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.

“Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” – a brief look at news of leaked documents concerning a popular Brazilian politician

Lee Camp “Leaked Court Docs Upending Brazil!” (Redacted Tonight, June 2019)

Along with his weekly “Redacted Tonight” news / current affairs program, comedian / journalist Lee Camp occasionally uploads short rants … I mean, short talk pieces in a “Viewers’ Questions” series to the Redacted Tonight channel on Youtube.com. In this particular recent short piece, half of which is given over to answering viewer questions on other topics, he talks briefly about the current political upheaval and crisis in Brazil created by the publication of a huge trove of leaked documents and emails concerning the imprisonment of popular socialist-lite politician Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2016. The documents were leaked to the online US-based news publisher The Intercept, specifically to Glenn Greenwald who lives in Rio de Janeiro.

The leaked papers demonstrate that the prosecution of Lula da Silva, running for Brazil’s Presidency in 2018, had been politically motivated with the aim of removing him from the Presidential campaign so that Jair Bolsonaro, representing extreme fascist political forces in the country, could win the election. The judge (Sergio Fernando Moro) who presided over Lula’s trial and the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations, of which Lula’s trial was part, was shown to have (illegally) worked with the prosecutors in their investigations that led to Lula’s conviction and imprisonment. As of the time of Camp’s piece, there were still documents being released that may reveal more about Moro’s biased and illegal interference in the proceedings designed to prevent Lula da Silva from contesting the Presidency.

The time allocated to this “Viewers’ Questions” episode doesn’t permit a detailed look at the recent political situation in Brazil and how that developed over time, starting with Lula da Silva’s previous tenure as President (2003 – 2010) and Dilma Rousseff’s subsequent Presidency which ended in 2016 with her impeachment, and what those two leaders managed to achieve for Brazil, that would have given viewers some background on why those leaders are hated so much by Brazilian fascists and their supporters in the middle and upper classes. Lula da Silva and Rousseff carried out programs of cautious social reforms and change that benefited the poor in a way that tried to accommodate the interests of the middle and upper classes, build political consensus and emphasise inclusiveness. However these layers of Brazil’s society turned against even this gradual policy of social reform and change, and through personalities like Sergio Moro used a wide-ranging criminal investigation of corruption in the country’s state petroleum company Petrobras (Operation Car Wash) to target and ensnare Lula da Silva and Rousseff.

The role of the United States government in assisting the fascists to target Lula and Rousseff might be relevant, in that the US ambassador (Liliana Ayalde) to Brazil at the time of Rousseff’s impeachment had previously been US ambassador to Paraguay at the time that country’s president was impeached in circumstances similar to those prevailing during Rousseff’s impeachment.

The rest of the episode is given over to Redacted Tonight viewers’ questions about topics from previous episodes including the possibility of Australian journalist Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to answer to trumped-up espionage charges that could put him away in prison for up to 170 years! This topic in itself deserves its own episode, given that that extradition seems a certainty once Assange serves his current 1-year jail sentence in Britain for previously skipping bail.

While this “Viewers’ Questions” episode is informative on a superficial level at least, I do wish the entire episode had been longer to give its main topic a little more depth and to do justice to some of the other viewer’s questions raised.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

Borderless: European refugee / migrant crisis harbours a sinister agenda

Caolan Robertson and George Llewellyn-John, “Borderless” (2019)

Lauren Southern is a political activist and independent journalist notorious for expressing views considered to be white-nationalist and borderline racist / xenophobic. However this documentary on the European refugee and immigration crisis is free of ideology and criticism, and Southern (together with her 2-person camera crew) interviews as many people involved in the crisis as possible to get an understanding of the scale of the crisis: these people include refugees and migrants in camps in Morocco, and in Lesvos and other parts of Greece; a homeless migrant from Mali in Paris; EU citizens including a Greek farmer whose farm was overrun by people traffickers and smugglers; people working for NGOs (non-government organisations) in refugee camps supposedly assisting refugees; vigilante militia members in Bulgaria on the lookout for illegal migrants; and an Irish investigative journalist who speaks frankly about the profits that smuggling networks can earn from illegal migration for the people who control them. Southern’s work takes her and her crew across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and to Ireland and Paris.

Initially the film is slow and appears quite amateurish as Southern waits late at night for refugees and migrants to arrive at a beach in northwestern Turkey where people smugglers will take them on a possibly hazardous voyage in flimsy dinghy boats to Lesvos island. After that episode, when the film cuts to Morocco, the pace picks up and the film has more focus and direction, though the unnecessarily dramatic music is intrusive and jarring. From this point on, viewers begin to get a sense of what Southern is working towards: that the refugee and migration crisis, in which huge numbers of people are forced to move from war-torn and/or impoverished areas in the Middle East, western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into a Europe struggling with its own problems of austerity economics, high unemployment, excessive property speculation and homelessness, appears to be part of a sinister plan created and engineered by an unseen cabal of people who actually profit financially and otherwise (such as perhaps stealing vacated land sitting atop natural gas and oil deposits) by huge shifts of populations, with no regard for how different groups of people with very different histories, cultures, values and traditions can live and work together in crowded conditions and with limited resources.

Alarming moments abound through the documentary: in northern Greece, migrants from as far away as Afghanistan tell of daily fights and violence in their camp and one man says that ISIS fighters have infiltrated the camp by pretending to be refugees and are on the lookout for him (he is an atheist) and others like Christians or Kurdish people who refuse to submit to their Wahhabi brand of Islam; members of NGOs funded by the UN or the EU admit teaching migrants how to fudge their personal details and commit fraud in order to enter Europe, and how they themselves benefit financially from aiding and abetting the human trafficking; African refugees and migrants in Morocco pour out their hopes and dreams of work and success in the European countries they strive to enter; and several migrants in camps in Greece and Morocco admit that they wished they had stayed home. Where migrants find the thousands of euros or their equivalent to pay smugglers to take them abroad is never mentioned but from the way some migrants speak and the way they try to dress and comport themselves, one suspects they may have come from middle class backgrounds or pulled some strings. One odd thing about the migrants that might strike viewers is how very few women, children and elderly people there are in the camps; another odd thing is that some migrants have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

In Brussels, MEPs Southern interviews admit that the EU wastes huge amounts of money in driving an agenda that forces open border policies on EU member nations with no thought for how individual countries cope with housing migrants, feeding them and giving them work at the same time that many of their own citizens are homeless, suffer food insecurity and cannot find work in conditions already strained by austerity policies that have shrunk economic and business activity. Southern travels to Wicklow, a rural town in Ireland, which is trying to cope with an influx of asylum seekers holed up in a hotel. The Wicklow locals lament the irreversible changes forced on them by a local government council that refuses to listen to them, and the asylum seekers themselves see the homelessness, the lack of work, the despair and the suspicion surrounding them.

While the film’s conclusion is an untidy mix of images from previous parts of the documentary accompanied by the tiresome muzak soundtrack, Southern’s address to the audience, in which she admits her astonishment at the scale and complexiy of the crisis and the greed, manipulation and criminality involved in what is virtually a giant global human-trafficking operation, on par with (and superseding) the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Ireland and Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries, and her realisation that refugees, migrants and the peoples of the host nations alike have been deceived and played for fools by a small group of what she calls “evil men” (in reality, governments and their puppet masters), is remarkable in its stark honesty. Southern herself has come a long way in her own research and discoveries, and while she may still express views considered antithetical to the bland and shallow values under the Identity Politics / Diversity umbrella, at least these views are informed by reality on the ground.

Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them has visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Investigating trauma and how a society deals with uncomfortable truths in “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate”

Anthony DiMieri, “America in denial: Gabor Maté on the psychology of Russiagate” (The Grayzone Project, May 2019)

For two years from the time Donald Trump won the US Presidency, the United States has been gripped in a collective hysteria over his campaign’s supposed collusion with the Russian government to capture the nation’s leadership from his rival Hillary Clinton. It was only in April 2019 that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after conducting an investigation from May 2017 onwards, finally submitted his report to US Attorney General William Barr (and published it in redacted form in April) in which he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the Trump campaign with collusion or coordination with the Kremlin. The curious thing about Russiagate is not that this hysteria and obsession with Russian wrongdoing or interference in US politics existed at all but that it lasted as long as it did across the political spectrum, to the extent that nearly the entire nation believed in a rumour that, when exposed to light, had no legs; and moreover, when the rumour was exposed, so many people erupted in anger and disbelief and refused to believe that they had been deceived. Despite Russia’s protestations that it had never interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, the lie continues; if anything, it has become a permanent part of the nation’s cultural belief set that Russia is continuing to undermine American politics, even when evidence can be found that other nations are trying to influence US politics and policy.

To this end, Grayzone journalist Aaron Maté sat down with his father Gabor Maté, a physician and expert on mental health and the effect that childhood traumas can have on future adult life, to discuss the Russiagate phenomenon and how the election of Donald Trump as US President was received by thousands if not millions of Americans as a traumatic and emotionally scarring event. The half-hour conversation between the two ranges across various cultural and social psychological phenomena that have shaped American thinking over decades, perhaps even the past two centuries, that have come together not only to predispose Americans into believing that a foreign enemy they have long been taught to fear is attacking them using underhanded methods but to invest considerable effort into maintaining that belief even when it has been shot down. Psychological projection of one’s own sins onto another, scapegoating, the cult of victimhood and that peculiarly American custom of reducing and personalising complex politics and history into one person and making that person the epitome of Evil, with the result that US foreign policy ends up focusing on taking that person out, leaving chaos behind once that person is gone and having either a vague plan or no plan at all for reconstruction and rebuilding a defeated rival country: these are topics discussed in a fairly cursory manner, with no examination of how such American characteristics might have arisen in the past, and what contexts and institutions helped to birth those characteristics.

Gabor Maté comes close to choosing Hollywood as a major source of the various narratives that encourage Americans to adopt quite infantile views of how the world operates, focusing on individuals with particular psychologies and powers rather than on the long-term sociological processes that shape individuals’ mentalities and careers and which push them in certain directions. In such narratives, people and nations are either Good or Evil, America is always on the side of Good and those who oppose America are always Evil, and Good always vanquishes Evil. For many Americans, Donald Trump is clearly Evil and so it is natural that he and that other personification of Evil, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, should have put their heads together and plotted to make Trump President. (Of course there are also many Americans who regard Trump as Good.) It is a pity that father and son Maté do not trace this thinking back to the days of the Pilgrims and other early settlers who compared themselves to God’s Chosen People sent to America to tame it (and exterminate the indigenous people who owned the land) and claim it for their own. The journalist and his physician Dad unfortunately do not examine the role of Hollywood, mainstream news media and education in constantly repeating the idea of America as God’s Chosen and Exceptional Nation, to whom all other nations bow down and regard as their spiritual and moral better.

The interview also ranges across the reality of America meddling in other nations’ affairs to the extent of choosing those nations’ leaders, forcing them to sack leaders America does not like or even carrying out regime-change activities that include violence, invasion and warfare. Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate Democrat claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia, comes in for examination as a saviour supposed to deliver America from the clutches of Evil by finding incriminating evidence that will suffice for an impeachment of Trump. People clearly had unrealistic expectations of what Mueller was supposed to achieve and the actual result would have been traumatic for them.

I would like to be able to say that the conversation between the two men was bright and scintillating but while some of the issues they brought up were interesting and thought-provoking, their actual conversation droned quite considerably and keeping up with their monotone without feeling drowsy was hard. Fortunately a transcript of the interview is available at The Grayzone Project website.

At the end Gabor Maté says that being disillusioned and facing the truth is much better than continuing to believe in illusions and risk being traumatised when the illusions do not work out the way they are expected to; but beyond seeing the truth, he does not say how people should come to terms with the truth and the trauma it causes, and how they should act on the truth and become more open-minded and less inclined to follow fantasy illusions promoted by Hollywood, governments, academia and the news media.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.