Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: celebration of a religious ritual that imprisons as much as it liberates

Kenneth Anger, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954)

A lush creation by famous underground avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, this film of a celebratory religious ritual mixes several of Anger’s favourite themes and obsessions while remaining mysterious enough that it can be interpreted on a number of levels depending on the viewer’s background and opinions. I can see here a fascination with the occult and its symbols and trappings, many of which look like deliberate parodies and send-ups of Christian ritual and symbolism, into which Anger has inserted his own interest in the work and philosophy of English mystic Aleister Crowley. There is also a sense of people creating their own selective mix of mythology and ritual. Coming from another angle again, I can see criticism of formal religion, a suggestion that ritualistic religious ceremony can be corrupted and rotting from within, as much a prison from which there’s no escape except death, as it is a source of comfort and affirmation for its followers. In the midst of ecstatic communion, laughter and joy, there is also violence and an offer of a sacrifice to dark gods. The sacrifice could be interpreted as liberation as well, a release into a new clean world without sin and corruption. If we interpret the symbolism of “Inauguration …” very broadly, the film also becomes a critique of Western culture and people’s subjective notions of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

The actual film itself is set to the music of “Glagolitic Mass”, a composition for solo voices, choir, organ and orchestra by Czech composer Leos Janacek, and could be seen as a very long music video. There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The film builds up steadily with static diorama-like scenes up to the moment where various participants consume an intoxicating drink and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming colour and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man. The film’s close, near-fetishistic attention to objects, the actors’ elaborate costuming and studied appearance, and the staged, mannerly look of scene set-ups recall the equally camp kitsch film classics made by the Armenian film-maker Parajanov in the 1960s and 1980s.

This is obviously not a film for everyone: much of it up to the 20th minute is slow and appears quite remote, not at all concerned about drawing viewers into its ritual and secrets. Characters are preoccupied with consuming rosary beads, a snake and a jewel. Religious rituals have never been about entertaining or informing viewers of their purpose after all; you’re always assumed to have undergone some training or education in the religion’s basic practices and knowledge and to receive further knowledge you have to be selected by the religion’s standard bearers whose expectations of you and your conformity to its precepts may be severe. Eventually the film does immerse viewers into its realm but you need to interpret its goings-on for yourselves: there’s no attempt to explain what’s happening for the benefit of first-time participants in the ritual. Is the death scene of the young blond man a send-up of Christian Holy Communion ritual as well as a literal interpretation of Dionysian ritual? Is it a reference to the destruction of a particular worldview or civilisation? Is there the possibility of rebirth, that the death is but a necessary initiation step he must take into another (and better) plane of existence?

People with no interest or appreciation for arcane religious ritual, veiled symbolism and the eclectic mixing of deities, figures and stories from different religious and folkloric traditions will be bored by the film and perhaps should pass it over but they will miss its layered symbolism and message of initiation, celebration, ecstasy, death and the hope of new life.

The Meth Epidemic: confrontational documentary doesn’t quite go far enough in investigating a major social problem

Carl Byker, “The Meth Epidemic” (2011)

Having seen and reviewed “Winter’s Bone” last year, I was intrigued to find out more about the methamphetamine addiction epidemic rife in the United States since so little about methamphetamine abuse appears in the Australian mainstream media apart from public broadcasters like ABC and SBS. This is in spite of some information I found on the University of South Australia website which says that methamphetamine use in Australia is the highest in the English-speaking world (see http://www.unisa.edu.au/news/2011/210611.asp). Byker’s documentary for PBS Frontline couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The film follows the history of methamphetamine abuse and addiction in the US since the late 1960s when it was the drug of choice for biker gangs and was associated with the counter-culture, and the direct and indirect devastation the drug can cause to individuals’ health and psychology, and to their families and communities.

Put together fairly simply, the film mixes voice-over narration which lays out the structure and direction of the documentary’ coverage with interviews with medical researchers, police officers, counsellors, an ex-addict and representatives of pharmaceutical companies who either confirm and pad out the narrator’s statements or, in the case of the drug firms’ spokespeople, indict themselves as indifferent or caring more about their firms’ profits than about the effects their products might be having on families and society. The film pulls no punches in demonstrating the immediate effects of on-going meth abuse on users: one interviewee, Bret King, of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon state, hit on the idea of publishing before and after mug shot photographs of meth addicts to show the effects of the addiction on people’s health and appearance and the photographs shown in the film, all very close-up, can be very graphic.

More indirect effects of meth abuse get less attention and are more spoken of than demonstrated: police and social worker interviewees confirm the drug is associated with increased rates of crime, particularly property crime, and domestic violence. The descriptions and anecdotes alone are fairly gruesome so perhaps there’s no need for the physical evidence! The film then explores the issue of the supply of meth and how political control of the supply can be used to reduce the number of new addicts and control levels of addiction among current addicts. The film focusses on how pharmaceutical firms, in their quest for profits on cough medicines (which contain the active ingredient ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, similar in structure to meth and often used to create the stuff), have lobbied politicians against bills proposing to increase regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Though the film does a detailed job of how the supply of meth can be controlled and denied to drug cartels, it does very little to show how and why people start using meth in the first place. Do people take it up because it increases concentration, self-confidence, bravery, sociability and sexual libido and suppresses appetite? It would have been worth some time for the film-makers to ask addicts and ex-addicts why they started using meth. Are people persuaded to take up meth in a party environment, do they start using it to conform with a crowd at school or college? We might also consider factors like social and economic background: are people in a certain social class or in areas of high unemployment, widespread poverty and few social services more likely to abuse meth? If factors influencing demand are not addressed, then controlling and restricting the supply of meth is only half the answer to controlling meth abuse. People may simply gravitate to a meth substitute whose supply may not be so easily controlled if the original reasons for meth addiction go ignored and aren’t dealt with.

There are further issues associated with meth abuse the film doesn’t touch, such as the fire danger to families and their neighbours that arises when people cook meth in kitchens using chemicals that become flammable when in contact with meth, causing explosions and house or apartment fires; and the poisoning of the building, the property and the soil, possibly even underground water. This is an issue briefly touched upon in Debra Granik’s film “Winter’s Bone” in which the main character investigates the burnt-out ruins of a house that used to be a meth lab while searching for her father. It becomes apparent that meth abuse is more than a public health and social problem; it is a potential environmental problem that could ruin soil, water, vegetation and animal life and make land unusable.

The film does an excellent job of showing how pharmaceutical firms’ indifference to the meth abuse problem in pursuit of sales and profits adds to the problem itself, and how politics itself is all too often dominated by self-interest and influence by lobby groups with loads of money. Unfortunately the scope of the film remains very narrowly restricted to the issue of controlling the supply of meth and not investigating the environment that encourages or causes people to take up meth and other drugs in the first place. Also the political and economic systems in place that allow drug firms to ignore the problems and devastation their products cause to individuals, families and communities should be challenged. Even the fact that we have ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other drugs that have the potential to be misused in dangerous ways in non-medical contexts should call into question the kind of medicine and the approach to treating sickness and ensuring good health we have and use in modern society. Wouldn’t it be great if there were no need for people to use cough medicines – because people have been taught and trained to keep their bodies healthy and well?

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.