Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.

Dial M for Murder: entertaining and witty murder mystery shows Hitchcock on a creative roll

Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” (1953)

A clever and witty murder mystery with fine acting and sparkling dialogue, “Dial M for Murder” is a highly absorbing and entertaining film. The plot does have a lot of holes and fans of television shows and movies that emphasise earnest crime scene investigations (and lots of violence and supposed hard-edged grittiness) might find fault with the way the police conduct their inquiries but the film’s focus is on underlying themes of class, gender and control which generate the thrills and the motivations for murder.

Tony Wendice (Ray Miliband) is an ex-tennis player married to a wealthy heiress Margot (Grace Kelly) who discovers that she has been having an affair with well-known crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Wendice sees an opportunity to bump off his wife and inherit her fortune when he comes across an old acquaintance from past university days Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) who is currently down-and-out and in need of money. Wendice concocts the perfect murder and explains the plan to Swann in detail, in a fine scene shot with an unusual bird’s-eye point-of-view that emphasises the interior setting of the film. Swann follows Wendice’s plan to the letter but Margot turns the tables on him by stabbing him dead with a pair of scissors. His plan in tatters, Wendice nevertheless contrives to salvage what he can of it by manipulating his wife and the police and contaminating the crime scene in such a way that Margot ends up charged, tried and convicted of blackmailing Swann and is sentenced to hang.

Halliday uses his crime novelist sleuthing skills and astonishingly comes to the correct conclusion as to what really happened but cannot prove his line of thinking is correct. Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) comes to his rescue, having initially investigated the case and deciding to return to it because there happen to be a few details involving the travels of two door-keys that don’t quite, er, key in, in the narrative that has sent Margot to prison and certain death.

Once again Hitchcock calls viewers’ attention to the unstable and often dangerous position of women vis-a-vis the men in their lives who control their money and often their fates. Kelly’s Margot is a demure and dependent woman who defers a lot to Tony and Mark. The one time in the film in which she truly takes charge of her life is when she is fighting for her life and she unknowingly wrests control away not just from Swann but from Tony; from this point on, their marriage is finished and it’s only a question of whose downfall is faster and whose is more permanent. Despite Kelly’s restrained acting, her character is never really free and at the end of the film she is no more changed for the better than she was at the beginning.

Miliband steals the show as the slimy and controlling Tony Wendice desperate for money and willing to go to any lengths to get it: he’s not above stalking and then blackmailing Swann, and his attitude towards Swann and Margot after Swann’s death is chilling despite the smarmy charm. Cummings and Dawson play their characters in workman-like mode and Williams lights up the screen with his droll inspector character who displays unexpected depths of resourcefulness.

None of the characters can be said to be moral – even Williams isn’t above deception – and though justice is seen to be done, it’s a grubby patch-up job. The police and court system are revealed as less than impartial and subject to manipulation by a clever sociopath. Only Williams’ own doggedness saves the day but the future is not necessarily “happy ever after” for Margot and Halliday. One day their relationship too will lose its sparkle, they may drift apart and Margot may find solace in another man’s arms, and the unhappy sequence of events may play out once again.

The action takes place almost wholly in one room which gives the film its claustrophobic air. Effective use is made of lighting to increase suspense and terror. The suspense is maintained throughout the whole film in spite of the light plot. Hitchcock pays great attention to details, right down to the clothes worn by Kelly, starting off with a bright red dress that is replaced by blander and duller clothing as the film progresses. In short, this film shows Hitchcock on a creative roll that was to peak in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

A cheap production and crude narrative make “Batman: the Killing Joke” very unfunny

Sam Lim and Bruce Timm, “Batman: the Killing Joke” (2016)

That “Batman: the Killing Joke” has lasted nearly 30 years as a milestone in the history of Batman’s adventures – because it contains the story of the Joker’s origins – is not necessarily a good reason to make a film of it. Neither is the fact that Alan Moore, writer of such classic comics / graphic novels as “The Watchmen”, wrote the comic a good reason either. Still, DC Comics thought these and other reasons were enough to finance an animated film version of the story, and the result is a tremendous disappointment.

The original story was very short and frankly very flimsy and shaky in its plot and logic, so in its filmed version it is combined with another story about Batgirl pursuing a psychopathic criminal called Paris Franz. Yes, it’s that kind of story with not very witty shots at humour. The combination though turns the whole film into Batgirl’s story which was probably not the original intention and calls into question Batman’s motives for pursuing the Joker in the main plot with a suggestion they are not quite as noble as in the original graphic novel. An unwelcome and unpalatable sex scene is introduced which sours Batman and Batgirl’s working relationship. None of the characters undergoes much in the way character development; even the Joker’s own origin story, intended to make of him a character one can sympathise with, fails to elucidate the darker and more manic aspects of his nature.

The plot follows Batgirl attempting to round up Paris Franz and his henchmen who are supposedly working for Franz’s gangland boss uncle. The reality is that Franz himself is planning to usurp his uncle as the local Gotham City capo di capi. Batman warns Batgirl that she is dealing with a psychologically disturbed criminal and tells her he will deal with Franz himself. Naturally this riles Batgirl and she is determined to get Franz once and for all. In her day job as Barbara Gordon, working at Gotham City Library, Batgirl is pestered by a co-worker curious to know who her current boyfriend is; she tells him cryptically that he is her yoga teacher.

Batgirl does end up capturing Franz (and at the same time rescues Batman) in a tortuous way that has her questioning her motivation to continue as Batgirl. She hangs up her cape permanently but has only a brief time to enjoy her new life outside work before an even more deranged and dangerous criminal – the Joker himself – cripples her and abducts her father, Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Joker subjects Gordon to physical and psychological abuse in his theme-park den. In the meantime, Barbara Gordon is hospitalised and her doctors tell Batman she will never walk again. Batman then hunts down the Joker who then tries to force Batman into the mental maelstrom he put Jim Gordon through earlier.

Through the main story of the film, there is interspersed in fragments the Joker’s own origin story, as remembered by the Joker himself. The Joker does forewarn the audience throughout the film that his memory is unreliable and that he prefers to think of his past as multiple choices: this means that the story as presented (and frankly it’s not all that interesting or plausible) need not be taken as gospel.

Batman is never more than a mostly one-dimensional shadow figure representing order, stability and control in a corrupt society on the edge of social breakdown and chaos; in a world such as this, he can never allow himself self-doubt and relaxing his strict personal moral code is out of the question. Compassion for the Joker’s plight would surely invite comparison between himself and the Joker, and Batman would see in that compassion a potential weakness in himself that the Joker would exploit for all it was worth. This limits Batman as a character and the focus of the film must therefore fall on other characters and the action of the plot. The Joker revels in chaos and madness as expressions of his hate and revenge against an unjust and uncaring world that has robbed him of love and respect, and denied him his identity, physical health and body. He correctly sees that Batman has suffered severe personal trauma and tries to draw him into his world as a fellow sufferer. Batman’s own restrictions would trap him in the Joker’s world and here is where Commissioner Gordon offers a way out as a representative of justice, the rule of law, the establishment of moderation and proper boundaries between the two extremes represented by Batman and the Joker, and the possibility of healing and setting right a dysfunctional world. The action that binds the three men though is not substantial and all it really highlights is that Gordon is made of different moral substance than the Joker, and the audience must look to something beyond the bounds of the film that can explain the Joker’s unstable tendencies and criminal actions.

Although Barbara Gordon / Batgirl is a minor character in the main story, the inclusion of the Paris Franz teaser story turns her into a tragic figure robbed of a normal life and a future; unfortunately viewers do not see her recovery, rehabilitation and resurrection, and only see her contemplating her new role as Oracle, the leader of the all-female Birds of Prey crime-fighting team. One would have liked to see how Barbara was able to recover from the crippling and abuse inflicted on her by the Joker and his minions, and what this would have implied about her strength of character.

The animation is crude and typical of “Batman: the Animated Series” starring Kevin Conroy as Batman’s voice and Mark Hamill for the Joker. (Indeed the two actors voice their respective characters here.) The cheap style of animation is not adequate enough to portray the characters and their psychological complexity. What is unfortunately implied by the cheap production and the crudely constructed narrative of the movie is that DC Comics has unthinkingly tried to cash in on one of its more profitable franchises to milk it for more profit without thought or care for the Batman universe or its fans.

Under Capricorn: a psychological romantic melodrama of intense emotion, suspense and redemption

Alfred Hitchcock, “Under Capricorn” (1949)

Set in the early days of the British colony of Sydney in Australia, “Under Capricorn” turns out to be an intense psychological romantic drama of hope, redemption and the possibilities of renewal. A new governor arrives in the Sydney colony in the early 1830s, bringing along his cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who hopes to make his fortune and return to Ireland a prosperous gentleman. Almost immediately he meets ex-con Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who, after serving his sentence of transportation for having killed his brother-in-law, has become a prosperous land-owner. Sam offers to put up Adare in his mansion where Adare meets Sam’s depressed alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman). After discovering that Adare knows Hattie through his sister Diana, Sam suggests that Adare try to talk and humour Hattie in the hope that she will become the spirited woman she once was. Patiently Adare draws Hattie out of her cocoon and fears, and teaches her how to deal with her recalcitrant servants. Hattie’s new relationship with the convict servants threatens however the position of her housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) who secretly loves Sam, so she plots to get rid of both Adare and Hattie by insinuating to Sam that they are having an affair and by poisoning Hattie.

Milly’s plotting leads to a shooting accident that nearly kills Adare and puts Sam in a difficult position where he faces returning to prison and losing his wealth and property. This leads Hattie to confess publicly that she, not Sam, killed her brother because he had tried to break up her relationship with Sam (as Sam was a lowly stable-boy at the time and she was an aristocrat) and as a result she faces being returned to Ireland to stand trial. Adare is subsequently faced with a choice to clear the Flusky couple’s names and consequently having to return to Ireland promptly without a fortune to his name, or stand aside and see Sam and Hattie separated, their marriage destroyed and Hattie returning alone to Ireland where she faces being condemned to capital punishment.

Plenty of melodrama abounds and Hattie herself faces several threats to her life and sanity. The acting is good if sometimes a bit florid and the dialogue is over-elaborate and too genteel. Hitchcock’s direction is marked by meticulous attention to historical accuracy in visual details and long takes in which the camera sweeps from one scene to the next so that viewers virtually drink in the colour and lavish detail of the historical settings.

Aside from the visual and technical details, what gives this film its attraction is its typically Hitchcockian obsessions: the precarious status of women in society and their dependence, regardless of their social class, on being married and their husbands; the hope for renewal and redemption that can be dashed by past historical ghosts; and the plot that revolves around an irascible, flawed man who is wrongly accused of a crime and is forced to pay for it, and the effects that punishment has on him. Hattie appears an innocent woman controlled by her husband and a sinister housekeeper who wants love and security no less than Hattie does. Class conflict is present as well: the reason the Fluskys are in Australia is that they have upset the social order with their love and a low-born stable groom is presumed to have killed his social superior.

Eventual redemption comes to the characters who have sacrificed a great deal, though it means that secret loves must forever remain secret or die. There is conflict between duty and maintaining social order and stability on the one hand; and on the other, natural longing and desire, and the potential for social disruption inherent within. It is this dilemma that faces Charles Adare, Hattie, Sam and Milly, and one in which each choice and its alternative are irrevocable, and their consequences are heart-break and sorrow. At the same time there is a possibility of renewal and hope for new futures.

AntiRacist Hitler: a subversive cartoon satirising Western social policies and hypocrisy

Matt the White Rabbit, “AntiRacist Hitler” (2013)

A subversive animation short satirising open-borders immigration policies and multiculturalist agendas in Western countries, most of which also hypocritically support Israel’s own racist policies and genocide against Palestinians, this cartoon posits what would happen if Israel were forced to have similiar social policies imposed on it. The former German chancellor Adolf Hitler, having apparently been in hiding in Argentina for over half a century (which might explain his youthfulness and the unchanged moustache), returns to the West and announces before an amazed audience that he no longer believes in Aryan racial supremacy and now embraces multiculturalism and diversity. He vows to bring diversity to the whole wide world and selects Israel, bastion of Zionist exclusivity, as the place where to start. Miraculously elevating himself to head of the Israeli government (one assumes he had to send the entire fruitcake Knesset somewhere out of the way … maybe not remote railway terminuses in rural eastern and southern Poland), the new Hitler opens the country’s borders to all the displaced peoples of the world. Over time, the new arrivals remake Israel’s urban landscapes into their own, their languages replace Hebrew and they intermarry with Israel’s Jewish population until Israelis are no longer Jewish. The last remaining Jewish citizen in the country runs into Hitler’s office and exclaims that Israel is no longer Jewish, at which Hitler (barely looking up from eating lunch) murmurs that he had not foreseen such a scenario when he first opened the borders.

While the motivations behind the creation of “AntiRacist Hitler” could be racist and discriminatory towards non-white people, the way in which the new Hitler uses the “diversity” agenda and supporting social policies to eliminate Jews should at least give us all pause to consider how similar policies and programs have been used by Western governments in the past to undermine social democracy, workers’ rights and working conditions and to denigrate those protesting against the weakening of worker protections as fascist or racist. The outsourcing of manufacturing from Western shores to Third World countries offering cheap labour in conditions where workers’ rights are suppressed viciously can be seen as a parallel policy to open-borders immigration policies: ultimately everyone, local people, immigrants and overseas workers alike, stand to lose whatever rights they had and whatever social and industrial democratic progress they had previously made. Democracy overall has receded under the onslaught of the corporate state and the individuals and corporations supporting it.

Where the cartoon possibly falls short is in implying that Jews (or an elite made up of Jews) are actively encouraging multicultural “melting pot” or “salad bowl” societies in Western countries. Such a blanket assumption opens the door to racist infiltration into and eventual domination of individual countries’ historical narratives of how they initially encouraged immigration and what their original reasons for doing so were; in most cases, the reason was that governments determined sufficient manpower was lacking for their nations’ economic development and decided to import foreign workers to overcome worker shortages. In some countries such as Germany, these foreign guest workers were not expected to stay permanently and they and their families were supposed to return home when they had fulfilled their work contracts. To that end, the host countries failed to provide education for these workers in the host language, culture and history, and as a result these workers and their families ended up alienated and disadvantaged.

In other countries that imported foreigners to fill their factories, programs to assimilate these people and to teach them the languages of their host nations existed but since the 1970s when the neoliberal economic paradigm became supreme, such programs have been squeezed for funding. At the same time, the corporate world in these countries continually wants more foreign workers to come, regardless of the prevailing economic situation and whether there are enough jobs for both foreigners and locals. In many nations where manufacturing has now ceased to exist, the only way money can circulate is through financial bubbles including property bubbles … which means that people have to be persuaded to take out more mortgages … and if the present population is already saturated with excess debt, then immigrants and refugees are the next targets.

What would have made the cartoon’s message even more biting would be the fact that many of the poor flooding into the new Hitlerian Israel are people displaced by wars and invasions instigated by Israel through its lobbying activities in Western governments. The invasions of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011 onwards) by the US and its allies have the effect of removing political and economic challenges to Israel as the only or the most advanced / democratic country in the Middle East.

Ultimately the cartoon’s message is very simplistic and reduces a complex issue to a level where it and its creators might be accused of racism (unjustly perhaps) but its use of a known historical figure notorious for policies of genocide to demonstrate how superficially anti-racist social policies might in fact be racist, even fascist, is sobering and thought-provoking.

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

New York, New York: a homage to and a subversion of Hollywood / Broadway glamour, fame and artifice

Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)

One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.

The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.

Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.

The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.

Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.