium sing-along sort, not the more interesting fantasy kind found on early Queen albums) and how they recorded them. Even the band’s history is treated in a very cursory way, to serve the narrative and its emphasis on a superficial inclusiveness: the band’s legendary in-fighting and discontent with constant touring that led three members, not just one, to pursue individual side projects and issue their own albums in the early 1980s, are acknowledged but sketched over very quickly.

The music that exists, usually in fragmented form, in the film is not enough to save it from being stereotyped and forgettable. Potential viewers are best advised to watch documentaries and live recordings online and in other digital formats to find out how Queen still continues to fascinate people and maintain its place in British cultural nostalgia. While the British themselves continue to hold Queen and Mercury in awe, and seem spellbound at how an immigrant from a former colonial backwater in Zanzibar could have navigated his way through the British cultural landscape and general Western popular culture of the mid-20th century into becoming a beloved cultural icon, at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge their past as an empire based on stealing other people’s lands and resources, extracting wealth from them, and forcing the majority of these people into economic slavery while encouraging and privileging their minority groups in handmaiden roles.

A sense of Cold War paranoia and self-righteous American exceptionalism in “Espionage Target – You!”

“Espionage Target – You!” (1964)

Commissioned by the United States Department of Defense for training US military and civilian personnel sent abroad, this film is an example of how closely Hollywood, collectively and individually, worked with the US government in producing propaganda … er, training and educational movies. This film purports to show how agents working for the enemies of the US attempt to recruit American military and civilian employees to obtain information by searching and exploiting weaknesses in the individual Americans. Three re-enactment scenarios, based on actual cases, in different parts of the world – in West Germany, Japan and Poland – are shown: in each, a friendly stranger approaches an individual or group of individuals and strikes up a conversation in which s/he probes the chosen victim/s for vulnerabilities such as loneliness, money problems, sexual issues, alcohol and gambling. Once the stranger identifies a person’s weakness, that issue will be manipulated to the extent that the victim comes under continuous pressure and harassment to deliver, and will feel stressed and conflicted: a state that the agent can control and exploit even more.

Invariably the agents are described as working for the “Sino-Soviet” or Communist espionage system and can appear as quite personable and charming people. One such agent, Nick Macrados, is played by Anthony Eisley,  who appeared in a number of well-known television series spanning 30 years from the late 1950s on. Macrados recruits two US Army servicemen into a scheme to obtain secret information by plying them with money and drink; one of these Army guys, Karras (Pete Duel) later realises that he has been tricked and informs his superiors. The scheme is rumbled by Army authorities who arrest Macrados and Karras’ buddy Templeton (Michael Pataki). This re-enactment is the longest of the three and takes up at least half of the film’s half-hour running time; consequently the other two re-enactments are more sketchy and generic in their details. In all three examples, the victims realise they have been targeted and report to the appropriate authorities who take charge of the respective situations and apprehend the enemy agents.

The scenarios proceed briskly and in a fairly straightforward and low-key way that some viewers might find surprising, seeing as the film is a Hollywood production. The acting is efficient and consistent, and seems realistic enough. Refreshingly for the period (mid-1960s), the Asian actors who appear as a Chinese spy and his Japanese honey-pot accomplices act in a natural way and speak English without faked stereotyped Asian accents. (Although one actress could have toned down her alarmingly fairy-floss black coiffure.) The film is easy to follow and at its end the narrator sums up the foreign agents’ modus operandi and the actions American citizens abroad should follow if approached by people they suspect of being part of that insidious Sino-Soviet espionage network. Of course, the problem is that now the way in which the enemy agents work has been revealed, their employers are sure to change their methods and the film will no longer be relevant.

Both Hollywood and the US Department of Defense seem unaware that at the time, the Soviet Union and the Chinese had fallen out and were not much on speaking terms, much less able to co-operate. On the other hand, maybe the US government did know that the Communist world was divided but preferred not to divulge such information to the American public, all the more to maintain the fear and the level of American suspicion towards foreigners. The seemingly friendly and paternal tone of the film does little to hide a wariness and no small amount of paranoia, along with a sense of American superiority and belief in manifest destiny in which Americans are the natural police force of the world and pull others into line. For a film made in the 1960s, this training short features quite a number of stereotyped Hollywood film elements (in dialogue, aspects of plotting, characterisations) associated with films made in the 1940s – 1950s.

The film is notable for its cast of actors like Eisley, Duel and Pataki, who found themselves in demand for movies and TV shows, several of which became classics in their own right; and as an example of how closely Hollywood works with US government agencies to push an agenda.

The Real Manchurian Candidate: a meandering set of interviews on the Robert F Kennedy assassination and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan’s role in it

Shane O’Sullivan, “The Real Manchurian Candidate” (e2 films, 2018)

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is notorious as the man who fatally shot Senator Robert F Kennedy, the younger brother of the 35th President of the United States John F Kennedy, in Los Angeles in June 1968, while the senator was campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination for presidential elections later in the year. In this documentary, Dr Daniel Brown, a lecturer in hypnotherapy at Harvard Medical School, and Sirhan’s lawyer Laurie Dusek discuss their observations of Sirhan’s behaviours and their conversations with him in trying to recover his memories of what he did on that night in 1968, and both raise quite credible information that suggests that Sirhan had been hypnotised by other people into being a distraction for the real assassin and to take the blame for the murder. In particular, both Dr Brown and Dusek assert that Sirhan had been hypnotised and trained to respond to cues in his environment that would send him into “range mode” (a trance mode) during which he would shoot at certain targets, and of which he would later have no memories.

The film takes the form of two continuous interviews of Dr Brown and Dusek running in parallel, the camera switching from one to the other and back again, with archival film material of RFK (photographic stills) and of Sirhan being questioned inserted into the film at particular points. Film of Sirhan applying for parole is also shown. The flow of information can be haphazard, as interviews are wont to be, and the discussion jumps from details of the cues that Sirhan had been trained under several episodes of hypnosis to respond to (by falling into a trance state) and Sirhan’s belief that he was at a shooting range when in fact he was close to RFK, to Sirhan’s background and personality at the time he was selected to be the patsy to distract the crowds around RFK and the scapegoat for the crime. Viewers not familiar with the assassination or the hypnosis methods that were used on Sirhan may like to watch Episode 1 “The Assassin” of “Derren Brown: The Experiments”, made in 2011, in which host Derren Brown (no relation to Dr Brown) uses some of the hypnosis techniques and cues employed by the people who used Sirhan to hypnotise and train a subject to “assassinate” the actor Stephen Fry.

Near the end of the film, Dusek talks about the appalling treatment meted out to Sirhan in prison and how he bears up under bullying and intimation from the prison adminisation. Dusek vows to continue to defend Sirhan, recognising that his family has suffered and continues to suffer from the RFK assassination as Kennedy’s own family does. Dr Brown refers to the intimidation he has been subjected to by the US government but vows to continue assisting Sirhan and Dusek as part of his contribution to defending American democracy.

Perhaps the interviews could have been broken up and restructured so that parts could be regrouped under specific topic areas, such as those aspects of Sirhan’s personality and background that made him an ideal hypnosis subject, the cues that set him off (in particular, the woman in the blue dress with white polka dots) and the various MK-ULTRA experiments carried out by the CIA  on mind control in the 1960s and 1970s. This would have made the film a little more accessible to people not familiar with hypnosis or psychology. The information given is very dense and viewers may need repeated viewings to fully absorb what Dr Brown and Dusek say about Sirhan and the implications of what they say: that Sirhan may be innocent, that there may have been a real conspiracy (which could have involved the then head of the FBI J Edgar Hoover) to get rid of RFK and that other political assassinations in the US could also have been carried out by hypnotised scapegoats.

There are TWO Londons & Why It MATTERS: introducing viewers to a secret world of tax evasion in a city within a city

“There are TWO Londons & Why It MATTERS” (Black Pigeon Speaks, 2017)

Why indeed should we be concerned that not one London but TWO Londons exist? Why are most Britons unaware of the existence of two Londons? The City of London – or more properly, the City of London Corporation aka the Square Mile – physically occupies a small amount of land along the Thames River in the heart of Greater London; yet by being the home of the Bank of England and the headquarters of all major British banks and domicile of a good many foreign banks, this city state within a city exercises an enormous amount of power and influence in the global financial industry and through that in the global economy and in global politics.

In this attractively presented mini-documentary, the Black Pigeon Speaks channel (hereafter BPS for convenience) traces the history of the Square Mile back to Roman times when it was founded. (This means the Square Mile is much older than the English nation or the English language.) BPS emphasises how different and secret the City of London is from the rest of London: it is led by its own Lord Mayor (separate from the Mayor of London) who has his own costume and golden carriage, and an annual parade in his honour, and who can refuse permission to the British monarch to enter the City of London premises. The City of London exercises influence in the British government through its representative in Westminster, known as the Remembrancer, to ensure that legislation passed does not harm its interests. The City is divided into 25 wards: in just 4 of these wards voters are people who live there; in the other 21 wards, the voters are corporations who end up exerting more influence on the City’s government than the 9,000 souls who live within its limits.

The main business of the City is in being a tax haven and thus a magnet and channel for money laundering and black hole hoovering up monies from drug barons, oligarchs, corrupt politicians and their families, and global companies wanting to lower or evade their taxation obligations. Its presence in London and mostly autonomous status prevent the British government from carrying out any major financial reforms in the British banking and insurance industry, and enable the financial economy in other countries such as the US to ignore those nations’ regulations and requirements.

The narration is clear and easy to follow and the presentation is quite relaxed and leisurely in pace. No actual data or statistics are given so the mini-documentary best serves as an introduction to the topic of the existence of the City of London and its malignant parasitic effect on proper and open governance, the economy of the United Kingdom, its people’s prosperity (or absence thereof) and on the economy of the rest of the world. I do get the feeling that BPS has relied quite a lot on known sources like Nicholas Shaxson on global tax evasion and tax havens. Viewers should not stop at this film but find out more about the City of London and its activities and about the scourge of tax havens and tax evasion, how it threatens the welfare and livelihoods of people throughout the world and the destruction of global environments, through their own investigations.

Black Pigeon Speaks is a controversial Youtube alternative news media channel that often espouses very right-wing opinions on a number of issues such as immigration and equality between men and women.

The Seagull (dir. Michael Mayer): a film adaptation of Chekhov’s play lacking good characters and direction

Michael Mayer, “The Seagull” (2018)

Quite why this film adaptation of the famous play by Anton Chekhov couldn’t have been set in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, given that the entire cast speaks English with American accents, is strange but the performances are good enough that the notion of Russian characters speaking as they do in English quickly feels normal. As with the play, most of the action takes place in a summer mansion over several days, with the final act occurring two years later, starting off the film and then more or less repeating at the end so that the bulk of the action occurs as a flash-back. Haughty aristocratic actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), a renowned stage performer whose career has seen better and increasingly more distant days, brings her latest lover, the writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her family’s summer house where reside her sickly and aged brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin aka Kostya (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose work is very experimental and highly symbolic. The mansion is managed by a couple, Ilya and Polina (Mare Winningham), whose daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss) secretly loves Kostya, who is disdainful of her yearnings, as he is more interested in the girl who lives on the estate next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who dreams of becoming a famous actress and who reciprocates Kostya’s affections. If this love triangle were not enough, viewers are treated to young school-teacher Semyon Medvedenko’s love for Masha while her mother Polina is having an affair with Dr Dorn (Jon Tenney).

The film essentially is a character study of a vain and manipulative woman who, for reasons never revealed, forces her son to live an isolated life on her family estate while she revels in fame and celebrity status on the Moscow theatre circuit. The plays she stars in are of a melodramatic kind, popular with the crowds for their superficiality, while Kostya yearns for theatrical renown of a more abstract and perhaps more lasting nature. Perhaps Irina is jealous that she and her world might be usurped by Kostya and the theatrical world he wants to write for, because this futuristic world reminds her of her mortality. As a result, when Kostya tries to stage an experimental play for Irina and her guests, she openly ridicules it and this sets up a tension lasting all the way through the film between mother and son. Torn between his love for his mother, who alternately dotes on him and abuses him, and his mother’s affection for Boris, Kostya weaves dangerously between anger, frustration, depression and suicidal thoughts. This in turn creates problems between him and Nina, while Masha secretly gets drunk to ease the pain of loving someone who will never love her. For her part, Nina becomes enthralled with Boris’ stories about how he copes with fame (which in fact he tells Nina to warn her of the downside of being a celebrity) and becomes infatuated with him. Boris for his part finds himself falling in love with Nina at the same time he still loves Irina.

All these entanglements may be hard for viewers to follow though with the screenplay chopping out large parts of the original play, a number of characters, notably Dr Dorn, become little more than walking wallpaper. Masha becomes a mere pitiable creature taking solace in alcohol and her relationship with Medvedenko becomes taken for granted rather than developed as it should have been as a counterpoint to Irina and Kostya’s own complicated love lives. Kostya and Trigorin come across as rather weak-willed men who don’t seem to learn from their errors or weaknesses, and as a result will always be at the mercy of others more cunning than they; Trigorin is lucky in navigating his affections with Irina and Nina, and one wonders whether he really would have preferred to stay with Nina had not Irina manipulated him into dumping the younger woman. (In Chekhov’s plays, so much of what we’d call action actually takes place away from the stage or between acts.) Kostya is not much more than a whining overgrown brat subject to banging out his temper tantrums on the piano or shooting birds from the sky. The stand-out performances are those of Bening as the wily mother and Ronan as Nina who learns the hard way that acting brings its own pressures and strains, and that fame and glory are fickle and cruel gods to those who do not have outstanding talent or the opportunities to prove their ability. Both Bening and Ronan give of their best but it is not enough to save the film from floundering with mostly one-dimensional characters lacking direction in their lives and who are content or resigned to floating in whichever direction the wind blows.

The clash between the old and the new; between popular if shallow trends in art and art created for its own sake or to interrogate issues that people would rather not discuss; between generations; and between the pursuit of fame and fortune on the one hand and on the other, the grim reality of persisting despite all odds, are all grist for the mill. Characters want to be happy but do not know how to pursue happiness, are afraid of pursuing it or do things that destroy their chances of being happy. A despondent, insular attitude follows the film like a bad smell: Kostya seems incapable of ever leaving the family estate while his mother is still alive and Nina resigns herself to travelling around the Russian empire acting in second-rate troupes for the bemusement of peasants and factory workers. Trigorin is destined to continue churning out fiction pap and acting as Irina’s handbag. Art itself continues to demand much from the various characters psychologically and physically until one person literally can’t take any more.

The isolated lake country setting is a major character in itself in the film but at the same time removes the action almost completely from Moscow, and from significant social, economic and political changes of the period it is set in, that would later sweep away the familiar world of Irina Arkadina and her household and her circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it is this detachment from the real world of an increasingly industrialised Russia, class conflict, a stagnant polity and looming revolution that makes Arkadina and Sorin’s seemingly idyllic little lakeside mansion paradise – populated with flawed, passive characters of mediocre talent and obsessed with unattainable goals – at times stuffy and suffocating.