A compelling character study in “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince”

Martin Scorsese, “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)

After making his break-through films “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York”, Martin Scorsese turned back to directing a documentary short about a friend, Steven Prince, who appeared in a small part in “Taxi Driver”. The film is in the form of an extended interview divided up into several chapters headed by film clips of Prince as a small child at home. Prince talks about several hair-raising episodes in his life as a drug addict  before he got the “Taxi Driver” gig, including the time he shot and killed an armed robber while working at a petrol station, helping a woman who overdosed on a drug by injecting adrenalin into her chest and following a manual while doing so (a tale nicked by Quentin Tarantino for “Pulp Fiction”), escaping the cops during a drugs bust by bursting into tears and accidentally electrocuting someone while driving a van over wires.

Scorsese focusses his camera on Prince and just lets the film roll while Prince reminisces animatedly about the ups and downs in his life and sometimes acts out what he or someone did. The stories may or may not be true and those that are might be very exaggerated for the benefit of viewers. Prince has quite a cadaverous look similar to Marilyn Manson / Brian Warner in his younger days in the 1990s. The relaxed, minimal nature of the filming with very few edits gives it the feel of a home movie and Prince is a very entertaining raconteur who holds viewers spellbound with his tall tales. Scorsese and another actor appear in the film as minor presences.

The film does look a bit ragged early on, especially during a fight scene, but it is very well-made and has none of the jerkiness and occasional out-of-focus shot that might be expected of a home movie of its type. One has to remember Scorsese made this film during a period in his life when he was partying a lot and high on drugs including cocaine. There’s no moralising about how drugs are bad for you and can ruin your life, or how being a drug addict exposes you to the full range of human behaviours and their depravity and is a life lesson in itself. The last scene in which Prince talks about his last conversation with his father before the older man’s death from heart disease is very moving: for a brief moment before the credits begin to roll, Prince falls silent and his usually lively face becomes a quietly powerful study of warmth and feeling as though resolving to stride forward in life as a tribute to his dad with whom he had a rocky relationship until their telephone reconciliation.

Definitely worth a look if you’re a Scorsese fan or you just like visual character studies pared down to the bone.

 

Two comedy horror shorts by Martin Scorsese about self-destructive compulsions and obsessions

Martin Scorsese, “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” (1963) 

Martin Scorsese, “The Big Shave” (1967)

Two hilarious short films from Martin Scorsese, one from his student days and the other when he was starting his film-directing career, yet both have energy and a refreshing surrealist experimentalism. Both shorts are at once comedies and horror films. In the first film, a writer called Harry (Zeph Michaelis)  is obsessed by a photograph of a man in a boat on a lake, so much so that his career suffers and his life goes down the toilet. He tries to escape his obsession by socialising at parties, marrying an attractive girl (Sarah Braveman) and confiding in his close friend (Fred Sica) and a psychoanalyst. Eventually though, Harry’s life does go down the toilet – literally. In the other film, the focus shifts from the toilet shown in the first few frames to the rest of the bathroom which an unnamed man (Peter Bermuth) enters to shave. For a few moments, viewers could be mistaken for thinking this is an advertisement for “Rape Shave” shaving cream or a mock parody of a Kenneth Anger film – but then the fun really starts about the third minute where the film takes on more colour, the man just keeps going with his shaving ritual and the all-white bathroom becomes rather … less so.

“The Big Shave” is intended as a satirical comment on the Vietnam war raging at the time: the man’s continual shaving of himself might represent US stubbornness in pouring in more cannon fodder and resources into fighting a war that was going badly and which would end badly for the US. Much the same can be said for the current self-destructive US policy of fighting wars across western Asia and northern Africa even as the American middle class shrinks in numbers and income and the country teeters on the brink of calamity and chaos, whichever angle (political, financial, economic, social, cultural) you want to look at it from. The jazz music soundtrack barely skips a beat and even increases in tempo and happy mood. The creepiest part of the film is the actor’s blank and empty-eyed expression as he repeatedly, even compulsively, continues to shave himself as if trying to obliterate his existence that disturbs the tidy whiteness of the bathroom. It’s as though Scorsese has noticed something fetishistic about the bathroom’s all-white hygienic perfection – the early close-up shots of bathroom objects suggest as much – and is determined to mock it. Close-up shots of soiled bathroom taps and sink drive home the character’s almost ritualistic self-flaying and I half-expected him to faint: most certainly that would have been too histrionic and the final shot in which he places the razor blade gently if shakily on the edge of the sink and presumably dies quietly off-screen while the water washes away the mess is a chillingly powerful one.

“What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” is notable mainly for its use of montages of photographic stills throughout, in particular, the montages of scenes in the offending photograph where the man and then the boat are made to disappear, and of Henry’s engagement and marriage to the girl and their honeymoon. The film is very brisk with rapid-fire editing and one gets a sense of Harry’s awful fate in his voice-over narration which increasingly becomes panicky. His confrontation with his demon occurs off-screen with a right royal flush and his friend watches in horror as Harry disappears into the object of his obsession.

Although very brief and more concerned with experimentation in style, these little films already indicate a future theme that Scorsese would return to again and again throughout his career: humans driven by hidden and unacknowledged compulsions and urges to repeat self-destructive actions.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! – a clever comedy piece by budding film director great

Martin Scorsese, “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” (1964)

Made by Scorsese as a film student at New York University under the tutelage of Haig Manoogian, this short film is a clever comedy piece about a mob boss Murray (John Bicona) who’s commissioned a film crew to make a laudatory biopic about him and his chief enforcer Joe (San de Fazio) who’s been his best friend since childhood. The beauty of the film is in the way Scorsese skilfully packs in experimentation with elements of various Hollywood film genres of the past – musicals, musical comedy, silent film, film noir, gangster movies among others – and with the film-making process itself: photographic stills, a kaleidoscopic montage of one scene multiplied into five that rotate around one another in the manner of Hollywood musicals, cinematic self-reference among other techniques Scorsese uses. At once a spoof of gangster movies and an affectionate homage to aspects of Italian-American culture such as male bonding, the film is a character study of sorts: it’s a look at Murray and Joe, how their friendship has developed over the years and how the two men are close even though it’s obvious to all except Murray himself that Joe’s been two-timing him with his wife and might even be the father of Murray’s kids.

The fact that it’s in black-and-white is no problem for Scorsese who even makes fun out of that restriction by shooting some scenes as though they were part of a silent film, complete with tinny piano accompaniment, or part of a 1930s Hollywood musical, complete with close-ups of a chorus line of girls; other scenes in the short might have come straight out of a serious crime or legal drama from the 1950s, or from an Italian movie of the same period (Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been cited as an influence on Scorsese so I assume that film’s being referenced here). All the different styles, filming elements and techniques and references are blended together so well that the flow of the film appears completely natural even though parts of it look old and other parts look new and fresh, even nearly 50 years after its making.

The final scene at the end of the film looks like pure surrealism with all the major people in Murray’s life turning up to celebrate his success and a professional photographer hired to take a photo of Murray and Joe together. The film ends precisely at the point that the camera flash goes off, there’s a big bang and a white cloud of smoke issues to completely obscure the two, er, friends … so does Murray finally realise what Joe’s been up to or does Joe get the last laugh here?

Scorsese’s mother Catherine shows up in small cameos as Murray’s mama, forever stuffing her little boy with spaghetti even when he’s doing jail-time and she has to feed him through the bars!

The film looks back on Hollywood history and forward to Scorsese’s career in making films about the Mafia and his interest in  film culture and its preservation. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Scorsese’s development as a film director and in film experimentation.

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!