All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

Feline Follies: the folly of falling hard in love with no regard for consequences in a dark suicidal cartoon

Otto Messmer, “Feline Follies” (1919)

By no means a great cartoon or even a mildly interesting one, this animated short is notable mainly for the first appearance of the cat character later to be known as Felix the Cat. The plot is very sketchy and its message basically warns viewers of the consequences of being swept away by romantic love. An ordinary looking black cat, Tom (the prototype of Felix) falls heavily for Miss Kitty White, to the point of deserting his mouse-catching duties for his love. While Tom spends nights serenading his paramour and go-karting with her using musical notes born from his guitar that he then plucks out of the air, the mice live it up in his human mistress’s house smashing plates and gobbling up all the food. As a result, the woman boots him out of house and home. Dejected, Tom runs off to his love, only to discover she is the mother of a huge brood of mini-Tom kittens. What Tom does next will literally take viewers’ breaths away; at the very least his action qualifies this cartoon as not suitable for very young viewers.

The look of this animated short is very stylish in a minimalist comic-strip way, with enough interesting black-and-white background images to suggest a tidy semi-rural neighbourhood and an interesting use of distance perspective. There are enough sight gags to keep viewers interested: Tom being blamed for the mess the mice create, Tom turning his tunes into go-karts so he and his girlfriend can go racing, and Tom discovering that he is the father of a horde of little Toms. Title cards help move the plot and the action along.

Technically this is a decent little film (with a dark suicidal ending) that demonstrates what animators were capable of in the early years of film animation, with high aesthetic values being possible to achieve even in those early days.

The Little Pest: beaten up, walloped, drowned – what’s a pesky baby brother to do?

Dick Huemer, “The Little Pest” (1931)

Chiefly remarkable for its depiction of sibling-on-sibling violence, this short cartoon stars the boy Scrappy, who would go on to be a main character of several other short cartoons by US animator Dick Huemer. The style of animation is typical of cartoons of its time (late 1920s / early 1930s) with characters having rubbery arms and legs and capable of actions far beyond their real-life equivalents.

Scrappy and his pet dog decide to go on a fishing trip, and baby brother Oopie wants to tag along as well. Despite Scrappy’s reactions – which include smacking him and throwing him as far as possible, with the dog’s eager co-operation – Oopie manages to play a few tricks on Scrappy and the pooch, and (incredibly) arrives first at the lake to start fishing. The fish play a trick on the brothers by tying their fishing lines together underwater and Scrappy ends up hauling Oopie through the water and back onto dry land. Incensed at Oopie’s constant interruption, Scrappy hurls the bub into the water where he drowns. Suddenly realising he might end up on death row for killing the bub, Scrappy rescues Oopie and revives him – only for the brat to say he wants a drink of water! The next thing Scrappy does to Oopie doesn’t bear thinking about as the end credits soon start to roll.

It’s definitely not a cartoon to show children in case they get any strange ideas about how to treat their younger brothers and sisters. The tone is very sadistic and not a little creepy though it is funny to watch Oopie being walloped again and again and coming back for more punishment. Apart from this, there isn’t much else about the cartoon, its plot and characters that makes it stand out from other cartoons of its time.

Balloon Land: a fantasy fairy land where life is fragile, death is close by and a serial killer is on the rampage

Ub Iwerks, “Balloon Land” (1935)

For sure this cartoon with the Hansel-and-Gretel morality fairy-tale plot is weird and dark, and its theme of the fragility of life and the randomness with which life is given and can be taken away by violence can be very disturbing, even for adult viewers. In Balloon Land, everything – even the trees and rocks, and the figures of famous 1930s comedians Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – is made of balloons. An inventor creates a balloon boy and a balloon girl, and gives them life by pumping air into them. He warns them that they are mere air and can be easily destroyed if they go into the forest and meet the dreaded Pincushion Man, who will pop them dead with his dreaded pins. The boy laughs at the warning and drags the girl into the forest (a sexual intercourse metaphor) where, lo and behold, they come across Pincushion Man (voiced by Billy Bletcher, who did work for Walt Disney) who has been eavesdropping on the boy boasting about how all the tales about Pincushion man are baloney. The villain chases the children and they run back into Balloon Land where they sound the town alarm by pulling all the bottles out of the mouths of babes!

When Pincushion Man convinces the village idiot to allow him to enter Balloon Land (and kills the poor fellow as well – in these old, unself-consciously racist cartoons, the black guy is always the first to die), he goes on a murderous rampage across town killing balloon people with his huge phallic pin. The balloon boy and girl call on the army to mobilise and soldiers roll out their weapons of goop-filled catapults to stop the villain dead in his tracks. The army eventually covers Pincushion Man in tree sap goop, the whole ball rolls off a cliff and Pincushion Man disappears, perhaps forever.

As might be expected of a land where everyone and everything is made of balloons, the look of the film is colourful and rubbery-wet, and balloon animals make squidgy sounds. (That’s bound to get some rubber enthusiasts more than a little excited.) Sight gags involving balloon elasticity and the tendency of balloons to fly in circles when popped abound. Inventive plot twists ensure that the film never goes stale but remains fresh and vibrant. Bletcher does an excellent job in giving gleefully malevolent life to Pincushion Man through his voice. The desperate battle that Balloon Land fights to get rid of Pincushion Man, if its citizens are to survive, gives the cartoon an edgy quality.

The film does carry a conservative message that young people should obey their elders and not challenge what they say or otherwise transgress social conventions. The balloon children learn this lesson the hard way but make amends for the trouble they cause by raising the alarm so that Balloon Land can mobilise its defences quickly. The other lesson they will learn is that life is fragile and precious, and death is never far away and could take them at any time.

Blue Cat Blues: a Tom and Jerry cartoon comments on materialism, capitalist society and the class divide

William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, “Blue Cat Blues” (1956)

With dark themes of depression, substance abuse and suicide, this Tom and Jerry cartoon demonstrates that these lovable cat-and-mouse animated shorts were not targeted solely at young children. The cartoon is unusual also in that Tom and Jerry are portrayed as friends supporting each other, and not as eternal adversaries inflicting extreme sadistic violence upon each other. Jerry also narrates (in voiceover) the sequence of events that has led Tom into an existential hell, from which there is no escape except death.

Like all other roads leading to hell, Tom’s particular paved path started innocently enough: he becomes infatuated with a lovely lady cat and is completely obsessed with winning her attentions. Unfortunately he is competing with rival cat Butch who has more piles of money than he has lives to waste. If Tom buys a bouquet, Butch lays on a wreath; if Tom buys a ring with a microscopic diamond, Butch buys a rock so large that you need to wear a welder’s mask to see it; and if Tom buys a second-hand jalopy by signing away his life and those of his descendants down to the seventh generation, Butch simply runs over it with the most impossibly lengthy coupe money can buy. No matter what sacrifices Tom makes to win over the object of his love, the lady cat is easily bought off by Butch’s manipulations.

Tom descends into abysses of depression and milk abuse, and attempts suicide by falling into a stormwater drain, but faithful pal Jerry tries to rescue him and give moral support whenever he can. In the 1950s however, there were few psychological support services for depressed cats and eventually Tom ends up on a railway line. Jerry reflects on his own good fortune of having gained romantic love – until he spies his girlfriend being unfaithful to him by being hitched to a rich mouse in his coupe with a “Just Married” sign on it!

The dark and sombre tone is lightened (but not much) by slapstick humour that relies on exaggeration to induce smiles and laughs, but too much repetition of such burlesque wears thin. Sight gags such as Tom getting drunk on milk are amusing. However the march towards doom is relentlessly brisk and very little in the animation (not particularly good) or in the characters’ backgrounds and previous adventures can stave off the inevitable as the train whistle is heard in the distance. The cartoon can be seen as a slight social commentary on shallow materialism, the damage capitalist society can do to people who try to compete against those with more power and wealth, and on the class divide that ruins Tom.

Swing You Sinners! – horror morality story goes to extremes in imaginative animation

Dave Fleischer, “Swing You Sinners!” (1930)

A bizarre little cartoon short, filled with the most startling surreal imagery and mobile rubber-limbed characters typical of cartoons in the late 1920s / early 1930s, and a horror morality story that doesn’t end well for its main character to boot, “Swing You Sinners!” has lasted extremely well for its age. The animation is as extreme as its creators’ imaginations, the technology available to them as animators and the mores of Western and US society in 1930, coming out of the Prohibition era, allow it to be. Starring Bimbo, the pet dog of famous 1930s US animators Max and Dave Fleischer’s creation Betty Boop, the cartoon is a commentary on a dissipated life. Bimbo has spent his days stealing chickens, evading the law and generally being disrespectful to authority … until one fateful night when a police officer chases him into a cemetery and Bimbo finds himself trapped in a place that locks itself up and swallows the key, and ghosts, spirits and demons gleefully emerge from graves and underground to torment him. Many sight gags that would have been familiar to 1930s audiences abound, including a stereotype of an evil Jewish fellow.

After being chased all over the graveyard by various ghoulies, and tripped up by gravestones that come alive and dance around him, Bimbo tries to escape them all by going into a barn, only to meet more creepy beings that try to kill him with knives and nooses. He jumps out of the barn but the building comes alive and pursues him to the ends of the Earth. Bimbo has no choice but to fall into Hell and everlasting agony.

There is very little story and the plot is synchronised with the jazz ragtime music soundtrack which features some quite disturbing lyrics. The cartoon moves at a very brisk pace with characters morphing from one grotesque thing into another at alarming speed and Bimbo forced to keep galloping for his life faster and faster. The animation becomes ever more deliciously deranged and intense with teams of spooks persecuting Bimbo in ways that might recall the pursuit of black people by hordes of Ku Klux Klan members of the period.

While there’s no hope of redemption for poor Bimbo, and his punishments are extreme, the cartoon itself is a fun ride through highly imaginative animation that throws all the rule books out the window and follows its own deviant path. It is this creativity that keeps the cartoon fresh and startling, even to those who have seen it many times.

The Grayzone meets Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: meeting a determined, passionate yet humble leader

Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, “The Grayzone meets Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro” (The Grayzone Project, August 2019)

Filmed by fellow Grayzone journalist colleague Ben Norton, Max Blumenthal’s interview with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose Bolivarian socialist government has been a target of regime change by the United States ever since he succeeded Hugo Chavez as Venezuela’s leader in 2013, is a highly revealing conversation about the South American country’s determination in forging ahead with a new revolutionary society and the extent of American and Western criminality in trying to destroy that society and its leaders. The interview took place outdoors in a lovely garden setting in Caracas with both journalist and leader in a relaxed mode and Maduro in his ubiquitous tracksuit jacket.

The two discuss how Maduro’s legitimacy as President was affirmed by 120 countries which also condemned US economic, trade and financial sanctions against Venezuela at the ministerial summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in mid-2019. Issues of climate change, efforts to achieve peace and avoid or prevent war, control of natural resources, and concerns over conventional, biological and chemical weapons of war were also aired. Several countries that sent representatives to the summit themselves are also subject to US sanctions, which led Blumenthal and Maduro to discuss the ways in which Venezuela is resisting the sanctions and building relationships with other sanctioned nations to resist US hybrid warfare. Maduro ticks off the ways in which Venezuela is being pressured by the US: expropriating Citgo, a US-based petrochemical corporation in which Venezuela holds a majority shareholder stake through the state energy company PDVSA; freezing over US$1.4 billion of Venezuela’s gold reserves together with the British government; and preventing Venezuela from obtaining essential foods, medicines and other much-needed goods. He expounds on current government programs aiming at supplying and distributing subsidised food products to families and communities.

Blumenthal and Maduro also discuss the US drone assassination attempt on Maduro in August 2018; Maduro links this assassination attempt to Venezuela’s politics and practice of democracy, and claims to have evidence of the identities of the people who ordered the attack on his life. He admits there is corruption within his government and that a number of senior government officials have either been charged and jailed for corruption or have fled the country for safe havens in the US and Europe. Maduro then talks about the political opposition in Venezuela and how it is controlled by Washington DC.

What viewers are likely to come away with from the interview is an impression of Maduro as a passionate and determined fighter who deeply believes in the ideals of Bolivarian socialism and whose faith in the revolution begun by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999 is firm and unshakeable. He emphasises that everything that Venezuela has striven for and achieved over the past 20 years was attained through sheer hard work, often in the face of global hostility and aggression, and through the practice of open democracy. The man’s humility – Maduro refers to himself as a humble bus driver – is in stark contrast with the cynicism and vicious behaviour of Western leaders towards their publics and beyond their nations’ borders. The interview ends on a high note of hope that the truth about Venezuela and US aggression towards the country will prevail among the American public.

Hail Satan? – fun film about a Satanic movement with a serious message about social justice and religious hypocrisy and oppression

Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” (2019)

Funny and serious at the same time, tight and well made with plenty of information on the history of religious freedom and how it has been abused by evangelical Christians and government working together (and also plenty of popular culture references), this documentary explores the agenda and development of an organisation claiming to be “religious” and to worship Satan but is actually trying to enforce religious freedom and plurality, promote social justice and highlight in a public way through staging amusing stunts the hypocrisy of government, Protestant Christianity and their allies in paying lip service to political freedoms and the separation of religion and the state. Viewers should not worry that the film shows any strange or perverted rituals as there is very little in it that can be called Satanic; what perversion or cult-like behaviour that exists in the film actually arises in the reactions of conservative evangelical Christians to the satirical stunts of self-proclaimed Satanists, and in the film’s rundown of past public scares focused on supposed Satanic ritual abuse of children which actually led to innocent people being tried, found guilty of non-existent crimes and imprisoned.

Inspired by the example of Anton Szandor LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in the late 1960s as an expression of individualism and free will, The Satanic Temple (hereafter referred to as TST) was founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, though only Lucine Greaves actually appears in the film. TST first came to public attention in 2013 with its support for a bill signed into law in Florida by Governor Rick Scott allowing students to lead prayer in school; because the law does not specify which religion the students must belong to, it logically allows Satan-worshipping students the freedom to lead prayer in school. Other activities TST chapters across the United States have engaged in include rubbish collection on beaches and highways; performing a Pink Mass over the grave of the mother of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing; setting up an after-school program called After School Satan to ensure religious freedom and diversiy are respected, and all religions get the same rights and privileges in establishing after-school clubs; and, most memorably, setting up statues of Baphomet alongside public installations of statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitol buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In amongst all this activity, Greaves struggles with running an organisation and movement that has grown very quickly, perhaps too fast for one or two persons to handle, and inevitably there are disagreements and conflicts over how TST followers should challenge hypocrisy, discrimination and injustice wherever they find it, with some people believing working within systems can change them, and others believing systems should be challenged and confronted, with the result that one early member, Jex Blackmore, ends up being excommunicated for supposedly threatening violence against President Trump. While TST imposes no more than seven tenets of belief on its followers (all of which are presented in the film), the interpretation of these proves to vary quite wildly among TST members.

Director Lane keeps the pace going briskly with smooth segues from one scenario to another, and adding snippets of an eclectic selection of horror movies, old newsreels, cartoons and rock music videos where appropriate into her narrative to illustrate a point or mock a particular point of view. One particular theme that stands out is how so much of Americans take for granted about their culture or the place of Christianity in US culture turns out to have been influenced by or even originated by Hollywood; another is that the US was founded as a secular nation and society by the so-called Founding Fathers (signatories of the US Declaration of Independence), a fact denied by evangelical Christianity.

There is not much in-depth examination of TST’s structure – indeed, the organisation comes across as spontaneous and organic, not at all hierarchical, in its network – and most of the in-fighting and conflicts of TST were left out of the film. Neither is there any information on the history of Satanism in Western society, how it originally arose and what the motivations behind it were. The organisation is presented as a fun bunch of witty and creative social activist trolls parodying and satirising the pomposity, stupidity – and often the plain viciousness and criminality – of mainstream Christian denominations. Criticisms of TST’s activities from other Satanic organisations or even from TST members themselves are non-existent. (Significantly the film’s director herself joined TST after editing the film.)

Beneath the entertainment, the stunts and TST members’ sometimes outrageous appearances – Lane makes a point of interviewing several TST members who come from all walks of life – there is a very serious message about how some mainstream forms of Christianity have suppressed freedom of religion and equality in worship, and have extended their malign beliefs and influences into everyday life to deny people control over their lives and bodies, and how people who put themselves on the front-line to fight oppression do so with very little money and support from others against insurmountable odds – yet achieve victories with courage, creativity and chutzpah.

Global hi-tech as the handmaiden of the military and intelligence agencies in “The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 359: The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know)” (July 2019)

Dense with information, presented chronologically and in a way most people will find easy to follow, this documentary tells the history of how Silicon Valley came to be the metonym for the digital technological industry complex and how its transformation from a centre of horticulture in California into the global centre of digital technologies was cultivated by American intelligence agencies and their backers with the intent to capture every single bit of information about human behaviour and actions, even in real time, all the better to predict and thus control people’s thinking and actions, and ultimately to direct society into particular paths that would serve the interests of a small transnational elite. “The Secrets …” puts forward a credible narrative that the capture and control of information about people and their thoughts and behaviours have always been the main goal of the development of the hi-tech industry and the companies associated with it – companies such as Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Apple – right from the time the Stanford Research Institute was established in 1946 by Stanford University trustees to promote innovation and economic development in northern California. Ubiquitous technologies such as the Internet are revealed to have had their origins in Pentagon or intelligence agency research to discover technologies that could be used to control and command targeted populations or to wage war against them.

The early history of Silicon Valley’s development, starting with electrical Frederick Terman (the son of educational psychologist Lewis Terman who popularised IQ testing) returning to Stanford University as dean of its School of Engineering and turning the department into a centre of excellence, is easy enough to follow. From the outset, the university and the industrial park that grew up around it and spread outwards depended heavily on military spending and connections with the US Department of Defense, popularly known as “the Pentagon”. As Terman himself fades from the scene, and the Pentagon and US intel agencies invest more monies into research in other areas of information control and surveillance technologies, the narrative becomes more complex, its direction more arbitrary, as the voice-over narration skips from the origins of Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems to the foundations of search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook, and how they are all ultimately linked to one another and to US government departments and agencies. Viewers may find they’ll need to watch the documentary a few times to digest everything but the general theme behind it is clear.

Once viewers are aware of this secret history behind the development of Silicon Valley and the Internet, they will realise that many apparent anomalies about aspects of information technology and cyberspace start to make sense: the laxity in security in many databases, especially databases of banks and other financial institutions that people depend on to make money transactions, can be explained if such laxity enables spook agencies and others to spy on money transfers and track them. If databases are prone to hacking, that is because they are intended to be so.

The conclusion to this episode of “The Corbett Report” may be despairing – it does not recommend specific actions viewers might take to protest and stop US government intrusion into their lives, nor does it suggest cyber-based alternatives to the Internet and related technologies that cannot be corrupted and undermined by the military and surveillance organisations and their masters – but at the same time, the knowledge that Big Tech is a willing hand-maiden to Western governments can serve as one weapon out of many that we the people can use against those who would try to control us.