Hard Reset: a predictable and tired short film on human and AI relations in a future materialist society

Deepak Chetty, “Hard Reset” (2016)

The premise and the plot are predictable and rather tired, as are also the “Blade Runner” urban setting and that film’s use of the hard-boiled detective narrative together with science fiction tropes. In the not-too distant future, artificial intelligence is used to create cyborgs, known as synths, programmed to serve human beings in a limited number of ways – as miners, explorers, entertainers and prostitutes – that bespeak the materialist / consumerist orientation of society. These synths have no free will; indeed, giving them free will is a crime punishable by death as decreed by the bureaucracy, GovCentral. In this world, young detective Archer (Oryan Landa) finds solace with a synth, Jane PS626, to whom he pours out his dreams. The synth has to leave him for another customer who, against the laws of their society, programs her to have free will. The synth later kills him and Archer and his partner Sebastian (Holt Boggs) are sent out to terminate her if necessary.

With Archer having feelings for Jane PS626, and those feelings being reciprocated, bringing the synth to justice or just bringing her down becomes a complicated business for Sebastian and the three synth enforcers he brings along. Sebastian just wants to do his job, get his money and maybe a promotion, and be pals with Archer. Archer finds connection with Jane PS626 and the two escape to a derelict lot (shades of “Blade Runner”!) on the edge of the city. Sebastian and his enforcers track them down and the scene is set for an almighty confrontation.

As in “Blade Runner”, humans are portrayed as either existentially lonely, alienated beings who rediscover their humanity through a synthetic humanoid, or as dehumanised robot creatures. One wonders how Archer and Sebastian became friends as well as partners in the first place, the two men being so different. Jane PS626 learns to love and care for Archer in the brief time they have together. Just when viewers think they have seen the climax, as in most films featured on the DUST science fiction channel, “Hard Reset” introduces a twist into the plot – that’s why it’s called “Hard Reset” after all. We realise we have seen an alternative plot in which Archer reclaims his humanity, though briefly. The “real” plot is the one where Archer fails to seize the opportunity to escape his humdrum existence and as a result loses Jane PS626 – forever. He may never know what it’s really like to be human and is doomed to dream forever with no-one to share his dreams with.

Landa is appealing as Archer though he plays the character in the way I imagine Ethan Hawke would have done: the brooding, troubled Archer is drawn and fleshed out in a way that would have suited Hawke. McAdam is beautifully luminous as Jane PS626 but is not given a great deal to do; even Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora and Daryl Hannah’s Pris in their brief moments in “Blade Runner” had definite identities and despite having been made for very specific roles (Pris being a pleasure replicant) they both displayed abilities far beyond what they were required to be. As Landa and McAdam carry the film, viewers are entitled to think they’d be more than stereotypes. The rest of the cast do what they can in their constrained roles. The special effects are good for a short 40-minute film with a limited budget.

At least the film asks viewers to consider the morality of treating humanoid artificial beings in ways we would consider treating real humans as immoral. Synths may not have free will or the ability to know right from wrong, but just as exploiting animals because their cognition appears limited compared to humans is wrong, why then would exploiting machines with some limited cognition or self-awareness be moral? One might also consider that humans out of touch with their morality or humanity are no more deserving of compassion or empathy than those they treat grievously. This is a theme also of “Blade Runner”.

Unregistered: living authentically versus living a comfortable but insecure lie

Sophia Banks, “Unregistered” (2018)

This short film commenting on the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency (2017 – 2021) has a lush treatment that suggests it could be a pilot for a television series or a full-length movie. Rekker and Ata are two teenagers in love: we first meet them wandering through an open forest bathed in radiant sunlight. The first inkling that all might not be what meets the eye is Ata’s concern for her contact lens which she has lost in the forest undergrowth. At the same time images of her looking through a screen at herself and Rekker walking through the forest pop up briefly throughout the scene. Rekker wants to know why Ata keeps recording their moves in real time, and Ata replies evasively.

The two hear a megaphone message and they pass through the scene and into everyday city life in Los Angeles. Viewers realise the forest scene was an artificial creation, hologram-like yet apparently three-dimensional with objects that acted and felt like their real counterparts. Almost straight away a stranger not far from Rekker and Ata is identified by drones as “unregistered” – having been scanned by the drones, he is found not to have an identity they recognise, so they drop a cyber-cage over him and trap him – and police quickly move in, remove the cage and subdue him. They take him away to be deported to a camp.

Much of the rest of this love story cum police-state dystopia concerns the tension that arises between Ata and Rekker, as Rekker challenges Ata’s attitude towards living in a world of unreality, accepting comfort and security at the cost of giving up political freedoms and being able to choose to live authentically. The film later shows Ata at home with her parents, the parents being revealed as administrators in the police-state bureaucracy, and the tensions that develop between the parents and the daughter. Rekker drops by to give Ata a birthday present and at this point an unexpected plot twist also drops into the narrative, forcing Rekker to make a choice that will change his life and Ata’s life forever.

While the plot seems unfinished and the characters are rather shallow, the film makes a clear point about being able to choose an authentic life in which individuals can make choices and bear responsibility for those choices, as opposed to living vicariously through simulations or other people’s experiences, and not having the ability to choose what to experience and what to avoid. A life of comfort, security and conformity is shown to be no compensation for living under constant surveillance and in fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

The American Colony of Australia: how a master-slave relationship came into being

Carlton Meyer, “The American Colony of Australia” (Tales of the American Empire, 19 February 2021)

In this installment of his ongoing series of the extent and depth of the United States’ imperialist clutches on nations around Planet Earth, director / narrator Carlton Meyer surveys how Australia quickly passed from British imperialist control to US imperialist control during the 20th century; and how from the 1970s onwards, with the infamous November 1975 coup that felled Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the US tightened its grip on Australian politics and society to the point that Australia is no longer an independent sovereign player in its part of the world (southwest Pacific) but through its security and military links is beholden to Washington DC and can make no independent decisions of its own without US approval. Meyer briefly points out that before the 1920s, Australia (even after declaring itself a dominion within the British Empire in 1901) was still very much a British colony, having to supply soldiers and raw materials to Britain during World War I in which almost an entire generation of young Australian men was wiped out, setting the stage for future decades in which political, economic and social leadership for want of talented men stagnated in this wide brown land. After World War II, during which Australians worked together with Americans to push back Japanese military forces, Australia fell quickly into subservience to the US: this meant supplying cannon folder to fight US wars in the Korean peninsula, Vietnam and other nations over the rest of the 20th century and well into the 21st century, with at least hundreds of Australian troops still stationed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Meyer’s main focus in this short documentary sketch is on two US-backed coups against the Australian government in 1975, when Gough Whitlam was sacked as Prime Minister by Governor General Sir John Kerr on the day when Whitlam planned to reveal in Parliament the extent of American spying on Australia through its Pine Gap facility; and in 2010, when Kevin Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister just days before federal general elections. In Rudd’s case, his crime in American eyes was to advocate working with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, rather than against China: a point of view that did not sit well with then US President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy which aimed at isolating China by drawing in neighbouring states including Australia away from Beijing in trade and other forms of co-operation and into the US orbit. Gillard was seen as a suitable replacement for Rudd in part because of her support for Israel. After Rudd was deposed, Gillard quickly gave the US armed forces the use of military bases in places like Darwin and Fremantle around the nation, so that now US troops are more or less permanently stationed (through rotation) at these bases and train there. US penetration of the Australian armed forces is now wide enough and deep enough that the Australian military has become dependent on the US for orders and is incapable of acting on its own initiative, though Meyer does not go into detail as to how that situation began and developed over time.

Photographs and video stills are used to emphasise and support Meyer’s narrative and a map shows the extent of US military and surveillance bases in Australia. Many Australians may be alarmed (but not surprised) to know that all phone and email conversations and transactions in Australia are captured by the US. The highlight of the mini-documentary is a film of US political commentator John Mearsheimer, while visiting Australia, addressing an audience in a speech sponsored by an Australian think-tank, in which he explains how Australia, if it chooses to work with China or any other nation the US does not like, will be regarded as an enemy of the US and treated accordingly. That is to say, Australia will be subjected to economic and other pressures, some of which will be of a kind considered as war crimes if they were enacted by any other country, and to regime change of the sort suffered by Whitlam in 1975 and Rudd in 2010.

In such a short mini-documentary as this, the narrative tends to flit from one topic to another at a speedy pace in spite of Meyer’s minimal presentation. As a result, analysis is thin and sketchy, and viewers are best advised to do further research themselves on particular issues raised in the film that they are interested in. The value of this short documentary is to demonstrate to Americans and Australians alike that the relationship between the two countries is not a friendship of equals but a master-slave relationship in which the slave nation must know its place and accept its inferiority or be punished severely. For most people in both countries, this short documentary will be a real eye-opener.

Alone: drama and emotion in a tiny space-pod

William Hellmuth, “Alone” (2020)

A moving film about connection – and about how so strong humans’ need for connection can be that some individuals will travel across the universe for it – “Alone” packs in plenty of drama and emotion in very tight and limited environments. Astronaut engineer Kaya Torres (Stephanie Barkley) is separated from her research ship by an unseen disaster and her tiny pod is now languishing in orbit around a black hole. Torres sends out distress calls while she works out what to do and her calls for help are answered by Hammer (Thomas Wilson Brown), a cartographer marooned on a distant planet. Over several days as Torres’ situation grows increasingly desperate, the astronaut and the cartographer come to know and to care for each other. When her supplies have nearly run out, Torres drives her pod through the black hole and lands on Hammer’s planet. She follows a line of lights into a cave where a disheartening truth awaits her.

The film is a good study of human character under pressure in extreme isolation – Torres is light years away from human society, and no-one knows where she is or even if she exists – and Barkley does an excellent job inhabiting the character and her fears. The extreme isolation of space and how knowing how far away you are from the rest of humanity might affect your self-identity – after all, we often define ourselves in opposition against some humans or communities of humans – and throughout the film viewers can see Torres slowly disintegrating psychologically. From a brash person with a potty mouth and a stubborn spirit, Torres gradually becomes more fearful, succumbs to the demon hooch and relies more and more on Hammer’s communications through their computers to keep her going. She soon becomes obsessed with finding Hammer.

The film relies on good acting, which Barkley supplies plenty of, and the plot moves at a fairly brisk place. There’s not much time given over to philosophising and regretting the day when one had to board the research ship some time before catastrophe struck it. Barkley establishes her character as stoic and practical but over time Torres deteriorates visibly as her hopes of being rescued fade. As Hammer, Brown has harder work to do making his voice seem human, given the dialogue he has to deliver which reveals he does not know what vodka is. There is a suggestion that Hammer may not really be human at all. It is this fear perhaps that drives Torres to search him out and find out who he really is.

The technical effects are good without being remarkable for a short film on a tiny budget. The whole film is driven by dialogue and what the actors do with it. The plot’s climax cleverly is a test of Torres’ character and almost results in a cliff-hanger ending. The film seems to beg for a sequel but I consider it self-contained and complete.

Flyby: an ingenious but weak film on time literally slipping away

Jesse Mittelstadt, “Flyby” (2019)

In its own way this film can be considered a horror film, focusing as it does on how an alien force seems to affect individuals and rob them of control over their lives and the lives of others. A mystery asteroid comes close to Earth and is captured by Earth’s gravity to become a satellite. Not long afterwards, people are being stricken by a strange malady in which they lose all or most of their sense of time passing them by. One such victim is everyday man Bill (Riley Egan) who joins with friends at a bar shortly after the asteroid’s passing is reported on television. Everyone talks excitedly about the asteroid and about the nature of time. Bill later leaves with Cora (Tommee May) and goes to bed with her. When he wakes up later, Cora is already several months pregnant with their child. She walks out of the bedroom, Bill spends some time trying to digest the situation, he hears Cora calling him so he races out of the room and discovers her holding their two-year-old toddler Maven (Bardot Corso).

From then on Bill is lost trying to keep up with a life literally slipping away from him and old age rapidly catching up with him. In the blink of an eye Maven has become an adult (Tommee May again) who cares for her father, Cora having left him years ago in a lifetime Bill cannot remember. Maven turns on a gadget that runs through pictures of their lives together with Cora and Bill gazes at past experiences he has no memory of. In the meantime the mystery asteroid escapes its orbit around the Earth and leaves the solar system, leaving Bill and others like him in old age with no memory of what they have done over the past half-century.

The film can be viewed as a metaphor for dementia or it can be viewed as an attempt to capture an individual’s experience of time as s/he matures and then ages. People’s perceptions of time seem to speed up as they get older so a year seems to pass quickly while a child’s experience of a year is very slow; moreover older people remember how slowly the years went by when they were children! The film might also be seen as a commentary on time itself, and how much of a cultural construct time might be.

While the film’s plot is ingenious, positing the passage of time itself as a time machine, its weakness is that Bill is hardly given any, erm, time to consider the error of his ways and to express regret for past actions that have the effect of locking him and Cora into lives they might have preferred not to live. Character development is very weak and at the end of the film Bill is quite literally the same man he was (or thinks he is) just a few minutes ago because in the space of a few minutes he really did lose most of his life.

The film probably could have been fleshed out a bit more so that viewers see more of Bill’s life as a failing husband and father, his faltering marriage and perhaps the separation and divorce from Cora. Bill’s life comes across as flat and unremarkable. The implication that by losing time, Bill loses control of his life – with the result that decisions he might have made (and which are lost to him) lock him into consequences and situations he cannot change but which further entrench him in an existential prison – is lost on viewers.

Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in South Korea: how South Korea and the US use North Korean defectors as propaganda tools

David Yun, “Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in South Korea” (2018)

Made by then UCLA undergraduate student David Yun, this short terse documentary challenges the Western narrative on North Korean defectors living in South Korea as reliable first-hand witnesses to the supposed brutality of the North Korean government and reveals the insidious role of South Korean intelligence, known as the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in kidnapping, coercing or tricking North Korean citizens into living in South Korea against their will, and then manipulating, even brainwashing them and paying them to denounce North Korea publicly. Yun also exposes the role of the United States, its agencies and private organisations like the Atlas Network in propping up an elaborate disinformation scheme that demonises North Korea and generates public support around the world to support the overthrow of the North Korean government.

In its first ten minutes Yun’s documentary relies on interviews with South Korean human rights lawyer Jang Kyong-ook who tells him of how North Korean individuals are initially incarcerated in special defector detention centres where they are subjected to solitary confinement for as long as three or even six months, after which time they are desperate to leave and will say or sign anything – even accept South Korean citizenship – to get out. They are then sent to a special school to learn how to live in South Korea and cope with day-to-day life in a capitalist society; during this period of re-education, they are bombarded with propaganda and falsified histories of North Korea. Defectors may also be used as spies by the NIS.

In much of the rest of the documentary Yun meets with two defectors, Mr Choi and Mrs Kim, who arrived in South Korea separately at different times. Mrs Kim’s story is especially tragic: wishing to travel to China as a tourist, she was tricked by human traffickers into going into South Korea and fell into the grip of the NIS who then tricked her into signing an agreement. After discovering the NIS’ deception, Mrs Kim tried various options to return to North Korea, all of which were blocked. This unwilling defector despaired and attempted to take her life twice before becoming a representative for the defector community in South Korea. Mr Choi initially left North Korea due to his rebellious, non-conformist nature which ironically was to stand him in good stead when he ended up in South Korea and was subjected to the heavy psychological manipulation and disinformation that among other things denigrates past Korean resistance against Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century.

Yun provides some necessary background information to explain why starvation was widespread in North Korea during the mid to late 1990s: as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, many of North Korea’s markets dried up. Sanctioned by the US since the 1950s, North Korea could not find new buyers or sellers and the country endured starvation and poverty for many years. (The sanctions also mean North Korea cannot mechanise its agriculture and must rely on a large labour force to grow most of its food. These labourers are also the nation’s army reservists – hence the joint US / South Korean military drills known as Operation Foal Eagle that take place during sowing and harvesting seasons each year.) Many young people born during that time in North Korea who later defected to South Korea have now become eager participants in a reality TV show that screens monthly in South Korea that repeats and reinforces the lies and misinformation about North Korea. Some of these young people have now become celebrity “activists” who go on jaunts around the world decrying the North Korean government and are supported by right-wing thinktanks and organisations and government agencies in the US. Some of these think-tanks and organisations are also active in demonising the Maduro government in Venezuela.

The theme that arises during this powerful if very dry documentary is that North Korean defectors are a tool and a weapon used by South Korea and its puppet masters in Washington DC and elsewhere to destabilise the North Korean government with propaganda and lies. The defectors themselves are valuable only as long as they continue to cooperate with the authorities and any information they have is valuable. One has the impression that the South Korean and US governments do not really care about them. How defectors like Mr Choi and Mrs Kim survive in a society brainwashed with lies about the country they are still loyal to, remains unknown. Perhaps the surprising part of the documentary is Mr Choi’s continuing loyalty to Pyongyang and his admiration for former leader Kim Il Sung as a wartime resistance fighter against Japan even after he admits to being a maverick.

The Empire’s 2016 Coup in Turkey: an entree into the history of fraught relations between two NATO allies

Carlton Meyer, “The Empire’s 2016 Coup in Turkey” (Tales of the American Empire, 22 January 2021)

Rather light on the day-to-day details of the attempt by sections of the Turkish military to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in July 2016, this video concentrates on the role the United States government may have played in encouraging or at least countenancing this coup attempt that resulted in the deaths of 300 people and injured another 2,100. The aftermath of the coup was more important for the Turkish people than the coup itself, as at least 10,000 soldiers and military officers and over 2,700 judges were arrested, 15,000 people in education were suspended and the licences of 21,000 teachers in private institutions were revoked. Over 160,000 people lost their jobs for having suspected ties to exiled Turkish cleric / business entrepreneur Fethullah Gulen who has been accused by Erdogan of being behind the coup plot.

The video states that four months before the coup took place, the US government recalled all its military personnel stationed at its various military bases in Turkey and all its diplomatic staff in that country. Israel did likewise with its military and diplomatic personnel in Turkey. These actions constitute most of the evidence that narrator Meyer cites to support the notion that the US backed and encouraged the coup even if it did not help organise it. The possibility that Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Turkey and who endorsed Fethullah Gulen’s application for Green Card residency in the US in the late 1990s, had some involvement in the coup is considered. Gulen is also thought to have been involved in the coup plotting as well.

A brief history of Turkish-US relations from the year 2000 onward follows: Erdogan is revealed as a leader who will play two opposed sides off each other if there is a gain for himself or for Turkey. While Turkey sometimes co-operates with other members of NATO, the country refused to support the US-led alliance that invaded Iraq in 2003. On the other hand, Turkey has supported the war in Syria (2011 onward) with the aim of deposing Syrian President Bashar al Assad and to get chunks of territory in northern Syria. Turkey has also grown closer to Russia since the 2016 coup attempt, to the extent of buying S400 missile defence systems from that nation.

The centrepiece of the video is a film of Senator Joe Biden’s speech to the editors of The New York Times in 2019 in which he talks about how the US can push sections of the Turkish armed forces or the Turkish government through non-violent means to depose President Erdogan or isolate him. Here the stupid arrogance of the US government in presuming it can force a nation to toss out its leader regardless of his/her popularity with the general public in that nation is breathtakingly immense.

For a video that is fairly well researched, it is a pity that Erdogan’s last name isn’t pronounced correctly and the video regards Erdogan and his government as secular when in fact over the years he has Prime Minister and then President, Erdogan has been shepherding the nation to a more conservative Islamic stance. The video could have included some additional material on what Joe Biden, now that he has been inaugurated as US President, plans to do in the Middle East and with Turkey in particular. The video is best treated as an introduction to the history of Turkish-US relations; viewers wanting more depth and a better understanding of the historical / economic / political context surrounding Turkish-US interactions will need to do their own research.

My Salinger Year: a small-scaled film that never leaves its comfort zone

Philippe Falardeau, “My Salinger Year” (2020)

A film about finding your own voice and creative outlet, and being able to express that creativity, “My Salinger Year” is a likeable and charming piece if a little dull and at times giving the impression of playing safe. The film is based on poet / journalist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working for the literary agent whose main client was the famously reclusive novelist J D Salinger, author of high school coming-of-age / teenage angst staple “The Catcher in the Rye”, back in the mid-1990s.

Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) impulsively leaves postgraduate school in California and jets off to New York to take up a position as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who turns out to be a tetchy technophobic boss. Rakoff is given the job of replying to Salinger’s massive fanbase who send letters addressed to the famous writer; Salinger himself does not want to read these letters so Margaret’s agency sends generic form letters to his fans informing them that he will not reply. Rakoff has to read these letters nevertheless and choose the correct reply form letters; she begins to develop some empathy with some of the fan mail, as the writers see themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and pour their heart and soul into their correspondence. Rakoff starts to veer from the script, literally as well as figuratively speaking, and writes directly to some of the fans. This is risky for her as Margaret and her other employees treat Salinger and his demands with kid gloves and do not look upon even slight deviations from his instructions favourably.

Aside from the main plot, which is quite insubstantial and in itself not very entertaining for viewers who know little of the world of publishing and how writers were marketed in the pre-Internet age, there are various sub-plots which are equally shallow and under-developed. Rakoff forms a friendship with Salinger over the phone at work; Salinger becomes interested in Rakoff when he discovers she writes poetry in her spare time and urges her to keep writing every day. The people at work gently encourage Rakoff to develop and use her initiative and trust in her own intuition and decision-making, and this support helps her become a valuable employee in Margaret’s agency. Rakoff is in a relationship with a socialist bookshop worker / aspiring writer (Douglas Booth) who initially introduces her to his underground literary scene, which she finds stimulating at first, but who turns out self-centred and whose writing is mediocre and crude. At the same time Rakoff has never concluded her previous romance decisively and her old boyfriend (Hamza Haq) continues to write to her.

The acting overall is good though individual actors themselves, Weaver in particular, are not challenged by the script. Weaver has done the boss-from-hell routine in past films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and very little in “My Salinger Year” deviates from that stereotype, even when her character suffers a life-changing blow. Qualley does well as Rakoff in her first lead role and just manages to hold her own in scenes with Weaver who dominates in every scene she appears in. Other actors provide good support though the script never allows them to be more than walking wallpaper.

Whimsical fantasy sequences in which some of Salinger’s earnest letter-writing fans appear – in deference to the prevailing Identity Politics / Diversity culture that has a stranglehold on Hollywood, these fans span a range of different ethnic groups, age demographics and life-styles, though how a black Vietnam vet and a migrant Vietnamese labourer can see something of themselves in a middle-class teenaged rebel with no cause is never explained – are worked into the film smoothly and discreetly, and are never allowed to overpower the narrative. Had Hollywood not been so enamoured of appealing to Diversity “values”, and simply allowed these fans to just be what they were in real life – people looking for connection and purpose to life, in their own immediate environments where the anomie born of capitalist society and its values which have destroyed community alternatives – the Rakoff character would have found real empathy with these lost people, they would have provided her with real material for her writing, her voice and creativity would have been truly inspired, and her path in life would have been clear. She would have been the poet and voice of a new lost generation searching for meaning and authentic values in a world becoming increasingly reliant on and captured by technology to the extent of surrendering itself to its dictates and the ruthless predatory capitalist values of its creators.

As it is, the film never strays at all from the comfort zone it sets for itself and the result is that it remains small in scale with a paper-thin plot and several sub-plots that remain unexplored and unsatisfactory. Rakoff’s character is not too convincing at times as a woman in a process of self-discovery but I suspect most young actors, even very good ones, would be defeated by the script and Falardeau’s direction. Viewers will feel frustrated that this coming-of-stage story turns out to have very little to say about the 1990s-era New York literary world and its values and pretentiousness.

Some Like It Hot: a cheerful screwball satire about the search for love and security

Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

Astonishingly this classic Hollywood slapstick comedy still holds up well more than 60 years after its release. The jokes and witty one-liners are still hilarious even though they are dated and modern audiences may have trouble identifying with the context they arise in and the actual history that informs the context. In late 1920s-period America, just before the Great Depression, two musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) down on their luck witness a gangland mass murder in Chicago and must flee for their lives; they do so by disguising themselves as female musicians Josephine and Daphne in order to join an all-female jazz orchestra about to tour Florida to entertain millionaires in ritzy hotels. On the train taking them from Chicago to Miami, Joe and Jerry meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), herself on the run from a complicated romantic past and eager to meet a gentle and bespectacled millionaire who will love her and look after her. After a wild midnight party featuring (forbidden) alcohol with the other members of the jazz orchestra, while the leader / conductor and the manager are fast asleep and unawares, and during which Joe and Sugar start falling for each other, the orchestra reaches its Miami hotel destination and there Joe and Jerry are embroiled in more farcical situations in which Joe pretends to be the very millionaire Sugar has fantasised about in order to get closer to her, and Jerry as Daphne attracts the attention of ageing millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) who sends him flowers and romances him. In the meantime the Mafia mobsters, led by mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft), are still on the trail of Joe and Jerry, and arrive at the Miami hotel to attend a convention of crime syndicates presided over by Colombo’s rival Little Napoleon (Nehemiah Persoff).

The improbable and threadbare plot plays as a series of fast-paced comedy skits during which Joe and Jerry’s lives become more complicated as people insist on intruding in their lives in ways that threaten to blow their disguises. A tension is always present – when will Joe and Jerry’s cover be blown, and how? – that keeps audiences attentive and guessing. How will Sugar find out that her “millionaire” lover is yet another deceptive saxophone player who lusts after her? Will the three protagonists find the money and security they need to finally be free of their past histories and the complicated lives they have created for themselves in search of love and security?

This film relies heavily on its three leads to pull off the cross-dressing musicians and the ditzy child-like singer who seems unaware of the power of her sexuality on the men around her. Both Curtis and Lemmon have fun with their roles and pour everything they have into them: quite a feat, as Marilyn Monroe’s insecurities interfered with her ability to remember her lines and what she was supposed to do, with the result that her scenes with Curtis required numerous takes, yet on film Curtis always manages to sparkle even when he parodies famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant in his deception of Sugar Kane. Lemmon’s character becomes so engrossed in his Daphne alter-ego that he happily joins his female band members in frolicking on the beach and is prepared to marry Osgood Fielding III and then divorce him for the alimony money as so many of the millionaire’s ex-wives have done. However Monroe steals every scene and walks away with the film with her luminous beauty, innocent naif presence, her breathy voice and her performance as the lead singer of the jazz orchestra.

Co-written by director Billy Wilder, the brisk screenplay does wonderful work contrasting the romances between Joe and Sugar, and between Jerry and Osgood, playing up their half-serious / half-comedic angles and highlighting the deceptions Joe and Jerry force themselves into playing in order to get what they want. Interestingly as Joe feels more guilty at deceiving Sugar, Jerry (who initially begins as Joe’s conscience) becomes more and more mercenary and hell-bent on marrying Osgood to the extent that he forgets he is male himself. The complicated plot starts to resemble a Shakespearean play with Joe and Sugar’s romance being slightly more serious and Jerry and Osgood’s date milked for all its clownishness. In the manner of all good Shakespearean comedies, the deceptions are uncovered (after a screwball chase of the musicians by the mobsters), no-one gets hurt and the deceived partners turn out to be very forgiving towards those who duped them.

In spite of its improbable plot, the film has lasted as long as it has due to its cheerfully satirical treatment of the way in which mid 20th-century Western culture treated men and women, and of how men and women often deceived one another to get laid and/or to get financial security. In the end, Joe discovers he wants more than just sex and Sugar realises she wants more than money. Jerry is nonplussed at Osgood Fielding III’s laid-back attitude towards social conventions surrounding marriage. Everyone gets more than what they bargained for, but in a happy way.

Tribes: fast, witty lesson on identity politics as tool of control

Nino Aldi, “Tribes” (2020)

In societies obsessed with categorising people on the basis of arbitrary and artificial criteria such as race and gender self-identity, this short film comes as a breath of fresh air satirising separatism as a method of keeping people apart and afraid of one another, all the more so they can be dominated by their real unseen enemy. Three inept thieves working together on the New York subway system – their names are Kevin (Jake Hunter), Ahmed (Adam Waheed) and Jemar (DeStorm Power) – hold up a bunch of commuters with intent to take all their money, watches, jewellery and smartphones. However Jemar sees a couple of passengers are Afro-American like himself, so he makes an exception for them as members of the same historically victimised collective as himself. Ahmed overhears and sees what Jemar is doing and from then on, the film dives into bizarre surrealism as the thieves start splitting up and then reshuffling the passengers, making them run from one end of the carriage to the other, on the basis of various polarities: among others, gays versus straights, cat-lovers versus dog-lovers and “Moonlight” watchers versus “La La Land” viewers. The passengers themselves offer helpful hints as to how they should be divided and several admit having many allegiances, making the three ditzy robbers’ task even more difficult.

What makes this farce work is the fast pace and the tight focus of the three main actors, in particular Power as the black thief and Ahmed as the Arab thief, as they trade quick barbs and witty remarks that ensure the film does not fall too far into silliness or sentimentalism. Quick editing and the film’s focus on close-ups and snappy dialogue, dependent on the thieves’ use of slang, drive the plot energetically. Though the film is short, the action is fast and the goal is to drive home a particular message, the thieves’ characters come across fairly clearly: Jemar and Ahmed do most of the talking and Kevin is not too smart though he gets the best lines. Eventually the thieves realise that they and their victims are all connected in a common humanity and Kevin remarks that many years ago his mother drilled into him this lesson about caring for one’s fellow human being and how hurting others can hurt oneself – just before she shot dead a meth dealer.

The film clearly shows in whose interests identity politics works at its climax when the robbers discover that the train has stopped and someone outside the train has targeted them with red dots of light. The robbers and the passengers are jolted back into the real world as police outside the train take up positions with their weapons. Will the passengers feel pity for the robbers and try to save them – or will they let the young men hang? In this respect the film goes beyond the narrow arena of identity politics and demonstrates briefly how the obsession with identity politics is used by political / economic / social elites to divert people’s attention away from the real issue of who has the power and the control in society.