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

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse of La Llorona: cursed by cheap thrills and Hollywood horror film cliches

Michael Chaves , “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019)

As his full-length movie directorial debut, this horror flick perhaps shows all the faults as well as the potential that Michael Chaves has for a career in Hollywood. Chaves does a good job with the cinematography to create a sinister and dark atmosphere and instill a strong sense of dread in viewers as the film rockets along to an inevitable showdown between the protagonist mother Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her nemesis who would claim her children as her own … forever. Chaves laps up all the familiar Hollywood horror film cliches, devices and stereotypes – the ones from “The Exorcist” stand out especially – and sprays them liberally throughout the film. At the same time, a weak and unoriginal script, full of plot holes, ensures that the film remains in hokey haunted-house territory with interesting ideas that stay frustratingly undeveloped.

We have the obligatory header which gives a quick potted history of how the Mexican folklore demon La Llorona came to be: way back, 300 years ago, a noble woman in colonial Mexico discovers her husband has a mistress and she takes her revenge on him by drowning the two young sons she and hubby had together. Overcome with remorse at her sin, she kills herself … Now let’s run 300 years later to Los Angeles in 1973, the year that “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and Anna Garcia is trying to run her two pre-teen kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to school, go to work at the welfare agency where she is a social worker, and keep her household together in the aftermath of her police officer husband’s death. Anna is a case officer for a woman, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), who fails to send her two small boys to school. Anna forces Patricia to yield her two sons, hidden in a cupboard, to welfare authorities. Not long after, the two children are found drowned in a river and Patricia is arrested on suspicion of murder. Patricia knows Anna has two children of her own (that’s why Anna is her case officer) and curses the family. Still traumatised after the death of a husband and father, Anna’s family is soon plagued by the demon La Llorona and Anna herself comes under suspicion by her employers of abusing Chris and Sam.

From then on, viewers are subjected to typical haunted-house scenarios where La Llorona creeps up on and scares the bejesus out of Anna and the children repeatedly, until they consult a former Roman Catholic priest (Raymond Cruz) who now works as a curandero. Scares and chases abound, Patricia turns up for no reason other than to cause more trouble, and one character cops a bullet in the chest.

Somewhere along the way, interesting subplots about how innocent families can fall afoul of over-zealous social welfare workers and end up being torn apart, with dire consequences for everyone, or how people can learn to balance skepticism and rationality with faith and courage as opposed to fear and superstition arise but are thrown over for cheap thrills. Mexican beliefs about the dead and how to protect the living from chaos and evil are nothing more than a commodity to be mined for more profit and made to look laughable and cartoonish. Though the actors work hard to make their roles credible, their efforts, and Cardellini’s work in particular, can come across as over-acting. At least Cruz has the right idea about how to play his character … not too seriously.

If Chaves can get hold of an original script that does not lean on past horror films or horror film franchises for inspiration, he might become a director of note specialising in moodily atmospheric films with arresting visuals.

Exposing propaganda at work in “The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story”

“The Thom Hartmann Program: The American Destruction of Venezuela – The Real Story” (21 February 2019)

In recent months, with the 2020 US Presidential year looming on the horizon, there has been talk of a set of programs and policies known as the Green New Deal (named after former US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s that invested in infrastructure construction and stimulated job creation and employment during the Great Depression) to address national issues such as failing infrastructure, climate change and its effects, unemployment and rising social inequalities across the nation. A major objection to the Green New Deal, usually lobbed by neoconservative politicians and think-tanks, is that its programs will lead to hyperinflation and economic / political instability of the kind currently (or supposedly) present in Venezuela under Nicolas Maduro’s Bolivarian socialist government. On this radio talk-show, host Thom Hartmann invited Dr Richard Wolff to discuss this objection and the real agenda behind the false association of the social-democratic policies proposed and the economic situation in Venezuela.

Much of the first half of Hartmann’s conversation with Wolff focuses on the definition of hyperinflation (a situation in which too much money is chasing too few goods) and how the phenomenon can occur in any political / economic environment regardless of the prevailing ideology. Wolff points out that the hyperinflation argument is trotted out in public to dissuade voters and even aspiring politicians (and presidential candidates) from favouring government policies and programs spending money on infrastructure construction and maintenance projects that would generate jobs and incomes – and thus more tax revenue – and help reduce social inequalities. Such programs, including a nationalised healthcare system, have their consequences such as reduced healthcare expenditures in the future (because the population ends up much healthier if health insurance is subsidised by the government rather than privatised). Wolff says the issue is that such government policies must be paid for by increased taxation, particularly taxation of the wealthy, and this is the issue that neoconservative politicians, talk-show hosts and think-tanks (and the people and organisations who fund them) object to.

The actual discussion about Venezuela involves a comparison of the people in Maduro’s government and the Constituent National Assembly, most of whom are of mixed ancestry, and the anti-government National Assembly, all of whom are of white European ancestry. Wolff makes the point that Maduro’s difficulties in governing Venezuela and steering the nation’s economy away from disaster stem from the old Venezuelan white minority elite’s determination to maintain its power and control of the country’s resources at the expense of the majority poor, and US sanctions on the country which include the freezing of Venezuela’s financial and other assets held in foreign countries.

The discussion is densely packed with information and jumps from one topic to the next, due to the restricted time allocated to Wolff. I daresay though that viewers and listeners will learn much more about the political and economic reality in Venezuela, and the US propaganda use of that country’s dire economic straits to browbeat Americans into accepting agendas that impoverish and degrade them even more than they currently are.

Cynicism and citizenship for sale in “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas”

Francis Plourde, “Operation Mr Chen: The Hidden Face of Quebec’s Golden Visas” (Enquete, September 2018)

In 1986 the Canadian federal government and the Quebec provincial government pioneered investment programs encouraging wealthy migrants with at least $2 million in assets to settle in Canada and Quebec province respectively, provided that, among other conditions they had to meet as immigrants, they invested a minimum amount of $1.2 million (as a loan to the respective governments) into the country or province to generate business, revenues and jobs. Since 1986, thousands of immigrants have gained permanent residency in Canada through these programs. In 2014, the federal program shut down over concerns about its effectiveness but the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program (hereafter QIIP) continues. An investigation by Radio-Canada’s current affairs program Enquete in 2018 reveals that QIIP has degenerated into a financial scam that encourages tax evasion, money laundering and the Canadian economy’s dependence on money – much of it from China and Hong Kong – sloshing through banks and other financial institutions to prop up excessive property speculation in Vancouver and other major cities.

The Enquete investigation takes a multi-pronged approach to covering all aspects of this investment scheme and its consequences for Canada’s economy including hiring a Hong Kong man to pose as wealthy prospective businessman investor Mr Chen, with plenty of money and a shady history of businesses and tax evasion to match his wealth, who approaches an immigration consultancy to inquire about obtaining permanent residency in Quebec and a Canadian passport. What journalist Francis Plourde discovers through “Mr Chen” and his “secretary” using hidden cameras is that immigration consultants and lawyers connected with QIIP are prepared to overlook the huge gaps in the would-be migrant’s business and tax affairs and even suggest that he change his name to “Bruce Lee” (ha!) and acquire citizenship in a dodgy Caribbean tax haven place to evade both Canadian and Chinese tax authorities by establishing a trust fund based there.

Interviews with Quebec government public servants who worked in Hong Kong dealing with QIIP applications and the immigrant consultants and lawyers who represented or were asked to vet wealthy clients wanting permanent residency status in Canada reveal the extent of the corruption involved; the undercover operation using the fake investor Mr Chen confirms the sloppy way in which applications were processed and how consultants turned a blind eye to applicants’ shady financial pasts. The officials who worked in Hong Kong speak of not having enough time to do full due diligence work on applicants’ documents and of being pressed by the Quebec government to accept applicants in spite of not having the time or the resources to check and authenticate their papers.

The investigation also examines whether the QIIP program has delivered economic benefits to Quebec in the generation of new business and jobs in that province. While bureaucrats and new small to medium-sized firms in Quebec are enthusiastic about government programs that fund their growth and development, what the investigators found that the money loaned by investors (interest-free, for five years) to Quebec was placed with Investissement Quebec (hereafter IQ) which invested the money in funds at market rates. The interest earned would be invested in actual businesses. Further investigation with an economist found that the number of jobs generated by investment by IQ was far less than IQ itself claims. On top of this, the revenue earned from IQ’s investments has been low due to very low interest rates over the past decade (2008 – 2018). If this were not enough, much of the revenue has to be paid to immigration consultants in commissions for referring prospective immigrants to QIIP so the amount invested in new businesses is much, much less than it could be.

A further consequence of QIIP is that most Chinese immigrants – they make up the majority of the QIIP immigrants – end up in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where they drive up the prices of properties and help create property speculation bubbles. Many immigrants commute between Canada, China and Hong Kong, and rarely or even never set foot in Quebec. They pay very little income tax in Canada – indeed, buying property is itself a form of tax evasion – while Vancouver suffers from an overheated property market in which local people are effectively barred from buying their own homes, and Vancouver city authorities suffer the burden of supplying education and health services to foreign families that contribute very little to Canada.

In effect, the whole QIIP project has created a financial monster in which the main beneficiaries are financial institutions and people gaming the project as if it were a giant casino. The program has created opportunities for money laundering and taxation evasion. It appears that neither the Canadian nor the Quebec government seems to care very much about the adverse economic and social consequences that QIIP creates for communities in Vancouver and other cities where wealthy immigrants have flocked to buy up mansions and expensive apartments and to educate their children in private schools, as long as money is flowing into the country. In the process, an elite transnational class of people dependent on rentier income derived from property speculation and with no concept of national loyalty is created.

Above all, the notion that citizenship can be bought at a price, and the conditions attached to the purchase of citizenship can be disregarded, as long as the buyer brings plenty of money, is cynical and says quite a bit about the grubby motivations and aims of the people who dreamt up the idea of fast-tracking residency status and citizenship on the basis of material wealth.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226): rehashing stories ignored by US mainstream news media

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #226)” (RT America, 6 January 2019)

The first episode of “Redacted Tonight”, hosted by Lee Camp, is a review of the most important under-reported or unreported news stories of 2018 as determined by the long-running Project Censored. He starts off with reviewing Project Censored stories that have already been featured on “Redacted Tonight” such as a story on unaccounted US Federal government spending of some US$21 trillion from 1998 to 2015, and one about how large telecommunications companies claimed that mobile phones and Wi-fi networks are safe. The vast majority of the stories identified by Project Censored are particular to the United States and may not be relevant – at least, not currently – to overseas audiences. Camp smoothly segues from one story (about the opioid addiction crisis in the US) to the next (homeless people being bussed out of cities and across the US to improve those cities’ homeless population statistics) though he does not do the stories in the order Project Censored orders them on its website. If a viewer sneezes, s/he might just miss some stories that are fleetingly covered. International stories include New Zealand’s recognition of the Whanganui River as a living entity and entitled to legal personhood and legal rights; and a global decline in the rule of law as determined by the World Justice Project.

The way in which Camp wanders from one story to the next (and sometimes back to a previous story) may be a bit confusing for viewers and people are best advised to refer to the Project Censored website to find out more about particular stories in detail.

The rest of the episode focuses on investigative reporter Natalie McGill’s story on how private companies profit from prisoners’ communications with their families; and Naomi Karavani’s story on how the FBI recruited Best Buy Geek Squad employees to spy on Best Buy clients’ computer databases, encouraging Geek Squad employees to actively scout for child pornography to get free change.

As with another “Redacted Tonight” episode I saw, Camp has a shouty style (which goes up several decibels in the first couple of minutes!) which can be a little tiresome, though the humour can be very sharp and witty. I’m surprised the show has lasted as long as it has with its format and style of presentation and comedy.

My only criticism of Project Censored is that so many of the stories featured in its Top 25 unreported or under-reported stories actually seem to come from quite mainstream sources like The Guardian (increasingly a neoconservative cheerleader for US and UK government policies) and not from alternative news sources.

Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230): exposing media propaganda on Venezuela’s political crisis

“Redacted Tonight (Season 3, Episode #230)” (RT America, 1 February 2019)

Lee Camp is a stand-up comedian, writer and activist who hosts weekly TV comedy current affairs show “Redacted Tonight” on the RT America channel. Unlike most TV comedy news shows which satirise politics and other contemporary issues, “Redacted Tonight” presents news stories of actual events and issues that are rarely or never mentioned on mainstream news media outlets including print and online outlets in a style that mocks the powerful and their lackeys. The episodes follow a format that focuses first on a current world issue for the first ten minutes or so, and then on a series of ongoing problems (say, about two or three) particular to the United States for the rest of their half-hour running time.

Amid applause from a live audience, Camp launches straight into an attack on the slanted propagandist mainstream news reporting on the political crisis in Venezuela. News media outlets such as CNN portray the legitimate government under President Nicolas Maduro as inept and corrupt economic managers while omitting to mention the harsh and distorting effect of US economic sanctions on the country’s economy and the living conditions of Venezuelans. Also conveniently left out is the effect of Saudi Arabia’s crashing of global oil prices by ramping up oil production and flooding the global market in 2014, in an effort to wreck the economies of its political rival Iran and Russia as well, both nations presumed to be heavily dependent on oil exports for foreign exchange: this had an adverse effect on Venezuela’s economy which has always been overly dependent on oil exports and oil production thanks to previous governments (before the Bolivarian governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) that treated Venezuela as a petrol pump to be exploited.

By carefully parsing CNN reports on the apparent refugee problem and the poverty in Venezuela, Camp shows how sloppy the channel is in failing to match up its reports with the images it presents, and calls attention to the effect of US sanctions on the country which impoverish most people but help enrich the wealthy by legitimising smuggling-in of sanctioned goods by companies or individuals who then sell the goods at inflated prices. Camp even compares sanctions to so-called “smart” bombs which supposedly target terrorists but actually indiscriminately kill everyone else unfortunate enough to be close to the targeted terrorists. He notes that CNN portrayed Juan Guaido’s self-declaration as President in Caracas as having been witnessed by thousands of people, when in fact 81% of Venezuelans had never heard of him. Camp goes on to fill in aspects of Guaido’s background as a protege of US Deep State neoconservative regime-change forces, Guaido having attended George Washington University in Washington DC under the tutelage of Venezuelan neoliberal economist Luis Enrique Berrizbeitia, a former executive director of the International Monetary Fund. (Camp could have quoted Grayzone again and noted that Guaido could have trained in insurrectionist regime-change methods in Belgrade under OTPOR, a US-funded regime-change organisation that organised the protests that overthrew Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1998.)

The segment ends with Camp stating that Venezuelans deserve self-determination, the freedom to work out what government is best qualified to deal with the nation’s problems and end mass poverty without interference from foreign countries.

The rest of the program ranges from covering a climate change protest in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City and how it was superficially reported by mainstream news outlets; to the record of US Federal senator Kamala Harris, currently being groomed by the Democratic Party as a future Presidential candidate, who has been funded by Wall Street banks and pro-Israel lobby organisation AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee); to Camp’s hilarious discussion with John F O’Donnell on the food industry, global agriculture and the benefits of giving up eating meat and going vegetarian or vegan; to an investigation by reporter Natalie McGill on the Internal Revenue Service’s budget and staff cuts, rendering the organisation lacking the experience and knowledge in going after corporations for evading their taxation obligations. At the same time the IRS shakes down poor individuals for money (received from welfare services) through audits conducted by private debt collectors who then charge exorbitant fees for their services!

Camp’s shouty style can be irritating for some viewers so it’s probably just as well the program lasts just under 30 minutes and features other presenters like McGill and O’Donnell so Camp’s larynx can get some rest. The discussion with O’Donnell on the commercial food industry and its exploitation of animals and the human end-consumer alike can go right over some viewers’ heads and barely touches how the industry’s pursuit of profit endangers people’s health and wrecks the environment. On the other hand, the comedy format allows Camp and his fellow presenters the capacity to probe issues fairly deeply and seriously in a way that does not alienate or bore their audience, and to expose mainstream news media as complicit in disseminating propaganda and fake news.

An entertaining introduction to a remote country in “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos”

Masaman, “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos” (2018)

In an entertaining short film of just under 13 minutes, viewers are treated to a fascinating survey of one of Latin America’s least known yet quirkiest countries. Founded by Jesuit priests who established missions in the country to convert the indigenous Guarani-speaking people to Catholicism and to teach them farming and submission to the Spanish crown, Paraguay has a culture with a definite Hispanic foundation and flavour but its people (mostly of European descent) speak two languages, Guarani and Spanish. Being a country of the sub-tropical savanna interior with no sea-coast, Paraguay initially was part of the Spanish-American empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima, before coming under the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata with its capital in Buenos Aires.

Gaining independence in 1811, Paraguay came under the rule of dictators, starting with Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who destroyed the power of the old Spanish elites and created a communal society under conditions of political isolation from other countries. Francia forbade the elites from marrying only among themselves, forcing them to marry local people, and the country became self-sufficient in foodstuffs and manufacturing. Carlos Antonio Lopez succeeded Francia as dictator and ran the country as his personal kingdom though also continuing its economic development. Lopez was followed by his son Francisco Solano Lopez whose ambitions brought Paraguay into a war against its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s, a war that utterly destroyed the country, killing 70 – 90% of its adult male population and completely ruining its society and economy. The occupying victors carved out choice territories and reduced Paraguay to its current small size. After foreign occupation ended in the late 1870s, Paraguay tried to rebuild its population by inviting migrants across the world to establish settlements: hence, a number of utopian and sometimes experimental socialist settlements were set up by migrants from Australia and migrants from Germany led by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the racist sister of Friedrich Nietzsche) and her husband among others.

The film does a good job tying such quirky facts as a mostly European people speaking a native American language, the extreme shortage of adult men in Paraguay in the late 1800s and Paraguay’s reputation for odd (and slightly sinister) utopian colonies together to the country’s unusual history and how that history was influenced by its geography, its lack of a coast-line and the original peoples of the area watered by the Parana River and its tributaries. After the late 1800s, the film more or less neglects Paraguay’s history and recovery after the devastating wars of the 1860s, and how that recovery impeded its political and economic evolution. Not much is said about how Britain viewed Paraguay as a threat to its economic domination of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil through its investments in land and railway construction, and furnished those countries with money and armaments. (Can’t Perfidious Albion keep its nose out of other countries’ affairs?!)

The film uses maps, historical materials and photographs of city and farm life to create an attractive tapestry celebrating the country’s people, and their languages, culture, history and diverse origins. There isn’t much information given about the country’s contemporary politics or its current state of development; one would love to know how it compares with its neighbours in economic development and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. Needless to say, there’s nothing about what Paraguayans think of their country’s future prospects. The film serves as a good general introduction to a country as existentially isolated from the rest of the world as it is physically.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.


Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson): echoes of 1953 death of CIA scientist still reverberating today

Egmont R Koch and Michael Wech, “Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson)” (2002)

Recent news of the death of Chinese physicist Zhang Shoucheng, supposedly through suicide by falling from a building, on 1 December 2018, the same day Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications / electronics company Huawei, was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the bequest of the United States on vague charges jogged my memory of having read about the death of a CIA scientist more than a century ago in similar circumstances. (Zhang was supposed to have attended a dinner with Meng at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.) I had forgotten the name of the CIA scientist but remembered he had been drugged with LSD by fellow CIA researchers without his consent some time before his death. Armed with those details, I did a search on DuckDuckGo and Google and very quickly found what I wanted: information on the death of Frank Olson in November, 1953, in circumstances eerily similar to those in which Zhang died – in Olson’s case, falling through a window on the 13th floor of a New York City hotel and onto the pavement below.

More than 20 years later, in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission released some of the details of the CIA’s notorious MKUltra project, a series of experiments aimed at mental manipulation of human subjects to weaken their resistance to questioning, and the US government admitted that Frank Olson had been doped with LSD. The Olson family pushed to sue the CIA; instead the US government offered them $750,000 and the then President Gerald Ford and the CIA apologised to them. In 1993, Frank Olson’s body was exhumed and an autopsy (the second one done on him; the first had been done soon after his death) determined that, in contrast to the results of the first autopsy, no cuts were present but instead Olson’s head and chest had suffered blunt-force trauma severe enough to have killed him before his body was tipped through the window. In 1997, the CIA inadvertently declassified the 1953 edition of its notorious assassination manual which, among other things, suggested that … The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface …In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him …”. With this information, the Olson family sued the CIA in 2012, without success.

Koch and Wech’s documentary investigates the circumstances in which Dr Olson was drugged and killed, and traces his career as a biological researcher at the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories and then with the CIA. This work took him through some very murky activities with both employers: Olson worked on the US bio-weapons program, experimenting with anthrax among other disease-causing agents, and later was drawn into the CIA’s Project Artichoke program (which investigated interrogation methods that could force people to confess and which included the use of LSD, forced morphine addiction and withdrawal, and hypnosis) and Project MKUltra. Olson became troubled by the direction the research was going into – the research included drugging people and subjecting them to painful physical and psychological torture – and wanted out. His superiors realised he had become a security risk and plotted to get rid of him. The film then starts to jump back and forth between 1953 and 1993, comparing the results of the second autopsy with those of the first, and discrepancies between them being observed. The film details Olson’s last overseas trip to Berlin where he appears to have done some private research on past CIA activities in Germany during World War II and Soviet methods of interrogation. This trip took place against the background of the Korean War, during which the CIA tortured POWs by injecting or threatening to inject anthrax – the very bacterium Olson had experimented on years before – into them. From this point on, the documentary follows the way in which the US government continued (and still continues) to lie about Olson’s death and avoid admitting responsibility and paying proper compensation to his family.

If one compares the circumstances surrounding Zhang Shoucheng’s death – like Olson’s death, also recorded as a suicide caused in large part by depression (which in Olson’s case could have been brought on by LSD ingestion) – one finds they are also quite suspicious. A tenured physics professor at Stanford University, Zhang was noted for his work in quantum physics (with applications for the global semiconductor industry) and was predicted by some to be a future Nobel Physics Prize laureate. He was also a founder of Danhua Capital aka Digital Horizon Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage and growth-stage technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. Danhua Capital itself is funded by Zhangguancun Development Group, an entity owned by the Chinese government which invests in technology innovations. This background and connection to the Chinese government might have been enough to put Zhang onto the radar of a US government agency suspicious of any secret  Chinese attempts, whether real or imaginary, to steal American cyber-knowledge and codes and transfer these to China through Chinese nationals like Zhang working and teaching in the US.

At the same time, the US government is irked that Huawei, being based in China rather than the US, is less amenable to communications ranging from suggestions to requests to threats that it allow US intel and military agencies to gain access into the software in the IT equipment it sells to gather information that could be later used by the Americans to blackmail people or generate disinformation. To this end, the US has persuaded its Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand, and Japan as well, to ban Huawei from supplying equipment for their 5G mobile networks. With Canada now having arrested Meng on charges relating to Huawei trading with Iran (under US economic sanctions), one expects that she will be used as a hostage in China-US trade talks by the US to pressure China to force Huawei into accepting back-door links into its equipment. Such extraordinary behaviour is the kind of sordid horse-trading expected of head-chopping takfiris terrorising civilians in parts of the Middle East.

Incidentally on the same day that Meng was arrested and Zhang died, a factory owned by Dutch tech company ASML, specialising in extreme ultraviolet lithography technology (used in the production of the next generation of semiconductors by Chinese, US and South Korean tech manufacturers), caught fire. This led to ASML advising of delays in supplying this technology to its customers in early 2019. One of these customers is semiconductor maker SMIC which is partnered with Huawei, Qualcomm and Belgian company IMEC to build China’s most advanced integrated circuit research and development programme.

The very strange occurrence of three seemingly unrelated incidents, their connections only becoming clear once the background context to them becomes known, on the same day, and one of these incidents bearing an uncanny resemblance to a death whose causes are still unsolved 65 years after it occurred, is sure to spark off conspiracy theories speculating on who or what may be responsible for them. It is likely that just as Frank Olson’s death continues to be the subject of controversy and his family continues to struggle for justice and closure, so too Zhang Shoucheng’s death will be shrouded in speculation and disinformation. The consequences of what transpired on 1 December 2018 are likely to be very far-reaching, not least because Meng’s arrest alone raises issues of sovereignty for the Five Eyes Anglocentric nations and their ability to control their own political, economic and other relationships with other countries and foreign entities without interference from a third party. Citizens from China, Russia or from any other country with which the US has poor relations or which has been targeted for regime change, will certainly think twice about visiting Canada, Australia or any of the other Five Eyes nations, or indeed any other Western nation; and employers may consider seriously taking away their business from those countries where their employees could be arrested, imprisoned and extradited to the US on false charges.

How a new empire of global finance was created in “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 349: The WWI Conspiracy – Part Three: A New World Order)” (November 2018)

This third and last episode examines how World War I was used by British and American elites to reshape global politics and society, including the global economy, in their favour; and in the process destroy empires and an entire generation of young men across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, and bring about new polities, political ideologies and movements with consequences that still survive to this day. Among other outcomes, World War I destroyed the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turks, either replacing them with weak, unstable states that would later adopt extreme nationalist, even fascist governance, or subjugating their territories to British and French rule that divided them with artificial borders or introduced or encouraged new foreign settlement that itself would result in new conflicts of unrelenting brutality and violence and ongoing instability. The key message of this episode is that not only is war a tool of elites to steal other people’s wealth and territories but is also a tool to reshape society and beliefs and to rewrite histories and traditions to benefit themselves (the elites, that is). Among other things, World War I enabled governments to assert greater control over manufacturing and industry, to mould and direct public opinion by censoring the media and controlling literary, artistic and film output, and (in some countries) to introduce new taxes such as income tax on the general public.

Again with James Corbett’s clear and distinct voice-over narration, easy to follow and to understand, and with archived film footage as a backdrop to his narration, the documentary traces the way in which the Great War fulfilled, for the most part, the goals and ambitions of a Deep State within the British government (and which spread into the US government) in which the United States would be brought back into the British empire as the first step towards ultimate British domination of the world. By installing Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States, American financiers gained financial control of the US economy and of European powers at war by acquiring (through the Federal Reserve) the power to print money, by imposing income taxation and lending huge sums of money to European imperial governments. After 1913, American financiers profited from war financing and gaining ownership and control of major corporations and industries, setting production quotas, standardising products and product lines, fixing prices and developing psychological warfare techniques that would later become useful in mass advertising and public relations.

After 1918, the supposedly victorious European powers Britain and France found themselves so much in hock to Wall Street that in order to pay off their loans, they forced a defeated Germany and its weak new government to submit to paying heavy reparations under the Treaty of Versailles, setting that nation up for political and economic instability and the rise of extremist fascist politics that would dominate Germany. The new post-war financial arrangements also made Europe and Germany in particular vulnerable to the unstable business cycles that dominated the American economy under bankster rule; thus when the Great Depression hit the US in 1929, its effects spread to Europe as well.

The documentary digresses into a brief discussion of how the British and the German governments apparently encouraged Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in their plans to install a socialist government in Russia and even gave them assistance: the German government allowed Lenin and other revolutionaries to travel by train through German territory to Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg, later Leningrad); and Trotsky was briefly detained in Halifax, Canada, by the British while travelling from New York back to Russia in early 1917 after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Russian monarchy was abolished. The documentary insinuates that Trotsky may have been used (perhaps willingly, perhaps not) as a pawn by the British though the Wikipedia entry on Trotsky states that the British government released him from imprisonment in Canada after protests by the socialist Menshevik government in Russia. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Mensheviks in November 1917, Trotsky published “The Secret Treaties and Understandings” that the Russian imperial government had signed with Britain and France to divide up the territories of the defeated Axis powers among themselves. These agreements included the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement which parcelled much of the Middle East between Britain and France, creating new colonies with artificial borders that divided the Arab peoples from one another, and which enabled the British to carve out territory in Palestine for a future Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration, itself initiated by Lord Walter Rothschild who had been a financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, one of the originators of the project to drive the West to war to isolate and destroy Germany and bring the US back under British imperial rule. Thus was the Middle East set on a road leading to repressive and brutal dictatorships, the corruption of Islam by a fundamentalist sect, constant political instability caused by foreign interference and the ongoing brutal genocide of the Palestinians by Israel after its founding by Zionist Jewish settlers in 1948 through acts of terrorism against the British.

Perhaps the saddest and most tragic part of this episode – and indeed of the entire series – comes at the very end when war ceases abruptly in November 1918 and an entire generation of young men, knowing only war and nothing else, suddenly discovers that its life purpose has ended and from then on, its continued existence has no meaning.

This series dovetails with other documentaries and articles I have seen which posit that the British empire has never really ended but has instead mutated into an abstracted global financial empire that continues to brainwash people through dangerous political, economic and social ideologies that keep them divided and weak, and which continually attempts to penetrate those countries such as China, Iran and Russia for their lands and resources by demonising them in attempts to convince people around the world that these nations pose a threat and their governments should be overthrown, by force if necessary. Much recent American politics (at least since 1945) and foreign policy becomes understandable if one assumes that the US has been acting as an extension of the British global financial empire, and moreover is used by that empire to abuse Britain and Europe alike through the European Union. The continuous march towards war against Russia (a nation Britain has hated since the 1700s) and its allies in Iran and Syria who have defied Western regime-change attempts, and the accompanying global propaganda project involving most countries’ news media and cultural industries, should be seen in this context as well.

Apart from the insinuation that the Bolsheviks were tools of the Wall Street elite – it’s more likely that Lenin at least and his followers were happy to use whatever help they could get, wherever it came from, to advance their own aims and agenda, and the idea of using capitalists’ money against their sources would have appealed to the Russians – this documentary series seems fair to me.