The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

Samsara: compassion for humanity is the intent of a meditation on cycles of life, death and rebirth

Ron Fricke, “Samsara” (2011)

Fourth in a series of wordless visual documentaries by Ron Fricke (the previous films being “Chronos”, “Sacred Sites” and “Baraka”), “Samsara” is intended as a meditation on the human experience throughout the world. The word itself refers to the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, with the inherent implications of impermanence, faith and hope that arise. The best and worst of human life are offered in the film yet Fricke, producer Mark Magidson and their team and fellow collaborators offer no message or political views to accompany the images; whatever messages people take away from viewing this film depend entirely on what they are able to bring to it. For this reason, many viewers will find the film frustrating to sit through: they will be expecting the film to tell them what to think and to believe from the images presented and the way they are sequenced, and they are very likely to be disappointed that the film tells them nothing.

In fact, the film does have something to say: it’s a kind of travelogue through the activities of humans in all their beauty, goodness, desolation, drudgery and degradation. There is a definite narrative: it begins with Buddhist temple dancers in Indochina and Thailand welcoming viewers to the film, and switches to Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a mandala with tiny coloured beads on a stone floor while novice child monks eagerly watch. The camera zooms into the mandala and takes us on an odyssey that lasts for almost the entire length of the documentary. Early images can be shocking: there are scenes of flood devastation and wreckage in a retail centre, a school, a canteen and other buildings, and as the camera draws back, we realise we are looking at places ruined by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. A mythical Great Flood that might have heralded the beginnings of human civilisation is suggested here. From then on, the film treats us to scenes of children being baptised, to a businessman smearing clay and paint compulsively and repetitively over his face, to shots of a cathedral with emphasis on its height, vastness, the beautiful stained-glass windows and the stone columns that form into ribbed vaults which look oddly like industrial pipes.

Then the documentary moves into a series of scenes that create a cycle: the birth, life and death of machines. Yellow-suited employees pass through toll gates into a factory complex, assemble into work teams and file into their allotted places on rows and rows of assembly lines. There, they assemble various parts together and the end product (electric irons) comes into being. The film then jumps to check-out lines at a discount store in the US where shoppers also pass through different toll gates to pay for purchases bought in bulk. A woman loads bundles of toilet roll paper into her trolley. Later, we see cars being driven onto a ship for export. The film then jumps to scenes of cars and other vehicles being crushed at a wrecker’s plant. Soon we see mounds of discarded electronic gadgets being picked over by people for recycling. This part of the film says something about how machines rule our lives and have assumed an organic nature of a sort.

A second cycle then starts: food production. A battery farm packed with chickens appears: the frightened chooks are swept up into a machine that vomits them onto a conveyor belt to be processed into fried nuggets for fast-food enterprises. A herd of dairy cows chomp down on hay while they are being mechanically milked on a huge merry-go-round in a cavernous factory building. Tiny piglets fight for mum’s teats while the sow rests in a cramped stall along with all the other sows doing likewise with their babies in their cramped stalls. We later see abattoir workers cutting up pig carcasses and preparing the various cuts that will be sold in butcheries. What follows next can be horrifying: a hugely obese patient presents before a doctor, people at a fast-food restaurant gobble down fatty burgers and chips, and people prepare to undergo plastic surgery. This part of the film emphasises the extent to which humans have colonised and mechanised nature and food production to the extent that it is starting to affect our physical and mental well-being.

The film segues into a series of scenes and images that say something about how humans are continually changing themselves and changing nature for benefits that are short-term and sensual but offer nothing really concrete. There are disturbing images of sex dolls and of beautiful Thai girls in bikinis dancing for tourists; a close-up shot of the girls’ bodies reveals they are ladyboys (transsexuals). A geisha looks at the camera and a tear falls from her eye.

As the documentary progresses, the messages become darker. A man in Nigeria is buried in a coffin designed to resemble a revolver; I guess if you live by the gun and die by the gun, you can also be buried in a gun. This scene introduces viewers to death and scenes that suggest death is a very profitable industry indeed. Hatred and war are celebrated with military parades. Rifles and bullets are made and sold in any way catering to people’s tastes; even pink rifles for women are available. Tribal peoples in Africa acquire sophisticated weaponry and pose with them for the camera. Eventually the film segues into images of religious faith and hope: the Hajj pilgrimage season in Mecca provides plenty of stunning images. The film concludes with the aforementioned Tibetans rubbing out their mandala, mixing the coloured dust and collecting it into a bowl; the temple dancers performing a final dance and the lead dancer shutting her eyes; and a final shot of desert sand dunes that suggests that human life will eventually pass away with time and only nature is timeless yet ever-changing.

The documentary makes much use of high-speed photography and slow-motion filming to draw analogies and highlight contrasts among different scenes and images. There’s considerable humour in the film: there are close-up images of people with immobile faces, the only activity present being the movement of their eyes as they follow (unseen to viewers) computer images; two Muslim women attired in niqab pretend not to notice a poster showing young male bodybuilders decked out in tiny briefs behind them; Filipino prisoners at a rehabilitation centre perform a mass aerobic work-out dance routine; people ride in ski-lifts and ski down snowy slopes in an indoor skiing centre located in the United Arab Emirates. There are also heartbreaking scenes: a youthful Israeli soldier checks the identification papers of a middle-aged Palestinian man in his car, the driver’s image seen in his left-hand mirror, his face stoic and dignified and trying not to appear humiliated because the young pup beside him has usurped the order in which the younger defer to the older; a US Army war vet with a heavily scarred and burnt face gazes calmly at the camera; an Indonesian sulphur miner, his upper back and shoulders calloused from constant lifting and carrying of loads, carries huge chunks of the yellow stuff out of the smoking ground.

There are many close-up shots of people looking directly into the camera, their faces deliberately stony and expressionless, as if daring the viewers to look them in the eye or accusing the viewers of having stereotyped views about them. The American family posing with rifles, the teenage girl clutching her pink rifle, challenges viewers to call them a bunch of gun-nut fruitcakes. The scarred war vet asks for no compassion or apology, just respect. A girl in a slum, gazing out over a pond, turns to the camera and stares at the viewer indifferently before turning back to the view to dream of a future life away from her sordid surroundings.

It is all a splendid kaleidoscope but I do have a few criticisms about the film: the music is annoyingly New Age banal and intrusive and in several scenes, the ambient soundscapes would have been enough; some image sequences move too fast for audiences to be able to absorb all that they see; and the length of the film (over 100 minutes) is such that much of it ends up forgotten after the end credits start to roll. The jump from one location to another can be very confusing and there are no sub-titles that indicate where images were filmed; viewers need to have a good knowledge of geography and culture to make sense of what’s going on and what messages are being told.

Ultimately the one thing that viewers need to know to make sense of “Samsara” will be one that most Western viewers are unfamiliar with, and that is some knowledge of the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of life and life as a continuous series of cycles. For many if not most Westerners, that is an idea that will be hard to accept. The intent might be to encourage compassion in viewers for humanity with the ultimate idea being that compassion will motivate them to help others, but given that even in Buddhists, the reaction can be more often indifference to the plight of humanity and thence moral hollowness, what hope for the rest of us?

Tsar to Lenin: an incredible compilation of archival footage of the Russian Revolution

Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman, “Tsar to Lenin” (1937)

Presented by Mehring Books and the Socialist Equality Party, “Tsar to Lenin” is an incredible historical document of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising that saw off Tsar Nicholas II and his government in February 1917 through the October Revolution of the same year to the civil war that lasted three years and which resulted in Soviet victory and domination of the lands that became the Soviet Union in 1921. The film is a compilation of archival footage found and assembled by Herman Axelbank (1900 – 1979) in chronological order with a spirited and often dramatic narration by Max Eastman (1883 – 1969). The original photographers and film-makers who made the films in the assemblage numbered over 100 people who came from all walks of life: Russians of all classes including the Tsar himself and his Royal photographer, foreigners including Americans, Japanese and others,  those who supported the Soviets and those who opposed them.

The film begins with a sardonic description of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia: the lives of the aristocracy, particularly those of the Tsar and his courtiers, are portrayed in some detail. We see the Tsar at leisure with his courtiers, playing a ball-game and later swimming nude in a lake. (Eastman’s narration smirks that the world has never seen a king presented as “he really is”.) The Tsarevich is shown with palace guards who help him up on his horse. From there the film flits to the lives of the upper class and progresses to the peasants and industrial working class people and at this point the story takes off as workers go on strike and march in demonstrations in St Petersburg. We soon go to war with the Russian forces and Eastman informs us that the Russian army fared very badly against Germany and its allies. Against this background, the Tsar increases his repression of the workers and peasants, protests break out and in February 1917 the Tsar is overthrown.

The new Menshevik government tries to continue prosecuting the war against Germany and this in itself leads to more demonstrations. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin gain popularity on an anti-war, populist platform that promises land reform, food and other material security, and peace to the workers and peasants. In November 1917 (late October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) and from there Soviet influence spread to the rest of European Russia and Helsinki in Finland.

At the same time, anti-Bolshevik resistance – the White movement –  forms from a motley collection of monarchists, republicans, army generals, disgruntled nobles and political reactionaries, and Ukraine under nationalist and anarchist influence attempts a breakaway from Russia. Foreigners are invited by the new Ukrainian government to assist and the West eagerly sends troops and supplies to the anti-Bolshevik forces through several fronts including Kiev, northern Russia, the Ural mountains region and even Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan. The fighting is hard and atrocities are committed by Soviet and enemy forces alike. The highlights of this section of the film include a shocking sequence of images in which troops commanded by anti-Bolshevik leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak execute Soviet POWs in a field and repeatedly look into an open mass grave to make sure all their prisoners are dead. Another very distressing scene shows mummified Russian Orthodox monks being exhumed and then re-interred in a ruined building.

The film concludes with the victory of Soviet forces, backed by the Russian people, against the Whites and their foreign allies, and the final sequence of scenes shows some unforgettable footage of Vladimir Lenin animatedly explaining socialism to his audience. The man’s eyes are shining with excitement and his being gives no indication of the mysterious condition (syphilis?) that would afflict him in his later years and lead to his untimely death. Eastman’s narration portrays Lenin as an idealistic and passionate man with a vision that encompasses all that would benefit the Russian people.

Major highlights in the film are many and include detailed listings of people prominent in the Menshevik and Bolshevik political elites, a bird’s eyeview of a scene in St Petersburg in early 1917 in which Tsarist troops fire on panicking people running away and scenes of fighting in northwestern Russia during the civil war. There are uplifting scenes as well, notably those of the celebrations that took place in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. There is also an impressive and detailed listing of delegates who attend the Internationale in Moscow in 1920. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is introduced quite late in the film and appears for less than a minute; his small footnote appearance suggests that his contribution to the momentous events from 1917 to 1921 was either insignificant or perhaps sinisterly underhand.

The film is well put together and Eastman’s narration, often slyly mocking of personages like the Tsar and Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, is easy to follow. School students and undergraduate university students will find this documentary a good introduction to the events of the Russian Revolution; I myself thought I knew a fair amount about the events of 1917, having studied some Russian history at school, but I obviously forgot a great deal about the 1917 – 1920 civil war. In the film, Axelbank and Eastman make no apologies about whose side they’re on; they’re clearly on the side of Lenin and Leon Trotsky who is also portrayed as a heroic leader. (The booklet that accompanies the DVD that I watched explains that Eastman later repudiated his former radical views and embraced a more politically conservative viewpoint.)

And even if viewers are not history students, they will still discover much in the documentary that resonates with contemporary global political issues today: the Western invasion of Russia in 1917 and the war the Soviets were forced to fight against foreigners – the film states that the Bolsheviks were up against 14 foreign forces – has its parallel with events currently unfolding in Syria where mercenaries from Iraq, Libya and other countries, backed by Saudi Arabia and NATO, are fighting with the Free Syria Army against  Syrian government forces.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

Skywatcher: a compelling film offering an alternative explanation for cause of global climate change

Dave Dahl, “Skywatcher” (2012)

Here’s an intriguing documentary that offers an alternative explanation for climate change that should have us all re-thinking that overseas holiday we were saving up our hard-earned bucks for: suppose climate change is caused not by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but by chemtrails of silver iodide and other toxic chemicals left high in the Earth’s atmosphere by small planes and commercial jet aircraft? This is the theory posited by writer and producer Dave Dahl, an amateur climate researcher, who suggests that cloud-seeding programs by the United States government and other countries for the purpose of creating precipitation for areas that supposedly need it are not only having effects on global climates but are also poisoning ecosystems, potentially threatening the collapse of many animal and plant species, and ultimately threatening human survival.

The documentary is 25 minutes long and is a mixture of images and PowerPoint-styled captions and title cards. The voice-over narration is soft and rapid and viewers unfamiliar with the chemistry of the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the chemical effects of silver iodide and other chemicals like strontium and aluminium among others might need to re-run the documentary a few times. There are some computer animations and diagrams that help to illustrate Dahl’s narration but they are not easy for a general public not familiar with cloud-seeding concepts to follow and understand.

It’s perhaps ironic that the discoverer of cloud-seeding and the potential of silver iodide in cloud-seeding programs should have been Dr Bernard Vonnegut, the brother of the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most caring people ever to have trod this planet. Beginning in the 1940s, the United States used dry ice in cloud-seeding programs and in the 1960s replaced dry ice with silver iodide; since then, most states in that country now routinely use silver iodide in cloud-seeding programs to modify the weather to increase precipitation. The silver iodide (formed from silver nitrate and potassium iodide) is sprayed by small planes flying in the troposphere. The irony is that doing so may actually increase the likelihood of drought as there is only so much water vapour in the atmosphere and so the more drought there is, the more states will resort to cloud-seeding. US taxpayers end up footing the bill for cloud-seeding which is often done by private weather modification companies that charge US state and county governments which then pass the costs onto ratepayers through their utilities bills.

Spraying silver iodide into the troposphere to precipitate storms causes the jet streams of commercial jet aircraft, flying in the stratosphere (above the troposphere) to form icy clouds on reaction with the silver iodide which over time lose their distinctive streamlined shapes to be confused with clouds that have formed naturally. It’s difficult therefore for most people to distinguish between natural clouds and clouds formed from trails left by jet aircraft and so the problem has remained undiscovered until now. In some parts of the western United States, clouds formed from jet streams have become more common than natually formed clouds.

Although the documentary appears credible, more work of course has to be done to validate the theory. Its plea to viewers to become more aware and to demand and/or initiate change near the end borders on the idealistic as it doesn’t address the possibility that information about cloud-seeding and its consequences for human health and the long-term survival of global ecosystems might have been withheld deliberately by governments and corporations from the public. Why have governments and business allowed climate change debate to be dominated for so long by discussions about the role of carbon dioxide in climate change if they know that silver iodide might really be the cause? Do governments and business have an interest in preventing the public from knowing or finding out information about the consequences and dangers of using silver iodide? Are there alternatives to silver iodide or to cloud-seeding? Does cloud-seeding actually benefit agriculture and other industires dependent on rain generally or is it being used in such a way as to favour large agribusinesses and other corporations for profit?

As news emerges of forests of large trees dying in many parts of the world on top of reports of collapses of bee colonies, especially in the United States and Europe where commercial jet air traffic is most intense in areas that may be most heavily seeded with silver iodide, and other reports on populations of birds and other animals being affected by toxins that can be traced to silver iodide in the atmosphere, “Skywatcher” is a timely warning indeed.

The documentary can be viewed at www.artificialclouds.com.

 

Achieving the Perfect 10 – Parkettes gymnastics documentary: a shallow presentation on gymnastics culture and practice

Achieving the Perfect 10 – Parkettes gymnastics documentary (CNN, 2003)

This CNN TV sports documentary focuses on the Parkettes gymnastics club for girls and women and its quest for Olympics and world championships gymnastics glory. The club is located in Allentown, an industrial working-class city in Pennsylvania which has probably seen much better days, and I suspect this gives some context to the intense competitive culture the club fosters and the willingness of the girls and their families to submit to it. The documentary follows a number of young Parkettes girls in training, all of them dreaming of the day when they will be selected for the US national women’s team, compete at Olympic Games level and win that elusive all-round gold medal, and the ordeals they must encounter and work through: the intense coaching, exercising long hours six days a week at the expense of nearly all other activities including schoolwork, health and injury problems, and the heavy sacrifices they and their families make towards the goal.

It’s a swift-moving documentary which bounces from one topic to another – the training schedules, the demands coaches make, the competitions, health, injuries, pain, dieting and eating issues, psychological problems – with constant voice-over chatter, intrusive music, fast-moving shots of gymnasts performing, sharp cuts to close-ups of coaches’ faces as they urge the girls to work harder. This limits discussion of the various issues that arise to their most obvious and familiar aspects but prevents deeper exploration into their ultimate cause: the intense do-or-die competitive nature of modern sport in the United States, underpinned by the competitive ethos of the capitalist system, combined with the cult of celebrity worship. If girls are unable to progress as quickly as they are expected to, they must drop out and everything that they and their families have done – which might include uprooting from their communities to move hundreds of kilometres just to be closer to the gym, or mums and dads commuting up to three hours each day to see their daughters practise moves – will come crashing down and all will face a blank future. Tremendous pressure is placed on girls psychologically as well as physically and it is no wonder that a child as young as six or seven years of age as one girl, Ashley, is urged by her parents to continue performing at an important meet on a broken ankle.

It would be easy to condemn starry-eyed and gullible parents who don’t challenge the coaches, or the coaches themselves who are so dead-set on success that their minds block out everything else, but the problem is that if any one of them left the system, the space vacated is quickly filled by another so we have to look at the culture of the sport itself and how it has developed over the years to be what it is now. If we were to do this, we’d probably find that obsession with Olympic medal glory combined with zealous nationalism is at the heart of the intense competitiveness of gymnastics to the extent that the sport becomes a mass assembly line of vulnerable youngsters who risk their long-term health and mental well-being for a brief couple of years of elite performance. One notes that in China, the competition for selection to the national women’s gymnastics team is also highly intense and we cannot discount the possibility that coaches beat and bully young gymnasts into performing feats of acrobatics, strength and flexibility.

The documentary did come in for criticism from Parkettes club coaches and gymnasts who were concerned that CNN did not present an accurate picture of the club’s activities and focussed only on the negative aspects for viewer titillation. The style of presentation, not far from that of a Hollywood action thriller, does the club and its coaches, coming across as barking sergeants, no credit either. The girls are often shown in tears or in pain from injuries and I did think the documentary was insinuating that the girls weren’t as tough as they and their coaches and families claimed they were. The girls’ parents were often not presented in a flattering light and one detects a feeling of superiority towards them from the CNN presentation because of their working-class origins.

Not much new that people don’t already know about gymnastics in a general way is revealed in the documentary and a better portrayal of women’s gymnastics and its culture in the United States that gives some credit to the girls and their parents and takes a harder stand against the culture and values of commercialised sport and the wider culture that supports it and similarly competitive sports is needed.

Is Ethics based on Virtue? – an adequate introduction on how to live a good life and develop moral character

John Allman, “Is Ethics based on Virtue?” (1998)

Part of a series “The Examined Life” which brings theories of ethics to bear on contemporary life, this program considers Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers’ ideas of how to live a good life and achieve moral character through cultivating virtue and looks at what virtue ethics can and can’t offer us moderns looking for a model of the good life that we can follow. The program takes the form of a series of interviews with academics and philosophers who explain what virtue ethics is and is not, augmented by voice-over narration, and scenes of people going about their daily lives. The entire program is anchored by a scenes of a man playing a piano which provide a calming musical soundtrack against which exposition is laid out.

The program is good in explaining what virtue ethics is and how it has come to be an attractive philosophy for those wanting to put moral principles into practice in everyday life. Virtue ethics involves thinking about one’s life as a whole and thinking about it as having a narrative one imposes on it instead of it being a string of incidents that might have meaning or direction imposed by others or indeed no meaning or direction at all. The goal of virtue ethics is to achieve eudaimonia (the satisfaction that having a complete life brings) and cultivating and practising the virtues that will achieve it. To have a virtue, one approaches it as if it were a skill or talent to develop: it must be practised until it becomes habit and to practise it, one acquires knowledge of the virtue and what it involves by observing and copying others. Reason helps one to acquire knowledge of virtue and together with emotion and appetite which it also moderates, one will gain wisdom, courage, self-discipline and commitment to practise virtue. Virtue itself is defined as the middle ground or mean between an excess of a quality and the excess of its opposite: for example, courage is the middle ground between cowardice and fear on the one hand, and foolhardiness and arrogance on the other.

The appeal of virtue ethics is made obvious: it considers emotion, social relationships and social responsibilities, and personal history and long-term commitment in the development of character. Continuity of life is emphasised. At the same time, there are aspects of virtue ethics that we would say make it an incomplete and imperfect theory to apply to our lives: virtue ethics does not give us clear rules as to what is right or wrong, and does not tell people what to do and what not to do in particular situations, especially extreme situations; it can’t guarantee that everyone who practises virtue ethics will end up stronger morally; and it can’t predict that different societies, practising virtue ethics, will end up with the same or similar sets of virtues and be good societies to live in. Virtues are simply traits of personality and character that become habitual by practice and by themselves are not the opposite of sins. People in one society can agree what traits of character are good and should be encouraged while people in another society might agree on different traits of character and encourage those to be developed. (It could be said though that certain character traits are universal across all societies: even societies of gangsters and other crooks will agree that, among themselves, loyalty, trust, capacity for hard work and self-control among other virtues are necessary.) Virtue ethics, in other words, is simply one guide to living a good life and achieving satisfaction but by itself cannot tell us what exactly virtues are and what they are not, and does not lay down the law as to what people should or should not do.

The program offers a way out: virtue ethics can be combined in an individual’s personal philosophy with other systems of ethics such as utilitarian ethics (based on self-interest and how to bring about good for the maximum number of people), Kantian ethics (based on absolute rationality) or existential ethics, all of which can illuminate strengths and weaknesses in one another.

As an introductory guide to ethics for the general public, “Is Ethics based on Virtue?” serves its purpose well enough but is rather dry and can be hard to follow for those people who don’t have much time or Sitzenfleisch to think much about life beyond its immediate, day-to-day concerns. Young people in high school and at college undergraduate level may be unimpressed by the program’s sedate presentation.

 

 

 

Frida: conservative bio-pic turns artist Frida Kahlo’s life into unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama

Julie Taymor, “Frida” (2001)

A very pretty and colourful film on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), “Frida” plays the artist’s life straight, concentrating on her personal life and loves from the time she was a teenager to the last weeks of her life. Although the film can be quirky in parts, having been directed by Julie Taymor, and makes good use of Kahlo’s paintings and other works to show audiences the connection between Kahlo’s emotions and feelings about events in her life and the art she produced, ultimately the whole shebang is very conservative and even dull towards the end as it drags towards the artist’s death. I guess in the current political climate, Taymor and actor Salma Hayek, who nursed an ambition to make a film about Kahlo’s life for a long time, have done what they could and played safe by narrowing the scope of the bio-pic to a straight retelling of Kahlo’s life and portraying Kahlo herself as an icon and role model for women.

The film starts in 1922 when as a school-kid Kahlo (Hayek) first meets Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) who was at least 20 years older than she was and already famous as a painter of murals. A couple of years later Kahlo suffers the trolley-car accident that was to affect her health for the rest of her life and direct her life away from studying medicine and becoming a doctor and to painting. After painting for some time, Kahlo remembers Rivera and asks him to evaluate her paintings so that she can decide whether she should continue. Rivera gives her paintings and painting ability the thumbs-up and so begins a long and tortuous romance between Kahlo and Rivera and their involvement in socialist revolutionary politics. Although Rivera and Kahlo marry, Rivera continues to have affairs with other women and over time this causes a rift to develop between the two. To infuriate Rivera, Kahlo herself embarks on affairs including one with Parisian chanteuse Josephine Baker and one with one of Rivera’s girlfriends. The last straw comes when Kahlo discovers Rivera making out with Cristina her sister and she boots hims out of her life. Divorce quickly follows.

Along the way Rivera accepts a commission to paint a mural “Man at the Crossroads” for Nelson D Rockefeller (Edward Norton) at the Rockefeller Center and the couple go to New York City for the course of the commission. When Rockefeller discovers Rivera has included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the painting, he demands that Rivera remove it but the muralist refuses so the commission ends and the couple return to Mexico. In the film the mural is destroyed and nothing more is said about it although in fact years afterwards Rivera was able to recreate the mural in Mexico from photographs taken of the original work. By 1937, Rivera and Kahlo have separated but go through the motions of being a married couple to give shelter in Kahlo’s childhood home to Leon Trotsky and his wife who have fled Stalin to come to Mexico. Predictably Trotsky and Kahlo are embroiled in an affair that upsets Trotsky’s wife Natasha and so the Russian couple must leave Kahlo’s house. That’s about the extent of the politics in “Frida”.

Although it’s probably too much to expect a 2-hour film to be exact on all the details of Rivera and Kahlo’s life together, “Frida” skips out some very significant details such as the fact that Rivera was an atheist and often railed against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican society and culture. Details about aspects of Kahlo’s life are often missing as well which lead to some lapses in the script and dialogue. The whole film is reduced to a sometimes unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama in which Kahlo and Rivera come off as a stereotyped cartoon couple who find they can’t live together while married but then find they can’t live separately after divorce.

After Kahlo’s death, I half-expected there might be a few titles stating that Rivera remarried after Kahlo’s death but died in 1957. It seems rather cruel that the film should have left this fact out – I’m sure the audience would have loved to know that after Kahlo’s death Rivera realised she’d been the best thing that ever happened to him – but this would have been inconsistent with the film’s intended portrayal of Kahlo as a contradictory creature who wanted to be independent and have a career yet wanted to be Rivera’s wife and to cook all his favourite meals and bear his children.

Where the film excels is in detailing Kahlo’s colourful character and eccentric fashion sense, and how her paintings were an extension of her emotional life, her pride in Mexican culture and life, and her private pain, both physical and psychological. The exuberance of Mexican culture is apparent although the portrayal can be stereotyped with an emphasis on the “exotic” aspects of the culture (such as the obsession with death and the Todos los Santos celebration in which families visit the graves of dead relatives and have parties with them). The Kahlo family home is a significant character in the film.

The actors do good work with what they are given and Hayek probably gives the performance of her life but overall the film isn’t remarkable and doesn’t do the figure of Kahlo much justice. The gender politics behind the making of the film ultimately pulls it down. One wonders why women like Julie Taymor, who already enjoy advantages that didn’t exist in Kahlo’s time, have to mould Kahlo to fit the template of independent career woman married to her art and philandering husband instead of just showing Kahlo as she was, warts and all. I’m sure Kahlo would have appreciated that.

 

 

The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

Alternative Views’ Gulf War documentary: damning criticism of UK and US complicity in Iraq-Kuwaiti discord

 Frank Morrow / Alternative Views, Gulf War documentary (1990s?)

Found an interesting documentary on the Gulf War which delves into the history of Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia just after the end of the First World War and the demise of the Ottoman empire. Under Ottoman rule, there were not political boundaries separating the regions that became these countries and Iraq and Kuwait in particular were part of the historical region of Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with the cultural and commercial capital based in Baghdad. Once these areas came under British rule, the British carved out the territory that became Kuwait in 1922 so as to deny Iraq, which resisted British rule forcefully during the early 1920s, a sea-port. Over the next 20-plus years, the Kuwaitis and Iraqis endeavoured to reunite their countries but were continually thwarted by the British. After the Second World War, the Iraqis continued their effort to reunite the two countries right up to and after 1961 when the British granted Kuwait its independence. Iraqi leaders who attempted reunification tended to be bumped off violently, and the assassins usually turned out to have the blessing of (and assistance from) the British and, later, the US through the CIA. In the 1960s, the Ba’ath Party was in power in Iraq and a rising star in that party was Saddam Hussein.

The documentary jumps roughly three decades to the early 1990s when Saddam Hussein is President over a war-weary and impoverished Iraq, having fought an 8-year-long war against Iran that resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for Iraq. The film speculates that based on evidence the CIA may have tricked Iraq into invading Iran, duping Hussein into believing that the Iranians were weak and disorganised after the Shah’s downfall and that parts of Iran would be easy pickings. Certainly the US was supplying Iraq with weapons and intelligence on Iranian troop movements, and at the same time was supplying Iran with weapons, ensuring the two countries would bleed each other. The effect of the Iran-Iraq war was to restrict the supply of oil, ratcheting up oil prices and profits for oil companies.

The documentary consists of various talking heads dominated by Frank Morrow narrating the recent history of the Persian Gulf region. After the halfway point the documentary becomes a group discussion involving Morrow, economist Dr Harry Cleaver and Doug Kellner. Kellner then takes over, detailing how Iraq in the early 1990s came to be seen as the major threat to peace in the Middle East and how Saddam Hussein and his war machine had to be taught a lesson. Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya were also seen as threats. (Israel was not considered a threat despite having the largest war machine in the region and a history of attacking and destabilising Lebanon.) Other speakers include former CIA officer Phil Agee, US academic Edward Said and David Sheehan: their sections of the film appear to be excerpts of longer film clips.

The film is put together in a basic way and cuts off at the end but the gist is clear: the unhappy history of Iraq and its fraught relations with Kuwait is in large part a result of cynical manipulation by the British empire and then the Americans with the aim of keeping the Iraqis weak and malleable, and of controlling the region’s oil resources. The Americans come to realise that by manipulating Iraq and Iran through supplying both sides with armaments they can control the supply of oil and set oil prices accordingly. The US continues to play off Iraq and Kuwait against each other. Saddam Hussein himself doesn’t come off all that well; one might have thought that he should be more wary of relying on the Americans’ good graces and not take the US at face value.

As for the British, their sordid role in the making of the current Middle East and in particular Iraq and Kuwait has largely disappeared into the fog of history and the film’s greatest value is in highlighting the enormous damage the British empire did to Arab peoples across western Asia in the early 20th century. I suspect that even here the documentary has only scratched the surface of ongoing British political and economic involvement in the politics of region.