Inside Job: hard-hitting documentary about 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis

Charles Ferguson, “Inside Job” (2010)

 For many people, this incisive documentary on the immediate origins of the 2007 – 08 Global Financial Crisis will prove a real eye-opener into the workings of the various large American investment banks, insurance and other finance corporations all collectively known as “Wall Street” and of the failure of the US government and its agencies to monitor and regulate the industry’s activities. The consequences of the failure of successive US governments from the 1980’s onwards to control Wall Street’s rapacity and excesses are becoming all too apparent as “Inside Job” makes clear: collapsed banks and insurance companies; economic instability resulting in over-caution on lenders’ part, forcing businesses to downsize operations and lay off workers; huge public debts which force government cut-backs in spending on education, medical and social welfare services; increased debt burdens on households; people’s savings and superannuation and pension funds wiped out, among other results. Director Charles Ferguson who also wrote the script and produced the documentary tracks down and interviews a number of bank executives, public officials and economists about aspects of the GFC, and many of the interviewees who appear in “Inside Job” reveal themselves as corrupt or corrupted participants in and beneficiaries of Wall Street’s greed, arrogance and lack of ethics.

The film traces the roots of the GFC to the early 1980’s when the Reagan government began deregulating the banking and finance industry and watered down a number of government acts and regulations that came into force after the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. Even after the collapse of savings and loan associations in late 1980’s which should have been a warning that something was not right in the finance industry, deregulation continued well into the next decade and after the Cold War ended in 1991, a number of physicists and mathematicians entered the finance industry with ideas on playing the stock market like a giant casino, and many creative and convoluted ways of converting mortgage and other types of loans into more lucratvie financial instruments, backed by other weird, wonderful and wacky financial products whose origins were so diverse and complex even for finance industry workers to trace, came into being. Eventually a crisis of trust and confidence developed and spread like a wildfire, undermining large corporations like Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman Brothers which ended up being taken over by large banking corporations, and the US government under President George W Bush was forced to bail out Wall Street for US$700 billion.

The film’s major strength is its examination of the incestuous links among US government officials and agencies charged with supervising and regulating Wall Street activities, the financial corporations themselves and university academics who basically performed a cheerleading function for the often unethical if not illegal activities of the banks. The interviews with two university academics at Columbia and Harvard Universities are very entertaining in this respect, with the questions hitting a very exposed raw nerve for one economist who challenges the film-maker to make the most of a suddenly shortened interviewing time of three minutes. Other entertaining interviewees include an expensive callgirl and a psychiatrist / therapist both of whose Wall Street clienteles must have overlapped considerably.

Unfortunately the film falls flat with a watery conclusion that Wall Street must be subject again to regulation to avoid repeat crises and leaves it at that. Having exposed the collusion that went on between Wall Street and the White House, Ferguson’s retreat into a call for re-regulation is a huge letdown and disappointment for this particular viewer. A future of re-regulation followed by deregulation followed again by re-regulation can never be a viable solution as long as an “old boys’ network” continues to operate between governments and the financial sector. As long as people forget or refuse to learn the lessons of previous financial crises and continue to believe in political and economic ideologies that prize self-interest, the quick accumulation of wealth at any cost and extreme dog-eat-dog competition (which feeds on fear and encourages a herd mentality and irrational behaviour), the global financial system will remain essentially unstable and prone to crises. The effect of regulation will only soften the more extreme effects of such a system but can’t prevent crises from happening. We need to re-examine our assumptions about our current financial systems, what place they should have in a real economy based on producing goods and services to suit all people, and in particular we need to question the role that money, debt and banks play. Already there are commentators like Ellen Brown (www.ellenbrown.com) and websites like Social Credit (www.bleedingindebt.com) who question the worth of a financial system in which money can be created and start to circulate only if someone asks for a loan and incurs a debt. There need to be better ways to stimulate production of goods and services other than creating debt that attracts interest that accumulates and produces more interest. Islamic financing which prohibits usury and systems based on social credit and ingenious forms of bartering are some alternatives that could be considered.

Apart from a weak ending, “Inside Job” is a thorough hatchet-job on the architects and builders of an elaborate edifice that took years to build but fell apart very quickly with effects on the economy, society and culture in the United States that may still be working (and wrecking) their way through. We may not have seen the full outcomes of the GFC and it may be that its worst effects will be felt by the very poor and most disadvantaged people in American society.

True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

The Dark Knight: a shallow movie with one-note characters beneath the pyrotechnics

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Second in British-American director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with “Batman Begins” (2005) and will finish with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, this movie represents Hollywood at its best and worst over the decade 2000 – 2010: blockbuster entertainment with big-name actors, some of whom deliver fine performances, as mostly one-dimensional characters in search of a clear and straightforward plot to justify the rollercoaster ride of tension build-up, peak, ride-down and repeat along with numerous exploding glass windows, transport vehicles, various deserted buildings and a growing body count. The only things missing are the product placements, the busty luscious babes and Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song. There’s a message about the age-old struggle between good and evil which even Hollywood knows is an old-fashioned idea that needs frequent tweaking to appear fresh and vital so the variation that appears in “The Dark Knight” is one in which, at the level of certain individuals, evil defeats good; and on a collective level, for goodness to prevail over evil, good people often have to bend the rules, engage in unethical practices, even copy what bad people do. Some individuals’ reputations have to be preserved and a network of lies spun to maintain the confidence and faith of the citizens of Gotham City in the law. Everyone in the film, good and bad, comes out looking as grubby as everyone else and no-one learns any valuable lessons after the rollercoaster ride ends other than “the end justifies the means”. This ensures that the cycle of violent crime in Gotham City will continue.

What passes for a plot in “The Dark Knight” is a string of sketches, most of which form a series of “tests” conducted by the criminal mastermind calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) on the city residents and in particular on Batman (Christian Bale) to test their moral breaking points and if Batman himself can be corrupted. Entwined with the Joker’s ever more elaborately staged and vicious pranks is the complementary rise and fall of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from heralded “white knight” hero supposedly busting organised crime networks to vengeful twisted nutcase intent on taking various people down with him. Although Dent’s transformation from good guy to bad guy is sudden, the film makes clear from the start his moral fallibility: he flippantly tosses coins to make important decisions, punches a guy in fury in court and relies on Batman risking his own life to make him look good so his sudden downfall, pushed along by the Joker, is plausible. Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldfield) who becomes Police Commissioner during the film, confirms Dent’s true nature beneath the squeaky-clean facade by remembering the attorney’s nickname Two-Face from an earlier encounter that took place long before the movie’s events.

Dent could have been the movie’s focus as an essentially well-meaning but flawed character who descends into the pit of evil, egged on by the Joker, and a set-up that enables him to redeem himself by recognising that he, not his coin, is solely responsible for “[making] his own luck” and to flummox the Joker into acknowledging that however hard mortals fall, they still have the potential to rise again, morally if not materially, would have made “The Dark Knight” a grander and more interesting, more thoughtful work. Batman and the Joker would play their good angel / bad angel routine and their battle for Dent’s “soul” might at least lead Batman to learn something about himself and his quest to rid Gotham City of crime and evil. The Joker might learn something too if only to make himself a more formidable enemy for Batman. They are indeed complementary if weird and polarised soul-mates.

The actors are all capable in their roles most of which are one-note anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal as lawyer Rachel Dawes, over whom Dent and Batman as Bruce Wayne are love rivals, has nothing to do and the movie disposes of her halfway through without resolving the love triangle, Dent not even realising he has competition. Bale, recognising Batman’s essential straight-man role to counter the florid villains, plays his dual role in a minimal and blank way. That’s some achievement: playing a character with two highly opposed personalities with next-to-no acting. Eckhart as Dent has the hardest task turning a flawed would-be hero into a dangerous killer and he pulls it off well though the coin-flipping habit is excessive and tiresome. Of the minor roles, Morgan Freeman makes the deepest impression as Lucius Fox, the quietly authoritative chief executive of Wayne Enterprises and the film’s supposedly moral voice. (Though if Fox is willing to help Batman nab a crook accountant in Hong Kong, breaking various laws there, he can hardly complain about Batman wire-tapping people’s cellphones to locate the Joker.) Ledger is a mannered Joker, affecting a hunch-back walk and facial tics when it suits and having a grand time in his role, getting the film’s best lines and toying with Batman and the police like so many guinea pigs; even his role hardly calls for much depth of character and it’s arguable that any other serious drama actor in the role would have done just as well as Ledger.

For a self-proclaimed canine car-chaser, the Joker in some ways is surprisingly generous and moral in a way: a true agent of chaos wouldn’t allow innocent people to choose their mode of death or give Batman and the police just enough time to rescue people before bombs go off. Most of those killed directly by the Joker are crooks or police in the line of duty and the city authorities are allowed to evacuate hospitals before he blows one up (and it was probably overdue for demolition anyway). The Joker appears to be testing his resolve and abilities as much as he tests Batman, and his own actions nearly always disprove everything he says about himself. Viewers either accept him as a confused mass of contradictions or assume he’s deliberately lying about himself to throw people off guard and see how they react when they discover the truth.

The Joker’s duel with Batman could have been a true battle of wits, self-struggle, self-examination and who has the brain and guts to call the other guy’s bluff. Batman is supposed to be a master detective using his intelligence and cunning where other comic heroes rely on super-powers; here, he runs about like a rat on a wheel, chasing the Joker and never coming to understand his foe or his methods, much less anticipate and predict where the fiend might strike next. The Joker could be preening himself, imagining that he is conducting a giant science experiment and egging Batman on to ever greater efforts of heroism, at least until Batman has a light-bulb moment (unlikely with Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of the character) and figures out a way to turn the experiment back onto the Joker.

We get a film where gadgetry and technology are fetishised, and explosions mark the various climaxes that appear with boring regularity, signalling the end of one acting routine that features a cat-and-mouse game and the beginning of another similar routine. The special effects, fiery blow-outs and whizz-bang computer work that simulates Batman’s sonar become tiresome and the film, stripped of its pyrotechnics, ends up looking like an ordinary and over-long CSI-type episode. The film does the original comic little credit in spirit: Batman should be something above the usual forces of law and order, and compensate for what it lacks, placing him in a position of conflict against it. For him to be co-operating with a corruptible and incompetent police force when he’s an incorruptible vigilante is a contradictory and compromising position.

The duality of the Batman / Joker conflict isn’t explored much beyond Batman as moral agent and the Joker as supposedly amoral agent. Even this aspect is conflicted in the film: Batman, by jettisoning his principles to capture the Joker at any cost, becomes a corrupted individual. The Joker, in refusing to kill Batman but simply wanting to bring him down through carefully staged pranks that Batman nearly always overcomes (suggesting that the Joker incorporates sporting chances in his schemes), is more “moral” than he realises. The irony is that the Joker didn’t need to do anything stagey or strenuous at all – Batman brought himself down low.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.

Easy Rider: film holds a mirror to mainstream US society in 1969 – and beyond

Stripped of the hype that has grown around it over the years, “Easy Rider” is a well-made if loose low-budget flick about two drug dealers Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively) who, having come into a big sum of money from supplying smuggled cocaine to a man (Phil Spector) in a Rolls Royce, decide to ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their chopper bikes to see Mardi Gras, and then on to Florida where they plan to retire and live off the proceeds of the drug sale. Although the movie draws inspiration from the hippie counter-culture of the period and features a music soundtrack of songs from various American pop and rock acts of the time, in a way it’s not really so much an investigation into the alternative culture as it is into mainstream American culture at the time seen through the mirror of the hippie culture, and what it reveals about mainstream culture, or mainstream culture in the US Deep South, is not a pretty sight at all.

Their money stuffed into the petrol tank of Wyatt’s chopper, the two ride through spectacular desert scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, meeting various folks along the way and encountering all manner of reactions to their appearance and apparently free life-style: a hospitable rancher whose down-to-earth way of life is admired by Wyatt; a hitch-hiker who directs the travellers to take him to his commune that practises free love and tries to eke a living by growing crops in the harsh desert conditions; various small-town folks in Louisiana who deeply disapprove of the strangers in their midst and want to run them out of town; a drunken lawyer, George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), who frees the bikers from jail; two prostitutes called Mary and Karen (Toni Basil and Karen Black respectively); and two trigger-happy hillbillies. The narrative is tightly bound: the hitch-hiker gives Wyatt and Billy some LSD which they later share with Mary and Karen, and all of them experiencing a bad hallucination; the hippies and Hansen embody aspects of an alternative way of living and thinking to what most Americans in the late 1960’s believed was “normal” or conventional; and the hippies’ precarious life-style and Hansen’s violent beating and murder presage an ugly end for the bikers themselves.

For me the surprise is that Wyatt and Billy are much less “rebellious” than everybody has believed them to be: Wyatt appears to yearn for a simple, less materialist and more spiritual life and has more confidence in the hippies’ ability to survive in the desert than his more worldly companion; and Billy is really a conventional guy at heart who lives for the moment and connects being rich with living it up and having lots of girls fawning over him for his wealth. The guys are “rebellious” only in the sense that they take the values of freedom and individuality that American culture supposedly prizes at face value and practise them in real life. Perhaps the really rebellious character is Hansen, the spoilt geek son of a big-fish rich lawyer in their small-pond part of Louisiana, who expresses his desire for a more equal and socialistic society when, drawing on a marijuana reefer, he waxes very lyrically about a UFO Billy saw some time ago and says it is part of a fleet of UFOs operated by aliens whose technology and culture are far more advanced and humane than those of humans. Nicholson plays Hansen in a deliberately over-the-top zonked-out performance that endears him to viewers and makes his opinions less extreme than they would be had they come from a more conventional and restrained character; it also makes his death more horrific and affecting, as he is the one character in the movie who genuinely believes in democracy and equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour or early background, and practises what he preaches (he works for the American Civil Liberties Union).

The style of film-making is unusual for a Hollywood movie of its time: there’s not much dialogue in early scenes and the camera often rests its gaze on objects or passes over scenes at unusual angles without anyone saying anything in the background; and in one scene when the bikers visit the hippie commune, the camera pans right around the circle of hippies to capture the feeling of a community. The part where the bikers and the prostitutes experience the bad effects of an LSD trip is a highly experimental sequence of quick camera shots and editing, juxtaposing religious pictures and symbols and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with scenes of the foursome stumbling about in a cemetery, Karen stuck howling in a narrow passage between walls and Mary stripping for Wyatt. The camera sometimes spins about as if in a panic and sunlight appears to stream down so much it hurts the eyes.

If the film makes a comment on the hippie counter-culture, it is that taking drugs isn’t necessarily a release from dreary, everyday life and can have frightening psychological effects on people, and that idealism has to be tempered with realism. The hippies encountered don’t seem all that happy with their lot, the men listlessly scattering seed over barren ground, and the women labouring in the kitchen and caring for the children; they may have longer hair and more colourful clothes than regular folks did in their time but their sexual politics are just as conservative, unequal and taken for granted. The overall opinion of “Easy Rider” to aspects of the counter-culture is quite conservative and not necessarily the correct one: when Hansen initially hesitates to take the reefer and suggests it might lead him to “harder stuff”, the bikers’ reaction is silence, as if confirming that point of view. The idea that using marijuana serves as a gateway to using other more dangerous drugs is a highly controversial one with a history of medical research that produces contradictory results, depending on how the study or experiment is designed. It may well be that in many countries the illegal status of marijuana itself makes it a gateway drug if it is supplied by the same people who supply harder drugs.

The meaning of freedom is explored in the film somewhat: Billy seeks materialistic freedom, Wyatt is after a more abstract and spiritual freedom and Hansen wishes for the freedom of a fuller, richer life experience that he so far hasn’t had. One irony of “Easy Rider” is that neither Billy, Wyatt nor Hansen finds the freedom he yearns for, or in the case of Wyatt and Hansen, they experience the downside of the freedom they seek, Hansen in particular paying the price for breaking out of his conventional Southern upbringing by being beaten up by small-minded and prejudiced Southern white men. The second irony is that the freedom the bikers enjoy in the film was always going to be short-lived – it would only last as long as their last penny. Even as “rebels”, Wyatt and Billy are still dependent on the capitalist economy to support them and so in that sense they are not really free.

The surprising thing is that the film isn’t more dated than it is, especially in its themes and ideas. Part of the reason is that in the last 30 years, US society has gone back on much of the social progress it made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hansen’s remark about the place of freedom in US society – that it’s fine for people to talk about freedom and about being free, but living it is what frightens people (and by implication the authorities) – finds its uncomfortable echo in the US government’s increasingly neo-fascist treatment of its citizens in so many areas of life, society and culture as the country continues to bog down in wars in western Asia with no clear exit strategy in sight.

Catfish: a film with a surprising and humbling twist

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, “Catfish” (2010)

Call it a fake documentary, call it a feature film and call it exploitative but this film about a friendship that begins on Facebook, is augmented by Google, Google Earth, Youtube, satnav and cellphones, and ends up in a real place that not even the film-makers anticipated, emotionally as well as physically, is an intriguing investigation into the nature of authenticity, much of which it is thrown back into the film-makers’ faces and those of their audiences. The film divides into two rough halves: in the first half, it focusses on Nev Schulman, a photographer based in New York City who specialises in photographing professional dancers, who is contacted by a young girl called Abby requesting his permission to use one of his photos as a basis for a painting. When Abby posts the result to Nev, Nev is taken aback by the quality of the child’s work and a friendship conducted mostly through Facebook develops from there. As Nev is introduced to and friended by members of Abby’s family, in particular her half-sister Megan Faccio, his brother Ariel and friend Henry sense the Facebook friendships have a story to tell and begin to obsessively document Nev’s relationships with Abby’s family on film. Along the way though, something about the songs Megan posts to Nev via mpegs smells fishy and the trio quickly discovers she is posting other people’s songs as her own. Their senses alerted, the guys begin to discover other things about Abby, her mum Angela Wesselman and Megan that don’t make sense, and the men decide to visit the family.

The film’s second half is located mostly in Ishpeming (Michigan) where Abby and her family live and here Nev, Ariel and Henry discover the truth about Abby, Angela and their relatives, most of all Megan. At this point, the film leaves the realm of genre film – up to now, the film has gleefully included references to horror and suspense, including a drive from Chicago all the way to Michigan in the wee hours of the night to visit an abandoned farm-house, perhaps to provide a frisson to what the film-makers anticipated would be the climax of the film (maybe they’ll find illegal cocaine shipments? discover body parts left behind by a serial killer? stumble onto a secret alien-human DNA fusion experiment jointly funded by the Pentagon and the CIA?), as well as romantic comedy of the “You’ve Got Mail” sort. “Catfish” delves into deeper territory about identity and its fluidity, and how social networking technology gives people from different walks of life the opportunity to create and present fantasies about themselves and their lives as a way of coping with everyday reality. It transpires that (spoiler alert) everything attributed to Abby and Megan in the first half of the film is part of a fantasy life spun by Angela as her way of reconciling her need for a family life and security with the sacrifice of her dream to be a dancer and painter.

Although Nev and his pals find out fairly easily that Abby and Megan aren’t all they were cooked up to be, the fact remains, which Nev admits, that for several months he didn’t bother investigating their bona fides simply because it hadn’t occurred to him to do so, even though astute viewers of “Catfish” would have smelled something pretty strange when Angela starts posting pictures of some of her own paintings along with Abby’s pictures early on in the film. Even after the guys realise that Abby’s family may be lying to Nev, they don’t think about taking anything further until Henry suggests they actually go visit the family. At this point, the film changes dramatically: the film-makers’ obsession with Facebook and other social networking technologies fades and viewers are taken into more emotional and humbling if voyeuristic territory. This says a lot about the problems of social networking: in many aspects, particularly in the world of emotions and psychology, the technology can never really substitute for real life, no matter how real Facebook and other online friendships may seem to people and no matter how closer people, geographically separated, become. At the same time, such dangers are advantageous as Angela discovers for herself: she uses the technology to get a foot-hold in a larger network represented by people like Nev Schulman but, being shy and perhaps afraid that she’s not as “sophisticated” as the folks in New York, she weaves a fantasy life to hook Schulman into supporting her artistic efforts. In this way, she controls the process by which she moves into a milieu and network that she has always yearned to enter on her own terms and at her own pace. The irony is, Angela is perhaps more sophisticated in her use of Facebook and other Internet-based interactive networks to get what she needs and the end credits suggest she manages to achieve at least some if not all her dreams.

Yes, you don’t know if your “friends” are one-to-one cyber-equivalents of real-life people (as opposed to paedophiles impersonating children or men impersonating women) or if 10, 100 or even 1,000 of these friends might be avatars of one person. If social networks and virtual reality websites pose a danger, “Catfish” suggests that the danger is people being too ready to believe that those they meet online are who they claim to be when everybody “knows” that the Internet offers people limitless opportunities to reinvent themselves. For all their hipness and familiarity with modern technology (and we certainly see the Schulmans and Henry messing with their laptops, cellphones and filming equipment a lot), these guys fall victim all too readily to their own emotions and fears. At film’s end, Nev is looking shell-shocked from what he has discovered about Angela and maybe about himself and his own naivety; it’s too easy though to say he should have invested less emotion and feeling into his Facebook romance with Megan. As individuals and as a society, we depend so much on technology to fulfill our immediate physical needs that we have come to see it as solving all our social, political and economic problems and it’s now an extension of our psychological being. As “Catfish” gives viewers no information about Nev’s history of romance prior to meeting Megan on Facebook, we have no way of knowing if Nev has experienced many ups and downs in his love life and if he should just widen his real-life social network, meet more actual girls and get some advice on how to recognise if someone is genuinely interested in him or leading him on. At least he conducts himself with grace and never accuses Angela directly when he confronts her with her lies, so he’s not completely at sea socially.

It would have been more ethical if Nev had simply called Angela’s bluff on Facebook and not gone to see her at home. Again, this points up a limitation about social networking and other interactive technologies such as email and even the old-fashioned facsimile machine: that when you have to confront people about their lies or other “bad” behaviour, it’s better to do it face-to-face than impersonally, even by phone. Also if Nev had told Angela over the phone that he knew she was lying and left the matter at that, she might never have had the breakthrough she yearned for and Nev and the others might not have learned something about themselves and the limitations of social networking. No-one would have been changed by his/her experiences and Angela would probably go hunting through Facebook again to latch onto another hipster photographer who thinks he’s more worldly-wise than he actually is. Who’s to say if the unethical route is not the correct route to follow in situations such as these?

There are several issues raised in “Catfish” which the film, due to its limited scope and resources, isn’t able to deal with in much depth at all. One issue is how do people like Angela reconcile conflicting personal desires and ambitions, and the needs of others dependent on them, in striving for personal fulfilment. The issue affects men and women alike but possibly it’s more pressing for women who desire also to be mothers but find mothering brings with it demands on their time and energy. Related to this is the problem of Angela’s social and economic milieu: her home town of Ishpeming perhaps couldn’t be more removed culturally and financially from that of Nev, Ariel and Henry, and Angela may have perceived the difference as a considerable barrier to gaining a foot-hold in the art world. Ishpeming is an economically depressed town: when Nev and his pals arrive there, they see the main streets are deserted and the large building in the centre of town which supposedly is an art gallery is actually vacant and has been so for four years. If there is any State or Federal government assistance to Ishpeming and to individual families like Angela’s family which includes twin adult step-sons with mental disabilities, the film-makers make no mention of it.

The question of the film’s genre as documentary or not raises the issue of authenticity, not just with the film itself but also its makers and the people who appear in “Catfish”. The events look real enough but the film-makers have imposed a particular linear narrative on them that shapes them and influences viewers to see them in a certain way. Don’t rule out the possibility that the events have been edited to conform to this narrative. The narrative gives the events a coherence that viewers can understand. Elements of romantic comedy, horror and suspense thriller have been worked deliberately into the film to tease the audience and hold their attention for what is basically a fairly trite subject: the development and evolution of a relationship through the medium of technology. Ariel Schulman and Joost’s motives for making the film change as they follow Nev’s romance with Megan and this change makes their motives seem even more suspect. At one point in the film, Nev complains about being bullied and manipulated into continuing with the filming even when he wants out so there is a related issue of how authentic the film can be when people are being bullied and events are being shaped to meet a vague agenda. Interestingly, Angela herself manipulates the film-makers and continues to lie even as they force her into admitting her past fibs about Megan. The fact that this manipulation is a two-way street in the second half of “Catfish”, with the sense that the film-makers are losing some control over the “story” as a result, makes this part of the film very interesting. As this manipulation is going on, viewers will find themselves complicit as passive voyeurs; we may not like what Nev, Ariel and Henry are doing to Angela but all the same, we want to know why Angela seems such a compulsive liar that she carries on even after the trio expose her lies and discover she’s deceived her husband too.

The film is likeable and Angela’s “dilemma” can be very moving. Nev is an appealing guy and the approach the film-makers adopted of confronting Angela with her lies in a gentle way that saved face and didn’t embarrass everyone should be lauded. Viewers will likely feel sorry for Angela’s husband who incidentally gives the film its title and perhaps is the most genuine person here. (We don’t learn much about his background and what he does outside the home, not even if he works two or three low-paying jobs, which seems likely in a depressed place like Ishpeming.) Authenticity, encountered through “Catfish”, is a huge multi-faceted monster indeed.

Citizen Kane: interesting film but it privileges style over substance

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Notwithstanding its tag as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film – usually bestowed by American film critics, of course! – “Citizen Kane” is actually an interesting film that challenges its audiences to think about how one man may easily become corrupted into arrogance, greed and self-importance to the extent that he makes errors of judgement and crashes into humiliation and ruin spectacularly. I daresay that while the film is about just one individual, its tale of the American Dream of rising from obscurity with perhaps an innocent or idealistic goal to success, fame and influence, only to fall into ignominy and oblivion with a loss of the original ideal or ideals, could apply to organisations and even entire countries as it does to people generally. However as a study of a man’s life and character, while it does a great job demonstrating the anti-hero’s faults and errors, “Citizen Kane” actually has little to say about how the man came to be so cynical about and nasty towards his fellow human beings.

The film’s narrative structure is very unusual for a Hollywood product of its time. It begins with a series of ghostly Gothic images appropriate to a horror movie – a bit of black humour on director Welles’s part perhaps – featuring a huge building and its surrounds, with the camera focussing closer and closer with each succeeding shot on a light behind a window. The window eventually takes up most of the screen, there’s a black-out, suggestive of a terrible event within, the light comes back on and suddenly the camera thrusts the viewer behind the window, inside the room. A close-up shot of a man’s lips whispering “Rosebud” appears, then the camera zips to a hand releasing a snow globe that shatters on the floor and there’s a mirror image of a nurse coming into the man’s room; the nurse moves to lay a sheet over the dead man. This artfully sequenced series of montages alerts us that the story to come will be in flashbacks or reminiscences and may not be conventionally laid out. Sure enough an obituary of media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is presented by a news service “News on the March”, detailing Kane’s achievements and failures in full in a style typical of filmed news articles of the time (early 20th century) and even going so far as to feature blurry film footage of Kane in his wheelchair dotage. After the obituary ends, a group of journalists discusses Kane’s late word “Rosebud” and one reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) determines to locate and interview significant people in Kane’s life including Kane’s second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and best friend cum Kane’s conscience Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) about their opinions of and experiences with Kane and what they think “Rosebud” means.

Through the interviewees’ recollections and Thompson’s research at the private library of Kane’s guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), we learn that Kane came into a considerable inheritance when very young. At the age of 25, he enters the newspaper business by buying The New York Inquirer, hires the best reporters he can find and uses the paper to create and spread sensationalist news, and mould public opinion. The paper also criticises political and economic elites and their exploitation of the public with sharp business practices. A first marriage links him to influential people in politics and Kane prepares for a political career by campaigning for State governor. Both his campaign and marriage derail when his opponent discovers and publicises a secret love affair with singer Susan Alexander. Kane marries the singer after a quick divorce but from this moment on, he makes one blunder after another: he attempts to mould Susan into an opera singer but bad reviews and her suicide attempt kill off that ambition; he builds his extravagant home Xanadu complete with private zoo but fortunately for good taste the Great Depression hits the United States in 1929 and ruins Kane’s media empire utterly. Trustees take over what’s left of his fortune. Susan leaves him and Kane withdraws completely into seclusion.

The film’s not too clear on how and at what moment Kane becomes so consumed with his own success, power and influence that they sap any idealism he might have had and lead to gross errors of judgement. It’s plain though that Kane’s moral compass from young adulthood on is quite shaky and he eagerly exploits the yearnings of ordinary people to give them what he thinks they want – populist crusading on their behalf, based on a set of socialistic principles which Kane later repudiates – and to grow rich from fulfilling what other newspapers consider tacky and base desires. How Kane managed to avoid a solid grounding in ethics at home, school and college is not explained in the film and this might be considered its major failing. Although Kane’s character is based partly on the character and personality of William Randolph Hearst, the major US media magnate of Welles’s day, it’s not difficult for us seventy years later to imagine parallels between Kane and the current global media magnate Rupert Murdoch and many of his media industry peers around the world. However as the film relies on unreliable and often biased points of view, the picture of Kane that emerges is vague and fragmented and viewers may be forgiven for thinking, well how did such a man get to be so rich, so famous and so powerful if he made so many mistakes and did such stupid things? Thompson’s choice of interviewees itself is strange: second wife, a former best friend, a loyal business manager, a butler – these are people a trashy sensationalist biography might rely on. What about Kane’s business and political rivals and allies, why aren’t they interviewed? Is it because they might not offer juicy titbits worthy of celebrity gossip magazines? Hmm, that in itself isn’t a good reflection on Welles’s opinion of what movie-goers want to see!

Technically the film is excellent with every shot and series of shots set up, framed and presented carefully for maximum impact and to influence viewers’ impressions of Kane and the monster he became. A series of montages of Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast demonstrates perfectly how their marriage deteriorates over the years: at the beginning of the montage, the two are sitting close together; each succeeding shot shows them ageing and talking at each other rather than to each other; eventually one shot shows them reading rival newspapers; and the end shot shows them at opposite ends of a long table. The placement of certain background props creates optical illusions – in some scenes, characters walk towards the background and end up being dwarfed by the backdrops (often paintings rather than actual built backgrounds) which may show how much their reputations have diminished – or establishes a mood or characters’ relationships to one another – when Susan walks out on Kane, she does so through a series of doors which shows beyond doubt that their marriage is finished and done with. Physical settings and clever framing of the actors and the action – in many shots, three actors are placed in such a way that their heads form points of a triangle and the lighting in the scene will focus on one actor and make that person the centre of attention – often indicate more than action and dialogue alone and together can do what is happening in the plot, how the actors’ characters relate to one another and even give a hint of what is to happen next.

The sequencing of the shots that move the plot back and forth in time can be very smooth and clever: in the segment of the film in which Jedediah Leland is being interviewed, the change in time is signalled by the background changing behind Leland while he is speaking and then Leland himself gradually darkens and disappears into the scene being remembered; when the film comes back to Leland in the present day, the foreground of a previous scene in which Kane is typing Leland’s last review becomes the background to Leland and the interviewer. The background darkens and Leland’s nurses later emerge from it.

The final shots of the film are amazing to behold, showing off the hundreds of art objects, furniture pieces, office equipment, toys and other bric-a-brac Kane accumulated in his life. These inanimate items perhaps reveal more about Kane and his desire to control and possess everything, everyone and every situation around him than all the interviewees have been able to say. We finally learn that the one thing Kane could not control was that moment in his childhood when his destiny changed – when he learned of his inheritance while he was mucking about on his sled – and his carefree and happy days were over: this is the apparently profound yet also very ordinary and hardly earth-shattering(?) secret behind “Rosebud”. The very last shot of the film of Xanadu behind the gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, the mansion’s chimney smoking furiously, the fires within its furnace erasing all memory of Kane, is more sinister than sad; Welles couldn’t have known while making the movie that Nazi Germany was about to move Jews, Roma and other groups of people to concentration and death camp complexes hidden deep in remote country areas in Poland.

Welles introduced a number of technical innovations in “Citizen Kane” including the use of unusual camera angles, strong contrasts of light and shadow, and deep focus shots (in which backgrounds are contrasted with foregrounds) and on these innovations the film’s reputation as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film lies. Much credit must go to the cinematographer Gregg Toland as to Welles himself. The acting varies from efficient to hammy and some individual performances (Cotten as Leland, Everett Sloane as the business manager) are better than others. The film’s narrative conceals or misses more than it shows and makes demands on the audience to fill in the missing gaps. We end up knowing that Kane most definitely is an arsehole but how he came to be such a miserable bastard and how the “Rosebud” sled ties into such a development, the film never comes close to even hinting at. Hate to say it but even with Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”, style wins over substance. Kane himself might well be smiling (and Leland grimacing) at the irony.

Still there’s a valuable lesson in “Citizen Kane” in that it demonstrates how early success can be the ruin of people if they’re not sufficiently grounded in a moral code and are easily swayed by flattery and immediate though short-term fame and fortune about how important and influential they are.

To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.