Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

The Matrix: film trapped in formula Hollywood action-thriller matrix of convoluted plot, trite message and flat characters

Larry and Andy Wachowski, “The Matrix” (1999)

Strip “The Matrix” of its sci-fi trimmings, its computer FX and choreographed martial arts and gunfight scenes and what do we have left? We have a bare film that conforms to the Hollywood matrix of convoluted plot and plot twists, most of which come near the film’s end, a bit of romance here, some philosophical mumbo-jumbo there in parts, undeveloped character stereotypes and a banal message about being your own person, making your own rules, living your own life and having the freedom to do that without restrictions imposed on you by society. Computer programmer / corporate wage slave Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who moonlights as hacker Neo has long been puzzled by messages about “The Matrix” appearing on his PC. He visits a club and meets a fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who can introduce him to Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) who in turn can reveal what The Matrix refers to. Sinister agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) turn up to prevent Neo from meeting Morpheus. After a few upsets caused by these guys, Neo meets Morpheus who encourages him of his own free will to know more about the world he lives in before he, Morpheus, can reveal what The Matrix really is.

Not surprisingly the revelation about Neo’s real world is very disheartening and he agrees to help Morpheus and Trinity change their universe. Of course, being a newcomer, Neo must undergo training and discover what abilities he has before he can be thrown into the deep business end of saving humanity from its oppressors. As the story progresses, the film’s pace quickens and its atmosphere changes from grungy noir to bright and colourful. No wonder the good guys and bad guys alike insist on wearing boring black shades and clothes for most of the film – all that sudden light and colour must hurt their eyes and fashion sense.

While watching Neo beating the crap out of Weaving’s Smith and his myrmidons is fun and the computer animation is slick and smooth, I did find the film very empty of substance in both plotting and characterisation. Of course with an action film featuring a winding plot, character development tends to take secondary priority – there’s too much plot for viewers to follow to pay any attention to how actors interpret and portray their characters – and the demands that Hollywood studios make of films these days to turn over loads of quick bucks don’t favour slow-burn character development. As a result the quality of acting is neither here nor there as all that’s needed from the actors is to go from A to Z and the whole cast does that smoothly. At least Fishburne does passingly well doing nothing in a late scene where he is tied up with electrodes attached to his head. The early oppressive noir atmosphere drops away once Neo re-enters The Matrix as a rebel and the film slips into pow-pow-pow action mode with kung fu fights and shooting sprees breathlessly piling on one after the other with no let-up in pace. As for tension, there’s no tension at all: the Wachowski brothers have no idea how to meld music and editing techniques to the story and action and the film’s characters are so blank that they invite no viewer sympathy for their sufferings and travails.

The premise behind “The Matrix” at least poses some interesting thoughts about the nature of reality and the role of religion and philosophy in everyday life. “Reality” for most humans turns out to be a computer construct created by machines which itself calls into question the nature of the relationship between humans and technology. Neo discovers his role in life is to enlighten his fellow humans about their “reality” and their role in it. Morpheus and Trinity believe without hesitation that Neo may be a messiah prophesied by a mysterious woman called the Oracle (Gloria Forster) and this plot development in itself throws up a paradox: Morpheus and Trinity have fought to get out of The Matrix only to willingly enter into another “matrix” which, like The Matrix, limits their thinking and behaviour. Neo also falls into this new “matrix” and experiences some inner struggle to get out of it in order to save Morpheus’s life. Reeves portrays little of the angst Neo goes through to convince himself and Trinity that they should be thinking for themselves and not simply follow what Morpheus or the Oracle says; Reeves’s blankness throughout the film may be a deliberate decision on the Wachowskis’ part to show how Neo, saviour or not he may be, is still close in psychology to the machine world he grew up and was nurtured in. The film could have delved more into Morpheus and Trinity’s belief about Neo and Neo’s discomfort with the trust they place in him and turned the threesome’s differences into an underlying conflict and investigation about religious faith and how some if not all individuals seem to need religion or belief in an external power to give meaning and motivation to their lives. A minor character, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), serves as a counter-balance to Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in that though freed from The Matrix, he actually desires to return there, seeing it as more real than the depressive reality that he endures rather than lives, and throws in his lot with Agent Smith to betray the other rebels.

As it is, all “The Matrix” can say is that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be bound up by rules they don’t understand or care much for. Problem is, if you’re traipsing along and a fence appears in front of you and you want to leap over it or tear it down, at least you want to find out why it’s there before you jump over it … and land straight on top of a buried landmine that blows your legs off. With freedom, there come consequences and responsibility to yourself and to others … and the ways that Neo, Morpheus and Trinity deal with their freedom are treated too lightly by the Wachowskis compared to the attention the directors have given to the look of the film, its technical aspects and its adherence to the action thriller formula. Needless to say, Neo and his friends and enemies alike, having escaped one Matrix, are trapped in another Matrix they have no hope of escaping from … the Hollywood Matrix that forces them to slave  in a tired plot stereotype peddling an overdone and trite message for big bucks.

One useful lesson viewers can take away from “The Matrix” is that the world we live in and take for granted itself may be as much of an artificial construct based on lies and propaganda designed to keep a small elite in power while the rest of us slave away and fill our lives with cheap pleasures, as is Neo’s world. As more people question the actions and motivations of politicians, corporations, the global banking and finance industry and other “leaders” in social, cultural, political and economic forums, it becomes clearer that we are indeed living in The Matrix where concepts of democracy, freedom, security and equality among others are exploited to keep us as ignorant and infantile slaves.

A Chairy Tale: fable about importance of communication, respect and equality

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, “A Chairy Tale” (1957)

A delightful little number that even young children will appreciate, this Canadian short is a fable about communication and the importance of respect and equality among people. The film is very simple and is set on an unadorned stage with a dark curtain in the background. Actor Claude Jutra wants to sit down on a wooden chair to read his book but the chair has a mind of its own and refuses to be sat upon. There follows an amusing sequence in which Jutra chases the chair around the stage Keystone-Kops style, fights with it, rejects it, tries to humour and placate it, dances a tango with it. and finally is made to understand that the chair just doesn’t want to be treated like, well, part of the furniture.

The method of animating the chair involved the use of strings attached to it as if the chair were a marionette puppet and then varying the speed of the camera throughout filming so that in the finished product, parts of the film whiz by fast and other parts are at normal speed. Pixilation, a form of stop motion animation used to bring together live and animated figures in the pre-CGI age, gives a slightly more stilted and less naturalistic quality to Jutra’s movements but otherwise he works very hard and moves freely and expressively.

Musical accompaniment by Ravi Shankar on sitar and Chatur Lal on tablas provides the only sounds viewers hear. The music provides an extra layer to the film’s story in that the sitar and tablas are continually conversing with each other in addition to fulfilling the usual counterpointing role of highlighting aspects of the film’s story. Perhaps the music could have been even more relevant to the film if the tabla player had been allowed to play solo in some parts of the film so that his drumming takes a lead rather than a support role. The sitar is lively, sinuous and resonant; the tablas are hard, dense and blunt and don’t’ resonate quite so well so perhaps the tablas need more “space” in the music and the sitars less for the instruments to sound equal.

The structure of the plot mirrors stages in a confrontation that leads to exhaustion, consideration of alternative strategies and finally negotiation and agreement. A lesson to be learnt here is that aggression and violence to get your own way will always fail and it’s better to listen to the other party’s grievances. Seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view is another lesson young viewers will take with them. When every strategy is exhausted and the film milks its conflict for all it’s worth, agreement and compromise are possible and the film ends. The film’s moral can be extended to other relationships including love and marriage, and to relationships between and among groups in society.

WikiSecrets: questionable motives and agenda in documentary that smears whistle-blower

Marcela Gaviria, “WikiSecrets” (2011)

Took in this documentary on SBS1 last night on the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier arrested in May 2010 f0r allegedly passing confidential US national defence information to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The documentary mixes interviews with various talking heads including Wikileaks main man Julian Assange, close associates of Manning himself and the odd interviewee or two who probably are more deserving of time in the slammer than Manning.  Manning himself is not interviewed. The documentary covers the soldier’s background in a general way before detailing his involvement in the US army as an intelligence analyst and how he was able to download masses of classified information and US diplomatic cables and pass them onto to others. Correspondent Martin Smith acts as narrator as well as interviewer and together with voice-over and interviews puts together a story in which a troubled young man, at odds with his society and in particular his employer, gets some kind of revenge on the bullies who have tormented him over the years by leaking secrets that will embarrass them and the government that condones what they have done to him even if it means risking his country’s security.

Lasting an hour, the documentary has an earnest style and is put together simply with some live-action recreations of what Manning might have done mixed in with interviews and some film clips. This simple style gives the documentary an air of sincerity and objectivity that disguise its aims. Issues such as the importance of national security over transparency, accountability and the public interest are presented simplistically in a way that suggests American people’s interests and the need for openness in a democracy are subordinate priorities to the needs of the US government, whatever they are (which the documentary won’t tell us, obviously). The overall view is that Manning has done wrong and should be prosecuted for jeopardising US national interests. But as Assange himself more or less says to Smith, the best way to protect secrets is not to have them in the first place. What he also could have thrown at Smith (who seems antagonistic towards Assange compared to his gentle treatment of other interviewees) is that if the US government needs to keep secrets, then what for? If the secrets are to protect the public, shouldn’t the public know what they’re being protected against?

The documentary suggests that Manning’s homosexuality played a large part in his alienation from the US military and its culture, in particular its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which prevents gay men and women from being open about their sexuality. This “blame the victim” stand conveniently lets the hierarchy within the US military and the US Department of Defense off the hook for not changing the culture of the armed forces to be more inclusive and accepting of people who are otherwise capable of carrying out military duties. Manning is portrayed as a loose cannon at war with inner demons which he may have had but this skewed opinion does not necessarily have any bearing on why he decided to download particular data in vast quantities and feed information to Wikileaks. Most likely in his work he saw evidence of illegal activity and other acts that compromise democracy and freedoms as set out in the US Bill of Rights and that his sense of right and wrong led him to act as he did. Usually when people are bullied or discriminated against in ways Manning might have been, and counselling has had limited success, they turn to drink, drugs or suicide; in some very rare cases, they may carry out acts of sabotage or violence against the people who have bullied them.

Manning’s present incarceration and abuse are treated cursorily in the film; Smith doesn’t mention the name of Manning’s lawyer let alone speak to him. The documentary fails to say that during his time in solitary confinement, Manning was humiliated by being forced to appear naked during inspections, was often deprived of sleep or had his prescription glasses taken away from him

There is no mention in the documentary of what Manning might have seen, heard or experienced in Iraq that led him to do what he did. Apparently to Gaviria and Smith it’s as if the sufferings of Iraqi civilians and the hardships of US and other soldiers and their families count for very little against the embarrassment Manning might have caused his government. There is no mention of people who might have died because of Manning’s actions. The film even fails to make much of a case against Assange for not redacting the names of informants and others on US diplomatic cases and other classified documents. People may have died as a result of Assange’s decision but no names are brought to his (and our) attention.

Ultimately viewers are no closer to knowing what Manning actually did that was wrong other than to follow his conscience. Manning may have committed a crime or crimes but the documentary doesn’t reveal what they are. Viewers learn very little about Wikileaks itself and what it actually does; most of what the documentary reveals about the organisation is petty differences between Assange and his deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg who left Wikileaks to set up OpenLeaks. Assange’s responses to Smith’s questioning are brief compared to some other interviewees’ responses which suggest some creative editing has been used to make the Wikileaks founder look bad.

What also makes “WikiSecrets” look bad is its failure to compare Manning’s actions with that of the person who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the Wall Street Journal as a way of punishing her husband Joseph Wilson for reporting that Niger was not exporting uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. Manning’s “crimes” start to look more like the whistle-blower actions they are. The person who leaked Plame’s identity is guilty of a crime for the same reason “WikiSecrets” attempts to paint Assange in a bad way over his initial refusal to redact the names of informants: Plame’s exposure potentially put the lives and careers of diplomats, businesspeople, workers and others plus their families, not just informants, at risk. One has to question the motives and agenda behind the making of “WikiSecrets” in this light.

 

Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

Melodrama, spy thriller hi-jinks and conservation activism a strong mix in “The Cove”

Louie Psihoyos, “The Cove” (2009)

This documentary by American photographer and film-maker Louie Psihoyos combines spy thriller genre elements with an agenda to educate the public about the need to preserve the marine environment by concentrating on one issue and following some related side-issues. The issue that “The Cove” revolves around is the annual slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales at a marine cove in Taiji, a small town in southern Honshu island in Japan. Initially the film concentrates on a lone figure, Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who became famous in the 1960s for training the dolphins that shared the role of the hero dolphin in the popular TV series “Flipper” that was exported around the world and boosted the growth of marine parks that featured bottlenose dolphins as a main attraction. O’Barry later comes to see that his work as a dolphin trainer is having harmful effects on the animals and from then on dedicates his life to returning captive dolphins to their ocean habitat and raising public awareness of problems both captive and wild dolphins face from human activities. The film’s focus extends from O’Barry’s advocacy campaign to Japan’s annual harvesting of dolphins in Taiji where the animals are either caught for export to marine parks or slaughtered for food. This brings up a related issue of the dangers that eating dolphin and whale meat can pose for humans as the meat usually contains high levels of toxic chemicals, in particular mercury and cadmium.

Much of the film is structured around Psihoyos’s attempts to film the actual round-up and slaughter of the animals in the scenic little bay at Taiji by the Taiji fishing fleet. The local people including the police are hostile to the presence of Westerners and try to intimidate them or provoke them to violence. Psihoyos and O’Barry recruit a team of special effects workers, scientists and freedivers to develop tactics and technology that include fake rocks with cameras inside to make a secret film of the Taiji fisherfolk’s activities. The team must place their cameras in and around the bay at night as the round-up and killing usually take place at dawn and the activists film what they do using infra-red photography. A camera is also placed on a helicopter to take aerial shots. This emphasis together with the filming methods used gives the documentary an axis of drama generating tension and excitement and sustaining attention around which diversions into less melodramatic aspects of the dolphin hunt can be made.

Accuracy in some of the information given is suspect and there’s a possibility that the information might have been massaged to arouse strong audience reactions: the film makes no mention of the fact that pilot whales are also killed in the Taiji round-up for food. An animated map shows where live captured dolphins are exported from Taiji to other parts of the world including North America, yet since 1993, dolphinariums in the United States have not imported dolphins captured in drive-hunts. One might assume that if captive dolphins suffer chronic stress – and it must be said that conditions and hygiene in marine parks and other places where they live may vary a great deal throughout the world -they would not be breeding and raising babies yet as of 1996 over 40% of dolphins kept in US dolphinariums were captive-born. Perhaps O’Barry’s zeal as a born-again dolphin advocate has infected Psihoyos and others he comes in contact with and this makes “The Cove” look biased in parts and open to charges of bashing Japan and its culture.

Overall the film is tight and structured with many scenes of great beauty and excitement interspersed with information that generally can be verified through other sources. Unfortunately the film-makers appear not to have researched the history of whaling and dolphin hunts in Japan and in Taiji in particular and this ignorance colours their attitude towards the Taiji locals. O’Barry is perturbed at seeing monuments and study centres dedicated to whales in Taiji but cetaceans are in fact part of the town’s history and culture and this in itself plays a big part in the local people’s hostility and resentment towards the film-makers. Both sides behave combatively which prevents them from looking at ways in which Taiji could still benefit economically from the whales and dolphins that visit the area: sightseeing tours to watch whale and dolphin migrations, using festivals dedicated to whales and dolphins to attract tourists and preserve local traditions, and setting up a marine sanctuary that can be monitored by outside animal welfare organisations are some alternatives. There may be other industries worth developing in Taiji so that its economy is not so dependent on exploiting sea mammals and over time the drive hunt could be reduced and abolished altogether.

Certainly there are other side-issues Psihoyos could have considered in his documentary though they stretch the boundaries of the main subject: why does the Japanese government continue to throw money at whaling and forcing the Japanese public to eat cetacean meat when the industry is in economic dire straits? why does the government pretend there are no health risks involved in consuming cetacean meat? could it be that there are close connections between politicians individually and the government as a whole on the one hand and whaling interests on the other? is the Japanese media under government or other external pressures not to mention whaling and drive hunts to their public? Perhaps, like Japan’s nuclear energy industry, the Taiji dolphin-hunt refers to an aspect of Japanese nationalism that feels insulted and humiliated by post-1945 US occupation and the cultural influences that the occupation brought to Japan, and which tries to reassert itself and its vision of Japanese cultural, racial and technological superiority. Whaling is seen as a tradition worth pursuing because it’s a native “tradition” which, not coincidentally, serves the same purpose of ridding the oceans of animals that “compete” with Japan’s fishing industry over decreasing global stocks of fish.

As with many American documentaries these days the film makes a plea to viewers to take action against the dolphin hunt but doesn’t offer specific suggestions or a list of organisations including Psihoyos’s own Oceanic Preservation Society to support. There is no mention of groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who also have a guerrilla-like activist approach to fighting the global whaling industry and O’Barry comes across as a proverbial lone voice in the wilderness in decrying the Taiji dolphin harvests. After the drama of trying to get film footage of the hunt without being caught and jailed, the film-makers’ ultimate message to viewers is a deflated let-down and some people might go away feeling manipulated.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.

 

 

 

Characters and plot are as flat and blank as snowscapes in “Fargo”

Joel Coen, “Fargo” (1996)

A kidnap plot cooked up to save a car salesman’s hide going awry through sheer bad luck, incompetence and stupidity is the excuse for satirising rural Midwestern life, speech and culture in Joel and Ethan Coen’s mid-1990s film “Fargo”. John Lundergard (William Macy) is in deep financial shit and needs money fast so when he meets a couple of hoodlums (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), he sees an opportunity to fleece his father-in-law, a co-owner of the car dealership where he’s employed, for loads of money: he arranges for the crooks to kidnap his wife Jean and demand a hefty ransom. The idea is the crooks will demand a huge amount from John and John will ask dad-in-law for more than what the crooks ask for so he can cover his debts. Once the deal is agreed on, the crooks carry out their side of the bargain promptly but Jean turns out to be harder to kidnap than they first thought. Jean’s struggles come to be the first and least of their problems: while carrying her back to their hide-out, the men are forced to kill a police officer and two travellers. From here on, the crooks make more errors, demand more money from John and kill more people to cover their hides.

Enter police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), tasked with solving the various homicides and tracing the thugs’ stolen car and licence numbers to John’s dealership. Gunderson sweetly if doggedly pursues various leads which come up short: the people she interviews are too nice and polite to describe one crook, Carl (Buscemi), as more than “funny-looking” and John refuses to co-operate. Luck and chance give her the opportunity to track down the crooks to their hide-out and put police on John’s trail as a suspect in the various homicides.

Why John is so desperate that he’d stoop to dealing with lowlife types to get more money out of his wife’s dad isn’t explained. Perhaps the fact that he’s a car salesman suffices: we all know car sales reps aren’t to be trusted, right? And we also know rich fathers-in-law who own the company where their daughters’ husbands work are tight-fisted arseholes who quibble over how much they might have to fork over to save their children’s lives, right? Needless to say, the father-in-law regards John as an incompetent: another necessary part of the stereotype to get the old fella into a spot of bother when he ends up facing the business end of a gun. These and other stereotypes afflicting the crooks and various other characters – small-town and rural Midwestern folk being polite, minding their own business, being considerate of others and not being very intelligent either – help to inflate “Fargo” into a caricature of regional life in a small part of North America. What else inflates the movie into caricature is the over-use of Midwestern regional dialect and jargon: all those “yaaahs” and “naaws” that folks drop into their conversations, meant to add local flavour and help round out character development, become patronising and insulting to the Swedish heritage of the people who live in the area where the film is set (North Dakota and Minnesota).  The “niceness” with which Gunderson conducts her inquiries and fends off romantic advances from an old friend becomes very twee and there is no sense that behind her “nice” face lies a cool and calculating personality that she must surely possess to have become police chief.

It’s a pity that what’s meant to pass as an affectionate send-up of local quirkiness and eccentricity ends up looking blunt and ham-fisted and creates blank characters in a plot that is bereft of interest. There are worthy messages about how a small lie and banal personal problems end up escalating into a grand tragedy that draws in several innocent victims through chance meetings compounded by stupidity, incompetence and a mercenary mind-set embraced by several characters that puts a money value on everything including a woman’s life. The acting is very good – no one actor actually stands out head and shoulders above the rest – although the acting effort has gone into creating quaint character stereotypes rather than into developing realistic, troubled people who don’t fully understand their own motives or other factors, internal and external, that drive them to do what they do.  One would like to know whether John’s debts are partly the result of trying to give his wife and son a life-style they demand which goes far beyond what he can afford, and of trying to please his father-in-law as well, in which case the shenanigans that occur in “Fargo” might be considered a kind of dark cosmic justice and a damning commentary on how far people are prepared to go to maintain a façade.

On the plus side the snowy landscapes have an eerie beauty and give the impression of hiding many secrets in addition to the million dollars that Carl buries but is never able to tell anyone about. The natural world, looking pristine and white, serves as a metaphor for the society: apparently clean, wholesome and honest but hiding an underbelly of greed, slippery ethics and expedience.

 

 

Klute: crime thriller / psychological character study about personal control, paranoia and saving face

Alan J Pakula, “Klute” (1971)

Ostensibly a crime thriller about a prostitute who assists a small-town private investigator in a missing-person case, this film is better seen as a noir / psychological study of loneliness, paranoia and control. John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired by a friend Peter Kable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate the disappearance of an executive, Tom Gruneman, at Kable’s company. The only person who is likely to have any information as to how and why Gruneman disappeared is a call-girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) who initially is suspicious of Klute when he comes snooping around her apartment but she later agrees to co-operate. Klute relies on Daniels to chase down her pimp Frank Ligourin (Roy Scheider) and another prostitute Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan) to pump them for clues and leads and as the investigation progresses, Daniels becomes a kind of investigative partner for Klute and a romance blossoms between them. After Page dies mysteriously, Klute deduces her death is linked to the death of another prostitute Jane McKenna and that Gruneman most likely died also. He painstakingly works out who the real killer is – perceptive viewers will have worked out already the killer’s identity – and realises that Bree’s life is in danger.

Frankly the plot is dumber than dumb and begs a few questions about why Klute was hired in the first place (Kable  should have made sure he was incompetent at his job) and what sort of investigator he is who leaves his personal ethics at home in Tuscarora in Pennsylvania and allows himself to fall in love with Daniels who should be considered a suspect in Gruneman’s disappearance and possible murder among other things. If viewers assume that the whole film is about loss of personal control – and Bree, Klute and another significant character lose control of some aspect of their personal lives – then the plot becomes a little more credible. A slow pace and a too quick and choppy resolution in which a character conveniently ties up all plot ends and then commits suicide do not help either. The film is most credible as an exploration of Bree’s character: she alternates between being strong, confident and in control when turning tricks with her clients (though she is incapable of orgasm because that means losing control of herself in front of her client), and being fragile and frightened when falling in love. Various scenes show Bree’s need for love, reassurance and acceptance which she tries to ignore or repress by running away from Klute and doing drugs with Scheider at a party, or by making appointments to see an elderly client who runs a clothes factory. Fonda turns in an excellent performance that may be partly improvised, especially in scenes where Bree visits her psychiatrist and tells the woman her fears; the stand-out scene is near the end where she breaks down in tears while listening to a tape recording of Page being murdered. Though Fonda was a poster-girl at the time of the film’s making for feminism and other politically liberal stands on various issues, her character Bree is not a feminist figure: her issues are too personal and her desire to be independent and in control of herself is a compensation for the loneliness and emptiness she feels in her life. It should be said that her loneliness isn’t necessarily to be equated with wanting a man.

Sutherland’s diffident and enigmatic Klute is straight-man foil to Fonda’s Bree: his under-acting highlights Bree’s actions which are contradictory though they make sense in the context of her complex personality. He allows Fonda to dominate the screen when they are together but his performance seems all the stronger and more thoughtful for its deliberate under-playing. Cioffi and Scheider are suitably sinister in their respective roles and Jean Stapleton provides welcome comic relief in a very brief role as secretary to Bree’s elderly factory-owner client.

The cinematography creates a suspenseful and tense atmosphere, especially in an early scene where Klute pursues what he thinks is a rooftop stalker in the dark: the camera follows him, taking his point of view, showing nothing but blackness and spots of light that dash here and there as Klute flashes his torch about. Odd camera angles in various shots throughout the film emphasise issues of control and keeping up appearances for various characters: for example scenes in which Kable appears, whether in a high-rise building or in a helicopter, are shot in ways that stress his puppet-master persona which he obviously favours but loses control over once Klute is on his trail. Kable, Bree and Klute are also interested in maintaining their particular façades and it might be said also that New York City where the action plays out is a place where people pretend to be one thing (stylish, mod, cultured) but keep their real selves with all their insecurities and vulnerable points hidden. Even a prostitute like Bree, in the business of servicing clients’ unmet needs and providing psychological as well as sexual comfort and relief, has hidden needs that must be met or assuaged by others, either personally or through the exchange of money.

As a study of character and a reminder that once upon a time Jane Fonda really was a good actor, “Klute” is worth watching. Students of film noir may find it interesting also in that the film adheres to noir conventions and stereotypes but subverts them into something that should have made for a richer viewing experience had the plot been more logical and carefully developed. The deadpan private eye investigator, an outsider whose character never changes, takes a flawed and fallen woman under his wing and tries to save her from falling any lower in an uncaring and corrupt world; the woman is conflicted between wanting to get out of her horrible life and being attracted back into it; the woman’s involvement with the private eye endangers her life and he must rescue her from their enemies: all these conventions play out in “Klute” in a way that updated and made them appear fresh and relevant to a 1970s audience. Apart from obviously dated aspects such as clothing and acting styles, the film does not look too bad and the noir conventions hold up well. Indeed the noir conventions could have been updated even more so that Klute and Bree would have become true partners who support and care for each other.