Beasts of the Southern Wild: a celebration of life and hope in the struggle against catastrophe and sinister forces

Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)

Can’t be very many films where the main characters are played by a very young girl and a man in his 30s or 40s and when those exist, the characters are usually a daughter / father couple or a variation as in daughter / villainous step-father in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. As with the Mexican film, this work deals with very large themes: in this case, climate change, the class divide between the super-rich and the marginalised poor, community struggle through catastrophe, the celebration of life, hope and one person’s coming-of-age as a potential leader of her community who learns what true courage and love are. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her drunken father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in an impoverished fishing village called The Bathtub which is isolated from the outside world by a huge levee thrown across the Mississippi river. Not that Hushpuppy or her people care: to them, the people on the other side of The Levee, holed up among the chemical factories and oil refineries, live like cowards and get just one holiday a year while every time is party-time in The Bathtub.

Wink is sick and does his drunken best to care for Hushpuppy whose mother died young; Hushpuppy tries to care for Dad especially when he comes home from the hospital and she cooks food for him. Her caring ends abruptly when her home blows up because she doesn’t know she has to turn the gas stove off. School is a ramshackle shack run by a local woman who fills the kids’ heads with stories about how the ice caps are melting and revealing the fossils of aurochs (the ancient ancestors of cattle) and in Hushpuppy’s mind the aurochs are reviving and travelling south (and maybe north) from the poles. Because Hushpuppy has probably never seen cows before, the aurochs take the form of gigantic hairy pigs with tusks growing out of their heads. Viewers are alerted that there will be a confrontation between Hushpuppy and the aurochs.

Everyone expects that their world will be submerged when the polar ice-caps melt but then the Mother of all Storms in Hurricane Katrina hits and dumps rain, hurricane-force winds and thunder upon them. Wink and Hushpuppy take to their boat (part of a ute balanced on two oil drums with a motor attached at the end) and call on all their neighbours who have survived. People start rebuilding their world, replanting crops, caring for animals, trying to clean up; in the meantime, the aurochs continue their advance towards The Bathtub. Wink and his mates blow up The Levee to release the excess salty and polluted water poisoning the animals but too much has been damaged for The Bathtub to salvage and recover. Shortly after the world beyond The Levee intrudes and takes everyone to a disaster relief centre but some of them, Wink and Hushpuppy among them, escape. By this time, Wink is terminally ill with what could be pneumonia or tuberculosis.

The film is at once visually beautiful and ugly: it’s ugly in a technical sense because Zeitlin relies exclusively on hand-held cameras to capture the sense of viewing the world through a young girl’s eyes – if only he realised that the story and Wallis’s portrayal of the character were more than strong enough to carry off the project. In the film’s early scenes, the camera is very jerky and most scenes would have been better filmed with a still camera so that they acquire a diorama-like look; this would have impressed upon the audience that the film is an allegory with the characters representing larger-than-life archetypes. It is not difficult to see Hushpuppy as a very young hero figure in the making. Later as the narrative develops and Hushpuppy grows in maturity, the jerkiness of the camera is not so evident but it can still be annoying in parts. The beauty of the film lies in its close details, its lingering over the animals that share Hushpuppy’s home and its close identification with and sympathy for Hushpuppy’s worldview and that of her community so that when they bust out of the disaster relief centre and return to their ruined homes, viewers understand their reasons for doing so, of which more will be said below.

Parts of the film are very hokey – one hardly imagines that such an isolated and poor community can be all that bothered with global warming, much less hear of it, and the house fire scene hardly has much credibility – and the last third of the film ascends into sheer fantasy when Hushpuppy and three of her friends visit the Elysian Fields, cunningly disguised as a brothel, with a local fisherman (Charon in disguise), where Hushpuppy meets her mother or a mother figure. At this point, the film might be said to have retreated entirely into Hushpuppy’s dreamworld; the reality, if people persist in believing it still exists, is that Wink and Hushpuppy are not among those who have broken out of the disaster relief centre and have been swallowed in a deportation away from The Bathtub (see more below).  The social realism / magic realism combination suggests The Bathtub might represent the original People of the World, direct descendants of those who walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago to populate the entire planet: the film’s coda suggests as much. Wallis is the major highlight as the brave, resilient, imaginative and curious Hushpuppy with Dwight Henry providing plenty of emotional depth, resolve and resourcefulness as her father, by turns strong and determined, violent and irresponsible, joyful and tragic. The music, partly composed by director Zeitlin, is another major highlight: strongly bluegrass and zydeco in its basic style, it has zest and colour and rocks with a strong three-four beat and rhythm.

What emerges in the use of social realism / magic realism is that emergency relief, when it does come, might have a sinister agenda behind it to break up The Bathtub and destroy the community’s bonds. Many of The Bathtub’s residents fail to escape the disaster relief centre and in real life after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, they would have been transported to Texas, Oklahoma and beyond, and forced to stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where some would have died after breathing formaldehyde fumes. In the meantime their properties would have been claimed by private developers to build holiday resorts for the rich. The message in the film is that everyone and everything has a place in the universe and its networks cannot and should not be usurped by force if everything is to function properly and sustainably.

Russia’s new sorrow in “Krokodil: Siberia’s Tears” – possible cheap exploitation and political grandstanding by VICE

Alison Severs / Vice, “Krokodil: Siberia’s Tears” (2011)

I stumbled across short video clips made by a documentary channel Vice  News which specialises in a form of journalism which takes its audience up close to events so you feel as if you’re actually there with the interviewer and camera person. The look is very deliberately amateurish and appears to have very little editing; it might be called guerilla reporting for want of a better term. Host Severs plays multiple duty as investigative journalist, tour guide and travel companion as she leads viewers into Novokuznetsk, a provincial city in central Siberia in Russia and microcosm of an alarming heroin epidemic fuelled by black market imports from Afghanistan.

The short documentary is only 25 minutes long but what Severs uncovers is so depressing and horrific that viewers may be glad it ends when it does. The city itself is immersed in a post-industrial depressive funk and the pasty-faced citizens have little future to look forward to. Poverty seems the only way of life and even buildings have a look of black-dog sadness and dejection. In this world, Severs discovers that apparently 20% of the people have a heroin addiction and some of these people are also addicted to a dangerous heroin substitute which they call Krokodil for the scaly-skin look that is a side effect of the drug. (Although 30,000 people who are hooked on heroin out of a population of over 547,000 in Novokuznetsk turns out to be about 5%.) Properly called desomorphine and made from codeine, iodine and red phosphorus with a drug called Tropicamide sometimes substituting for the codeine, Krokodil is much cheaper than heroin, is easy to make as the ingredients can be bought from pharmacies and gives rise to alarming side effects such as organ failure and severe gangrene that literally rots large chunks of flesh and can leave bone exposed.

Severs traipses around town to find out how communities are coping. The news is not good: she finds an American-sponsored charity assisting addicts to overcome their problem but often at the expense of renouncing Russian Orthodoxy and converting to feel-good clap-happy American populist (and possibly fundamentalist) Christanity. A local Russian Orthodox priest is interviewed but he and his Church seem helpless against the Krokodil problem. One interviewee suggests that the influx of heroin into Russia is intended by outside agencies such as al Qa’ida to undermine the Russian population; given the sorry history of the CIA channelling cocaine into areas of Los Angeles and other American cities where black Americans lived, instigating the crack wars that devastated these districts, in the 1980s, I’m inclined not to discount the man’s opinions as a half-baked conspiracy theory.

Close-ups and handheld camera following Severs very closely indeed lend intimacy and immediacy to the reporting, as does allowing the people Severs meets to speak for themselves and talk about their experiences with using heroin and Krokodil or treating addicts. Footage of Severs walking over rubbish on floors in abandoned buildings and finding empty syringes in the filth drives home the very banality of the settings where Krokodil is used and viewers can easily imagine that such scenes could occur in their own neighbourhoods.

Severs notes the Russian government seems to be ignoring the problem of Krokodil in Novokuznetsk but otherwise passes no judgement on its action or inaction. Why this should be so is interesting in itself; one would think that if the black market importation of heroin or the substitution of Krokodil for it were undermining Russian society, President Putin’s government would be doing something about that. The style of reporting on display here seems sympathetic towards the interviewees, and there is no slack-jawed moralising or evidence of a patronising attitude. This has the effect of drawing out interviewees’ responses so they end up saying much more than they would otherwise if a more confrontational interviewing approach had been used. The danger here is that they might say more than they actually want to and the reporter must bear the responsibility for eliciting more information than the interviewee wants to give.

Quite an informative if sometimes depressing documentary this appears to be though it may very well be biased and manipulative. The VICE team does not interview any medical experts or refer to more authoritative sources about the problem. I appreciate that the VICE team’s budget might have been small but I also wonder whether it might have been better used. There is also the possibility that VICE has a particular political axe to grind in relation to anything to do with Russia, and in its insistent focus on the heroin / Krokodil problem; if so, the documentary may be exploiting the addicts interviewed for cheap gain.

 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.

 

 

9/11 Intercepted: dry and technical presentation of what may have actually occurred in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks

Rob Balsamo, “9/11 Intercepted” (2011)

Over a decade has passed since the World Trade Center attacks occurred and we are still no closer to knowing what actually happened on that day that changed the course of world history. In the meantime an abundance of stories and theories about what occurred varying greatly in credibility has accumulated. Suffice to say that the official US government account of the events, accepted by the mainstream Western media, is a poor representation of the facts. This documentary, presented by Pilots for 9/11 Truth, presents a more credible picture of the trajectories of the four commercial passenger jets that either crashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and Department of Defense headquarters in Washington DC or went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The presentation is fairly dry and concentrates closely on a detailed examination of the routes the four planes took. Chris Kelley’s gravel-toned narration of what happened at what time agrees with the timeline information I have gathered over the years from various Internet sources. There is heavy reliance on computer simulations of the planes’ routes, radar data, graphs of figures and tape recordings of conversations among air traffic control staff. It is clear from the narration and the visual information presented that the hijackers hit pay dirt on September 11, 2001: the jet-fighters were either slow to scramble, flew at low speeds or were occupied in various wargames that were taking place that morning. Errors, misunderstandings and false information in communication between air traffic control and airforce bases in the eastern US are noted. There is a plausible suggestion that at least three jets swapped with drone aircraft and that the drone aircraft crashed into the WTC buildings and the Pentagon.

The information given of military jets engaged in war games, their pilots presumably confused as to whether the new information they were receiving was for real or part of their simulation exercises; of fighters lying in the wrong directions or towards cities far from their bases when jets at other military bases were much closer; of commercial jet aircraft being flown like jet-fighters, an indication that either their pilots had military training or the planes themselves were being remotely controlled; of reports of other aircraft converging with the hijacked jets and then diverging from them; of aircraft still flying after supposedly crashing into buildings; of poor communications with phones not working and aircraft positions being wrongly reported … all this indicates that the official narrative of the 9/11 events is filled with errors piled upon errors with the result that  general public has been misinformed to an extent that suggests the US government has deliberately deceived the world over what happened. Moreover, the US has used the events of September 11, 2001, as an excuse and prelude to conduct continuous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.

Rather lamely, the documentary urges American viewers to contact their Congress or Senate representatives to request a full formal explanation of what occurred on September 11, 2001. However if the political representatives have been bought by individuals, firms or other agencies that have an interest in maintaining the official 9/11 narrative, then lobbying those representatives will amount to very little apart from polite acknowledgement and interested people should contact Pilots for 9/11 Truth  or similar organisations such as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth dedicated to investigating the truth behind the WTC and Pentagon building attacks and United Airlines Flight 93’s crash in Shanksville.

“9/11 Intercepted” does not cover other aspects of what actually happened on or before September 11, 2001, such as the unusual stockmarket activity that occurred over two weeks starting in late August 2001 on the New York stock exchange and other bourses around the world and which involved the stocks of American Airlines and United Airlines and of various companies that had their headquarters in the World Trade Center buildings; the mysterious collapse of WTC7 in the evening, announced by the BBC several minutes before the building actually fell; and the shooting death (changed to stabbing in later news reports) of passenger and former Israeli Defense Forces’ Sayeret Matkal officer Daniel Lewin on American Airlines Flight 11 before the plane plunged into the North Tower of the WTC complex, among other anomalies.

 

Cosmopolis: profound road-movie meditation on corporate nihilism and its destruction of people

David Cronenberg, “Cosmopolis” (2012)

A profound and thoughtful film on the nature of the corporate fascist mind-set, “Cosmopolis”  is a quasi-cyberpunk road movie across New York City. Billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his stretch limousine early in the morning for a hair-cut appointment. His path is not straightforward for the President of the United States has come to NYC on a state visit and security barricades have been put up in those parts of the city where the limo would travel through, plus his favourite rap singer Brutha Fez (K’naan) has just died and his funeral cortège will also interfere with and slow down the limo. As the limo also serves as his office, Packer meets with his art dealer / mistress (Juliette Binoche), his finance officer (Emily Hampshire), a corporate guru / philosopher (Sandra Morton), a couple of analysts (Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka) and his doctor for various appointments. He catches sight of his estranged wife (Sarah Gadon) a few times and tries to convince her to return but she refuses as she needs her energy for work. Throughout the day, he receives news that his humongous fortune, dependent on his prediction of the Chinese yuan’s depreciation being correct, comes crashing down and that his life is in danger from a stalker.

Due to the aforementioned obstructions and an unexpected protest, Packer’s trip to the barber takes much longer than expected – it takes over 12 hours! – during which time Packer reveals himself as a highly complex and troubled man: cold and emotionless externally, yet vulnerable, hungering for real human contact, searching for meaning to his existence and ultimately self-loathing. The plot is flimsy and absurd, and characters speak in a highly stilted and staged way, indicating that the source material is either a novel or a play – as it happens, the film is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. Packer’s conversations with his employees and other people range over topics such as the nature of information and information flows and their value in capitalist society, the distinction between the present and the future, finding meaning in life and the value of wealth and material goods to one’s self-esteem. By night Packer realises that he is a ruined man yet seems quite happy and even feels free; and when he comes face to face with his stalker (Paul Giamatti) who may or may not kill him at point-blank range, he does not plead for his life and even appears to welcome the release that death may bring him.

“Cosmopolis” is cool, calculated and stunningly beautiful in a clinical, Ballardesque way in which the thin line between intellectual, abstract rationality and rich-kid hedonistic psychopathy disappears. The rapacious dehumanising values of corporate capitalism unfold through Packer, his hermetic limo world and the contrast it makes with the rough-n-tumble cosmopolitan world of NYC. R-Patz is an ideal choice to play Packer: his blank and beautiful face conveys subtle emotion and intelligence, and his acting is efficient. One can truly believe that here was once a golden youth, highly intelligent and university-educated, restless and wanting to know and to control more, a thrill-seeker desirous of experience and love, but now perverted by material greed and sensuous hedonism. First indications that his perfectly aligned, designed world will crash around him come from his two analysts and doctor who informs him that his prostate is asymmetrical. It will be interesting to see how Pattinson’s career progresses from “Cosmopolis” onwards: he can act in the kind of challenging role that once upon a time the likes of James Spader, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger chased and if he and his agent can find the right character roles in future films, his star will surely eclipse those of the current generation of Hollywood actors.

The support actors are a little wasted as they are all talented but their roles have very limited screen time: the stand-out is Paul Giamatti as the vengeful and deranged ex-employee who believes killing Packer will restore meaning to his own life. Other memorable characters include the security chief (Kevin Durand) whose whole life revolves around protecting Packer to the extent that he literally is Packer’s shadow and is nothing without him; and chauffeur Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola) who together with the barber (George Touliatos) provide the warm proletarian contrast to Packer’s world of virtual reality and ruthless control of information and resource flows where real-life people like the security chief can be dispensed with at the barrel of a gun.

There are strong themes of authenticity-versus-inauthenticity, the quest for self-knowledge and identity, and the danger to one’s sanity of being caught up in a world where abstraction and emotionless rationality reign supreme and the need to know and control everything down to the tiniest detail such as the shape of one’s prostate absorbs all one’s attention. Packer represents a profoundly nihilist individual who has become God in his world and it seems appropriate that to be truly Übermensch, he pays for his nihilism by destroying everything he has, including his own life.

Fuji: inventive film makes the banal fresh and scrutinises the art of animation

Robert Breer,”Fuji” (1974)

An interesting short of a train trip taken through the Japanese countryside with Mount Fuji dominating the rice-fields and towns along the way, “Fuji” uses a combination of rotoscoping (in which the animation is based on tracing outlines of actual photographed scenes) and drawings of people and geometric objects to create a highly personal and impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that constantly interrogates its formation and organisation. Each image or series of images is subjected to a mini-cycle of birth, development, breakdown and re-birth of images from the abstract to the realistic and back again as if the art of animation is continuously re-invented anew. Early scenes of the Japanese landscape have a watercolour-painting quality with transparent splashes of blue or red in the background; later scenes stress the flatness of the rice paddies or the potential abstract and geometric qualities of paddy fields and industrial chimney stacks. Drawings are pared right down to the strictly linear and utmost minimal detail yet don’t look at all primitive or faux-naif; proper if ever-changing perspective is usually shown and figures are portrayed accurately if sketchily. The rhythmic train-noise soundtrack sets the pace for several picture montages, thus establishing a tension between sound and visuals.

There’s no definite story to be told here, the short is basically a snapshot of a train journey that Breer himself made while travelling in Japan in 1970: he took photographs of the trip and these are the basis for “Fuji”. The continual shift in perspective and point of view focuses the viewer’s attention on what might be considered fairly banal subject matter: after all, nearly everyone takes a train trip through the countryside at least once in life-time and most people living or who have lived in Japan would have travelled past Mount Fuji on the train. The trip becomes an arena in which surprises may happen and if they don’t, the journey is a stimulating ride anyway.  Passengers boarding the train may look ordinary but the way they are drawn makes them interesting subjects in themselves.

At once realistic, abstract, experimental, fluid and fragmented in appearance as well as in construction, “Fuji” illustrates how the banal can be made fresh and how the art of animation itself can be subjected to viewer scrutiny and study in real time as it were.

A Man and a Dog Out For Air: inventive and original experimental animation piece

Robert Breer, “A Man and a Dog Out For Air” (1957)

Why have I never heard of this wonderful animator before? This very short animation piece is wonderfully imaginative and minimalist to the point of experimental abstraction. In this 2-minute wonder, a man takes his dog out for a walk and through their eyes we experience what they encounter on their amble through the neighbourhood. What they see isn’t out of the ordinary – they see birds in the sky for one thing and that’s about it for objects overhead (sorry, no fleets of alien spacecraft come all the way from the other end of the Milky Way galaxy to take over our planet) – but the cartoon held me spellbound thanks to the extreme minimalist approach used.

Well yes, the background is plain white paper and the lines are no more than moving serpentine scribbles that emerge from two straight lines drawn on the page. To the accompaniment of mechanical bird calls and occasional traffic sirens, the scribbles move quickly and gracefully to portray landscape, weather, animal life around the man and his dog, various other objects they see and finally a set of stairs. Before the film ends on the word “End”, we are treated to a couple of views of the eponymous portly gentleman and his pooch.

The film takes on the quality of abstract drawings as the lines shift and what actual drawings emerge are usually in naif or primitive form. The pace is very fast and some viewers might need to see the short a few times to realise that they’re seeing things from the man and dog’s points of view and that they have to use their imaginations to make sense of the squiggles and lines as they fold and unfold constantly over the screen.

Remarkably “A Man and a Dog Out for Air” isn’t even the most experimental of Breer’s shorts, the fellow did more animation that’s even more breath-takingly original and creative. I wanna see it all!

The Dark Knight Rises: bloated film seizes on Western anxieties to deliver a politically conservative message that undermines idealism

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City enjoys peace thanks to the Dent Act, named after Gotham City Chief Attorney Harvey Dent, which has allowed Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to bust the power of crime gangs and clean up the city’s corruption. He’s invited to a function at Wayne Manor on Harvey Dent Day and has a speech ready but at the last minute declines to read from the speech (because it is an admission that he and Gotham City have been living a lie which is that Dent died heroically and not as a fallen criminal). A US senator is kidnapped at the function so Gordon later leads a team of police that includes rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to find him; Gordon goes into the city sewers but falls into the hands of arch-criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) who takes Gordon’s speech off him. Gordon manages to escape and is recovered by Blake and hospitalised.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living a reclusive life in Wayne Manor, allowing it and his company Wayne Enterprises to crumble since he invested in a clean energy project that was to harness fusion power but shut it down after learning the nuclear core could easily be converted into a bomb. Wayne comes to believe that one of his Board Directors, Daggett, has hired Bane to help mount a take-over of Wayne Enterprises. One of the other Board Directors, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is put in charge of the energy project along with Board Chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He decides to return to Gotham City as Batman, at which news Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) walks out on him. While preparing to leave, Pennyworth tells Wayne that his old love Rachel had decided to leave him for Harvey Dent before she died.

Tracking down cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who nicked his mother’s pearl necklace while in disguise as a maid at the Harvey Dent Act function, Wayne as Batman meets Bane who tells him he (Bane) has assumed leadership of the League of Shadows after the death of Ra’s al Ghul. Bane has just stolen the contents of the Applied Science Division of Wayne Enterprises through a heist on Gotham City’s bourse and proceeds to cripple Batman and put him away in Ra’s al Ghul’s prison. There, Wayne learns the story of a mercenary who fell in love with his warlord employer’s daughter and fathered a child with her. He’s thrown into the prison but is later discharged, not knowing that the daughter took his place instead. The daughter gave birth to the child and was later killed by the inmates; the child survives only because one prisoner protected it. The child is later able to escape the prison but its protector was attacked by the inmates. Wayne assumes the child is the young Bane.

Back at the GC ranch, Bane has tricked GC’s finest into an underground sewer trap labyrinth and taken over the city under the pretence of reclaiming it for the city inhabitants. The nuclear core of the energy project is turned into a time-bomb. Gordon goes underground and contacts Blake. Bane reveals the truth about Dent publicly by reading Gordon’s speech before TV cameras. The prisoners Gordon had put away under the Dent Act are released. Various prominent GC movers and shakers, among them the right-hand man of Daggett (Daggett having been killed earlier), are subjected to show trials and either killed or forced to walk across the thin ice of Gotham river.

After several months recuperating and retraining, Wayne escapes Ra’s al Ghul’s prison and returns to GC where he joins with Lucius Fox, Gordon, Blake and Kyle to reclaim GC and stop the time-bomb from detonating and destroying the city. As Batman, Wayne meets Bane again and the two fight: Batman nearly defeats Bane but is cut off by Miranda Tate who reveals herself as Talia al Ghul, the grand-daughter of Ra’s al Ghul who escaped the prison as the child; Bane is revealed as her protector. In the meantime, Gordon has cut off Tate’s remote control to the bomb. Kyle arrives in the nick of time to kill Bane while Batman sets off after Tate who is determined to take manual control of the bomb.

The film is more unified than its predecessor and less dependent on silly skits but still histrionic and heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. Terrorism as a topic is treated rather simplistically though this is due to the movie format: Daggett, representing big business, works together with the rogue Bane, a catch-all figure for shadowy charismatic terrorists and mercenaries, to subvert the GC elite but Bane through superior cunning subverts Daggett’s ambitions and becomes GC’s warlord. He seizes on the cultural Zeitgeist with its loathing for political corruption and its socialite sycophancy and institutes a Reign of Terror to satisfy the hoi polloi’s desire for vengeance on its leaders. On a more personal level, Wayne learns how to properly use his wealth to benefit the people of GC and discovers physical and existential freedom and redemption; his burden of championing the weak and vulnerable passes onto Blake whose real first name is revealed to be … ha! Robin.

There are little connections with Nolan’s previous flick “Inception”: a cafe scene earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises” repeats at the end of the film in such a way that it can be interpreted as a dream and there is a message about breaking out of a rut and striking out on one’s own. The myth about Harvey Dent which Batman and Gordon had colluded on in the belief that GC would be unable to cope with the idea of Dent as a criminal, and blown by Bane, is accepted as false by GC citizens without too much ado or the chaos and despair that Gordon had feared would happen. Whether the GC people can kill off a myth only by replacing it with a new myth – which might say something “fundamental” about human societies (that no society can function without believing in lies: a Straussian philosophical influence is felt here) – depends on how viewers interpret the second cafe scene.

For guys as careful as Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan are in constructing narrative architectures,  they can’t hope to cover everything so it’s inevitable that incongruities should occur: how could Wayne not realise that Tate is Talia al Ghul and how did she manage to inveigle herself and Bane into the GC elite? how is it that Wayne survives having his back put out? why does Bane spare his life? what happens to Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who pops up as Bane’s judge and jury of the GC elite? The ending is too pat and tidy with GC finally taking its place among squeaky-clean utopias, Gordon being redeemed by his heroic derring-do in helping to defuse the bomb and Blake finding his true role in life as defender of helpless and vulnerable city orphans.

Like other bloated Hollywood block-busters, “The Dark Knight Rises” suffers from too many pyrotechnics, stock film tropes like a spectacular opening sequence in which Bane and his myrmidons kidnap the Russian inventor of the project nuclear core, unbearably melodramatic orchestral music, and an essentially conservative message about how billionaires really are good guys at heart and how individuals of different classes and backgrounds can band together to defeat a common enemy and save their city after the Federal government has abandoned it. The Nolan brothers enlist the Occupy message and people’s outrage against crooked banksters and mafia banks to suggest these can be corrupted and made to serve selfish individual agendas that lead to mob rule and the kind of terror that once existed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in China during the Cultural Revolution (and even in parts of the southern and western United States from 1880 to the 1960s with lynchings of mostly black people, though some white people and a Jew were also lynched); some reviewers will obviously take that as a cynical move on the brothers’ part.

It is unfortunately true that idealism can be subverted by forceful and charismatic individuals whose real motives are sinister. Especially if outrage at institutions and networks that perpetuate class hierarchies can be directed against particular individuals who are then demonised and forced to suffer punishment for the crimes of many; this of course means that the institutions themselves never undergo re-examination and can survive intact with new leaders. Messengers are shot but the message itself is lost in the changeover from old leaders to new leaders. Structures and the attitudes and values associated with them and which maintain them stay in place to corrupt a new generation of leaders. The Batman trilogy’s outlook is cynical about the prospect for social improvement and change, and the message is: don’t question the system / if it ain’t broke, why reinvent the wheel?

The film is loosely based on a three-story series that began with “Knightfall” and continued through “Knightquest” and KnightsEnd”, released by DC Comics in the early 1990s. References to the series and to “Knightfall” particularly in the film include scenes in the sewers where initially Bane has his hideout and an early line about crocodiles living there also (a reference to Batman villain Killer Croc), Bane breaking Batman’s back and Bane’s release of the GC prisoners. “Knightfall” has a theme about Batman realising that he can’t fight underground crime on his own and needs the help of others such as Nightwing, the Huntress and Oracle and her Birds of Prey to clean up corruption wherever it occurs; this idea is present also in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Unfortunately this third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is no great advance on the mythos of the vigilante masked crusader begun by Bob Kane during the Depression years some eighty years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Cyberpunk trio of shorts proves substance still triumphs over style

Marcio E Gonçalves, “Rendering Lisa” (2010)

Mehmet Can Koçak, “Perspective” (2011)

Jesus Orellana, “Rosa” (2011)

A homage to cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, “Rendering Lisa” is a short home-made film about the pitfalls of entering virtual reality. Some time before the events of “Rendering Lisa”, a young man steals money from an eco-terrorist group and explodes a bomb in a park, killing himself and his girlfriend Lisa. The young man’s surviving brother Michael (Kenny Leu) is strong-armed by eco-terrorist group member Harry (Shahaub Roudbari) into hacking into a computer program that contains the details of the bank account where the brother put the money. Problem is, once Michael’s in the program, he must speak to an avatar to access the account details and the avatar turns out to be Lisa (Jennifer Vo Le) who only wants to talk about the brother and a past romance the real Lisa had with Michael. After several attempts, Michael finally convinces Lisa to hand over details of the account and the relationship they had looks to be reviving until something unexpected happens …

It’s a pithy little short in which Michael realises the thin line between reality and virtuality is wafer-thin indeed, and at the end of the film he’s tempted to revive that lost romance with “Lisa” in spite of all that’s happened. Roudbari and Leu over-act their parts but as they’re not professional actors (though Leu looks like Cantopop romeo material), their histrionic efforts can be forgiven. The action is crisp and fast and editing is very well done. The stuttering electronic music is annoying and Gonçalves could have done without it entirely. The opening and closing credits are wonderfully done by Gonçalves and perhaps if he had more money, he could have added more special effects to make his virtual world look more realistic and colourful than the real world, so much so that Kenny could have been tempted to stay there with Lisa and never return to Harry.

“Perspective” is a clever Turkish cyberpunk short by Koçak who stars as the nameless hobo in a futuristic dystopian city. He pays money to a pimp who hands him some software and then enters a derelict building and goes up to an empty room where he finds a computer keyboard. He plugs the software into the keyboard, jacks into it by plugging a wire into a portal in his head (in the manner of the hero of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”) and using his retinas as a computer screen, pursues a red-haired girl in the software. He is interrupted by an intruder who turns out to be a mirror image of himself. Or is the stranger really an image? Horrified, Koçak ‘s character challenges the avatar to a duel with predictably disastrous results.

This is a highly intriguing film with a well developed concept and everything in the short working together: the film’s ambience is grimy and oppressive in a way reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and the sharp-edged music, used sparingly, suits the dark tone of the short. The use of hand-held camera conveys claustrophobia and comes into its own when the hobo meets his double and there’s a delicious twist when he reaches out to touch what he expects should be a mirror. The animation is cleverly inserted into the short and viewers get a real sense of first-person perspective with the clever use of the viewing screen as the hobo’s eyes which double as the computer screen.

Not quite so clever though versatile nevertheless is Orellana’s “Rosa”, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a female android fights for survival against two other androids in an endless post-industrial labyrinth. Although the animation is beautiful and Gothic in appearance and ambience, the plot features too much superhero fighting, jumping and other unbelievable hi-jinx, and no actual story is told. We never find out why the male android and a second female android, in appearance the clone of the protagonist, are so hostile towards her or why the original female bleeds blood that turns into roses when the other female android doesn’t have the same effect on her surroundings when bloodied. Pity really because Orellana did everything himself and the details of the building’s backgrounds and the near-religious associations and nostalgia they evoke are stunning and Romantic: “Rosa” is a real work of love as well as labour on Orellana’s part.

I hazard that Orellana originally wanted to make something different from what’s actually realised but his bosses at Hollywood insisted on the short being “accessible” to the lowest common couch-potato public denominator so that meant having to include a lot of tiresome martial arts faffing and flailing about. The short might have worked better if the androids had fought, then faced a common enemy so they reconcile their differences to defeat the foe, and maybe as they’re deciding whether to live and work together or resume their petty grievances, the film cuts out.

Best of the trio is “Perspective” for its clever story with a twist done on a limited budget.

Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees: a moral and political film under the visual overload

David Blair, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” (1991)

One of my favourite science fiction films since I first saw it in the mid-1990s on video loan from the University of Wollongong via my local library, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” is a home movie featuring inventive computer animation, archived film reels, stills, experimental filming methods, not a little humour and some live action; together these illustrate an unusual science fiction plot of body horror, a murder mission, a particular view of history (especially the history of communication technology, Iraq, World War I and the travails of the Jewish people) and an existence beyond death.

The film tells the story of Jacob Maker (director David Blair), a disaffected nuclear technician at the Los Alamos nuclear science laboratory who feels guilty that his work in designing and testing remote-controlled missile guidance systems, the early 1990s fore-runners of current drone aircraft, leads to refined mass slaughter; he tries to cope with the dissonance he feels between the nature of his work and his need to support himself and his wife by spending afternoons communing with his hive of bees. These are no ordinary bees: they’re descended from a special breed of  honey-makers brought back from Iraq, then British Mesopotamia, by Jacob’s grandfather James Hive Maker (William S Burroughs – yes, that William S Burroughs, famous junkie and novelist!) and his wife’s grandfather in 1917. One day while in a trance with his bees, Jacob receives an unexpected gift that totally transforms his life: the bees penetrate his head through his ear and punch the Bee TV into his brain. The Bee TV gives him a mission and a purpose in life: the universe is unbalanced and he must restore the balance by killing someone.

So a strange odyssey begins: Jacob ventures out into a missile test area, following the directions of the Bee TV, where he comes to The Garden of Eden Cave where he finds giant bees related to his Mesopotamian friends living in the Land of the Dead and revelations about his family history, the true nature of his bees and details of his mission, including the identity of his victim, come to him. He may be the reincarnation of his wife’s grandfather Zoltan Abbasid who married James Hive Maker’s half-sister, a former telephonist, inventor of a kind of telescope and enthusiastic member of a society dedicated to communicating with the dead. James was jealous of Abbasid and arranged for him to be killed by his bees so he, James, could inherit Abbasid’s bees. After death Jacob passes through lives in other dimensions before he is transformed into a missile sent to kill the reincarnations of those responsible for Abbasid’s death, now living in Iraq on the eve of the first US invasion of that country in 1991.

It’s a hokey story, yes, but one made serious and even plausible by the first-person / stream-of-consciousness point-of-view documentary style of narrative structure, presented in a casual, monotone and above all calm voice by Blair himself. Superficially linear in its story-telling, the plot flips back and forth between past and present, and between present and future, and presents a bewildering mish-mash of philosophies and mythology including esoteric occultism and spiritualism, Bible stories, motifs and themes, belief in karma and reincarnation, and New Age ideas about the karmic connections among the living that continue into their next lives after they have died. Startling and unusual computer animation tricks flip the screen, roll it, spin it around and even turn it into silhouettes of lever-arch folders to simulate the movements of birds and other flying creatures. Animated images can look quite dated but are still very inventive and  Blair and his wife, both computer programmers, use them cleverly to create three-dimensional figures and geometrical shapes and patterns, and to emphasise the alien nature of the bees, the Bee TV and the worlds they normally inhabit.

The information overload, gathered from a bewildering variety of unrelated and influences – Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow”, set during World War II, is one influence here – fleshes out the very bizarre story of karma and transcendence with the goal of atonement and redemption for past sins and the love for humanity that overcomes violence and death. The joining of Jacob, Zoltan Abbasid and their two bomb victims after death suggests forgiveness on both sides. Karma works in such a way that those who kill with violence will themselves be punished with death by violence, as the dead seek vengeance on those who kill them. Jacob himself is both victim and murderer … or is it the other way around? In its own, rather flat way, “Wax …” turns out to be a surprisingly moral and political film. It passes no judgement on the morality of the Iraq War or the wars that follow in its wake but it does suggest that those who kill may themselves be killed in the same way … if not in this life, then in the next.

Repeated viewings are needed to understand the film more fully; each repeat reveals something new and unexpected humour emerges as well – how can there be telephones to dial the emergency number even in the deepest caves or the most barren deserts? Those overwhelmed by the many esoteric references that relate to nothing in their current lives (to say nothing of what they might have experienced before their birth and what will greet them in their next lives) can just relax and enjoy the strangest of strange head trips.