A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

The American Dream (by The Provocateur Network): informative if biased documentary on money and American banking

Tad Lumpkin and Harold Uhl / The Provocateur Network “The American Dream” (2010?)

This is a well-made animated documentary that tries to explain how the American people have been misinformed and exploited by agencies of the US government to support the current financial system and the banking industry’s control of it. Everyday man Pile rejoices in having bought a beautiful McMansion house only for his bank manager to foreclose on it because Pile can barely afford the hefty monthly mortgage payments. Desperate to get his house and dog back, Pile is visited by an old childhood friend Hartman who takes him on a voyage through time and space to show Pile how money and banks originated in response to human needs for the exchange of goods and services, and how debt became part of early financial systems. They find out how Pile’s bank gets its money from the Federal Reserve Bank through the Federal government which then taxes the public through income taxes to pay back the Federal Reserve with interest. Hartman then shows how through the ages banks and financiers profited from lending money to governments to pay for expensive wars. They stop off in Revolutionary America to see how Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued over the merits of having a central bank (Jefferson was against, Hamilton was for). Viewers also discover when and how the US Federal Reserve Bank was established in 1913 after several previous attempts to establish a central bank failed. Owned and operated by private interests, the Federal Reserve took over the power to print money from the US government. Interestingly the film pauses for a moment in 1963 when then US President John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 11,110 to regain US government control of creating money instead of giving that power away; six months later, Kennedy was dead in Dallas and his successor Lyndon B Johnson put the order aside. Since then, successive US governments have ignored Executive Order 11,110 and have continued to borrow money from the Federal Reserve and to pay that money back with interest with US taxpayer monies.

In explaining the basics of the US financial system and how it rips off the American public at a level that most people, even school-children can understand, “… Dream” glosses over many details in an effort to keep things simple and on track to its ultimate message which is that Americans must reclaim their money and the power to print it back from the banks that operate the Federal Reserve. The “elite” that controls the Federal Reserve is portrayed as “the Red Shield” (the Rothschilds); according to Wikipedia, the Federal Reserve’s structure and leadership are complex and involve a Board of Governors chosen by the US government and many member banks throughout the country so the organisation ends up being a mix of private and public owners. A notable flaw in the film is one where the US Mint produces dollars (it actually produces coin). If viewers are interested in finding out more about the history of banking in the United States since 1776, and in particular about how the banking and finance industry came to have such a stranglehold on the nation’s economic direction, they should go to the film’s website www.americandreamfilm.com which has details about some of the real-life characters Pile and Hartman see in the film and which also suggests what people can do to protest against the conduct of banks and how to rein in their rapacity.

The style of cartooning is based on that of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “South Park” with less crudely drawn bug-eyed characters moving more freely than Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman. The film’s pace is fast and very focussed which can be a bit inconvenient for some viewers with no prior knowledge of banking and finance trying to digest the information thrown at them. Fractional reserve banking is covered in a big rush without much explanation. The plot builds up to a suitably dramatic climax where Hartman leads an army of everyday folks like Pile against the banks and Hank Paulson tries to inveigle him into changing sides.

Yes it’s quite a biased film but “… Dream” at least attempts to explain to a general audience how the current financial system in the United States is structured and how debt and inflation are incorporated into it. Several myths and misconceptions about how banks operate and how money is created are met head-on and demolished. My main complaint is that the film falls into a good-versus-bad plot stereotype with no suggestion of what alternatives exist to replace the present debt-based fiat money system. The film does not differentiate between commercial banks (the banks that lend for business purposes and provide savings, cheque, credit and fixed-term deposit accounts) and investment banks; a little information about these types of banks and how they were kept separate by the Glass-Steagall Act from 1933 to 1999 would have been helpful so that viewers can see that having banks is still beneficial and that regulating banks’ activities for the benefit of the real economy (that is, an economy focussed on producing and supplying goods and related services) is necessary.

For US audiences, the film is worth watching as many times as is needed to understand the concepts spelled out and families with children will find it helpful in gaining a basic understanding of how debt operates and how banks try to rope in more people into borrowing on credit. The film will be of limited benefit to overseas audiences but its explanation of the role that debt and inflation play in financial systems is still relevant. Funnily, I found out about this film on the same day I read on CommonDreams.org that Citibank in New York tried to get several customers arrested by police for daring to close their bank acounts!

Tabloid: entertaining portrait of an eccentric obsessive doesn’t delve deeply into media culture and social values

Errol Morris, “Tabloid” (2010)

Errol Morris’s documentaries fall into two camps: a serious one (“Fog of War”) and one of portraits of eccentric individuals dominated by their obsessions who often don’t realise they’ve transgressed the invisible boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. The focus of Morris’s scrutiny is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 became obsessed with a young man she met in Utah; the man, Kirk Anderson, began training as a missionary with the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ aka Mormons to escape her attentions and the Church sent him to England. McKinney pursued and kidnapped Anderson with the help of two men and imprisoned him in a cottage in southwestern England. The incident aroused (ahem) much interest throughout the UK with its combination of conservative religion and its strict morality as regards sexual relations, kidnapping and sexual bondage. McKinney was arrested and charged but managed to jump bail and escape back to the US. Although she and one of her accomplices were later arrested by the FBI, the English courts did not request her extradition and sentenced her in absentia to jail for a year. Two tabloid UK newspapers competed for sales with opposed views of McKinney’s antics and background based on information and material obtained in often shady ways.

McKinney is an entertaining and garrulous interviewee, bright and open to a fault. Her apparently guileless manner may well hide a calculating and shrewd mind intent on getting what she wants no matter what it takes or what obstacles are in her way. Morris’ Interrotron technique of interviewing subjects, in which McKinney looks into the camera which projects her face’s image onto a two-way mirror positioned in front of the lens of the camera facing Morris, and vice versa for Morris (he looks into his camera that projects his image to the mirror positioned in front of McKinney’s camera), ensures that viewers are hit with the full force of McKinney’s bubbling and sometimes overpowering personality but it also means that Morris himself ends up too close to his subject to be able to show a more objective view of her personality and character and the wider meaning of the 1977 kidnapping and the UK tabloid press’s involvement. At times Morris appears willing to be swept along by McKinney’s version of what happened and her insistence that Anderson was being brainwashed by a cult but the veteran interviewer never presses or challenges her opinion and prejudices.

Morris also interviews a former Mormon missionary who perhaps is the most objective and sane person in the whole film, and two journalists from the rival tabloids that salivated over McKinney and Anderson, each recounting the newspapers’ wildly differing versions of the incident and of McKinney’s character and defending their stories and research. Viewers see some of the conflicting opinions and views of two people in the British media towards the story: one is amused and nonplussed, the other is cynical and predatory. Unfortunately the two most significant male characters in the whole saga, Kirk Anderson and Keith Joseph May, are absent from the documentary: Anderson refused to be interviewed and May had already died, so any pretence at “balance” is precluded.

The film’s presentation milks the whole incident for laughs with insertions of tabloid-style title cards that introduce the interviewees and give something of the flavour of the news coverage of the time. Cartoons and cartoon montages help give a light-hearted and racy feel to the film. Towards the end, after the abduction and its consequences become history, the film slows down with the coverage of an unrelated incident that also attracted news attention: in 2008, when her pet dog died, McKinney had it cloned into a litter of puppies by researchers in South Korea.

Though the film is entertaining and sympathetic towards its subject, it missed an opportunity to examine McKinney’s upbringing in some detail, in particular the expectations and stereotypes she grew up with and absorbed which fed her beliefs about romantic love and marriage and encouraged her obsession with Anderson. In the end, these notions undid McKinney and derailed her life: she resolved never to love another man and became reclusive. That an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman with great drive and energy who lived for romance, marriage and a brood of many children gave up her dream completely is a tragedy that the film glosses over. Morris’s attempt at investigating the media hysteria and celebrity worship surrounding McKinney’s abduction of Anderson amounts to very little and says nothing about the kind of media culture that existed in the UK then and the social values that supported it. Perhaps Morris isn’t the best person to examine and appreciate the kind of society the UK was at the time. The best that “Tabloid” does is to show that the truth about the incident remains elusive and that people’s memories of it can be wildly different for many reasons, of which self-preservation is the primary one.

 

A Ninja Pays Half my Rent: fun and hilarious student film about finding the perfect partner … and being the perfect partner

Stephen K Tsuchida, “A Ninja Pays Half my Rent” (2002)

Hilarious student short about finding the perfect room-mate (which could be extended to include the perfect tenant, the perfect boarder, the perfect spouse, whatever), this has punchy gags timed and edited well and the silliness is cleverly turned into fun and not a little sympathy for its hapless and hopeless main character. Barry (Timm Sharp) has to find a new room-mate after his pal (Anthony Liebetrau) tragically dies at breakfast: the poor sod pokes his grapefruit and a stream of juice hits his eye and penetrates and burns his brain through the optic nerve. A ninja (Shin Koyamada) answers Barry’s ad and the usual problems of getting used to each other’s dirty habits, schedules and other eccentricities, and working out who puts out the rubbish on rubbish nights and who will buy the milk and groceries follow. The two guys amicably settle into a routine but it’s not long before Barry is tangled up in a personal feud that can only end tragically.

The story is ingeniously constructed in a way that the full details of Barry’s recruiting process happen off-screen and only the more amusing aspects of Barry and the ninja living together are highlighted: everything we see occurred in the distant past and Barry is relating the events to his jogging partner (Steve Yager). The plot only goes into the present tense close to the end when Barry gets home and starts talking about lunch. The beauty of the flashback approach to Barry’s narration is that viewers see what Barry never notices: a conflict between his ninja flatmate and the ninja’s enemy (Tsuchida himself). Close-ups of the actors and of Sharp in particular demonstrate character and parody the ninja lifestyle stereotype.

The pace is generally quick though it drags a little through one skit in which Barry asks for the syrup while the ninja is deep in contemplation over his pancakes. This particular skit shows excellent editing, clever alternation of close-ups and framing of the dining-room scene, and panning in the shot where Barry repeats his request and suddenly finds the syrup right beside him though the ninja has not appeared to move but is instead communing with the pancake. Another memorable skit, and one that introduces a new tension and direction into the short, is where the ninja flatmate takes up his duel while Barry is engrossed in watching a nature documentary. The shot where Barry continues to watch TV, oblivious to the activity on the back couch behind him, is sure to become a classic for film students and audiences alike for its careful set-up and the perfect framing.

The climax is quick, tragic and comic as well: Barry finds himself in demand as the perfect flatmate among the (unseen) ninja community in his town (he’s not very bright and never notices anything much unless it’s an issue of personal hygiene) and it looks like he won’t want for future room-mates. It seems that to find the perfect room-mate, you have to be a perfect room-mate too.

Everything works well thanks to Tsuchida’s almost ninja-like approach to filming his baby: the clean and precise editing; the neat settings with their sharp lines; close-ups of Sharp’s face that capture every shade of expression; the contrast between Sharp’s likeable if clueless Barry and Koyamada’s wary and vigilant ninja, which the short plays up for comic effect; and the minimal script which quietly and artfully builds on its skits, along with the soft tinkling piano soundtrack that plays throughout the film, have something of the Zen Buddhist philosophy that initially informed the practice of ninjutsu in Japan.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: celebration of a religious ritual that imprisons as much as it liberates

Kenneth Anger, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954)

A lush creation by famous underground avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, this film of a celebratory religious ritual mixes several of Anger’s favourite themes and obsessions while remaining mysterious enough that it can be interpreted on a number of levels depending on the viewer’s background and opinions. I can see here a fascination with the occult and its symbols and trappings, many of which look like deliberate parodies and send-ups of Christian ritual and symbolism, into which Anger has inserted his own interest in the work and philosophy of English mystic Aleister Crowley. There is also a sense of people creating their own selective mix of mythology and ritual. Coming from another angle again, I can see criticism of formal religion, a suggestion that ritualistic religious ceremony can be corrupted and rotting from within, as much a prison from which there’s no escape except death, as it is a source of comfort and affirmation for its followers. In the midst of ecstatic communion, laughter and joy, there is also violence and an offer of a sacrifice to dark gods. The sacrifice could be interpreted as liberation as well, a release into a new clean world without sin and corruption. If we interpret the symbolism of “Inauguration …” very broadly, the film also becomes a critique of Western culture and people’s subjective notions of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

The actual film itself is set to the music of “Glagolitic Mass”, a composition for solo voices, choir, organ and orchestra by Czech composer Leos Janacek, and could be seen as a very long music video. There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The film builds up steadily with static diorama-like scenes up to the moment where various participants consume an intoxicating drink and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming colour and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man. The film’s close, near-fetishistic attention to objects, the actors’ elaborate costuming and studied appearance, and the staged, mannerly look of scene set-ups recall the equally camp kitsch film classics made by the Armenian film-maker Parajanov in the 1960s and 1980s.

This is obviously not a film for everyone: much of it up to the 20th minute is slow and appears quite remote, not at all concerned about drawing viewers into its ritual and secrets. Characters are preoccupied with consuming rosary beads, a snake and a jewel. Religious rituals have never been about entertaining or informing viewers of their purpose after all; you’re always assumed to have undergone some training or education in the religion’s basic practices and knowledge and to receive further knowledge you have to be selected by the religion’s standard bearers whose expectations of you and your conformity to its precepts may be severe. Eventually the film does immerse viewers into its realm but you need to interpret its goings-on for yourselves: there’s no attempt to explain what’s happening for the benefit of first-time participants in the ritual. Is the death scene of the young blond man a send-up of Christian Holy Communion ritual as well as a literal interpretation of Dionysian ritual? Is it a reference to the destruction of a particular worldview or civilisation? Is there the possibility of rebirth, that the death is but a necessary initiation step he must take into another (and better) plane of existence?

People with no interest or appreciation for arcane religious ritual, veiled symbolism and the eclectic mixing of deities, figures and stories from different religious and folkloric traditions will be bored by the film and perhaps should pass it over but they will miss its layered symbolism and message of initiation, celebration, ecstasy, death and the hope of new life.

The Meth Epidemic: confrontational documentary doesn’t quite go far enough in investigating a major social problem

Carl Byker, “The Meth Epidemic” (2011)

Having seen and reviewed “Winter’s Bone” last year, I was intrigued to find out more about the methamphetamine addiction epidemic rife in the United States since so little about methamphetamine abuse appears in the Australian mainstream media apart from public broadcasters like ABC and SBS. This is in spite of some information I found on the University of South Australia website which says that methamphetamine use in Australia is the highest in the English-speaking world (see http://www.unisa.edu.au/news/2011/210611.asp). Byker’s documentary for PBS Frontline couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The film follows the history of methamphetamine abuse and addiction in the US since the late 1960s when it was the drug of choice for biker gangs and was associated with the counter-culture, and the direct and indirect devastation the drug can cause to individuals’ health and psychology, and to their families and communities.

Put together fairly simply, the film mixes voice-over narration which lays out the structure and direction of the documentary’ coverage with interviews with medical researchers, police officers, counsellors, an ex-addict and representatives of pharmaceutical companies who either confirm and pad out the narrator’s statements or, in the case of the drug firms’ spokespeople, indict themselves as indifferent or caring more about their firms’ profits than about the effects their products might be having on families and society. The film pulls no punches in demonstrating the immediate effects of on-going meth abuse on users: one interviewee, Bret King, of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon state, hit on the idea of publishing before and after mug shot photographs of meth addicts to show the effects of the addiction on people’s health and appearance and the photographs shown in the film, all very close-up, can be very graphic.

More indirect effects of meth abuse get less attention and are more spoken of than demonstrated: police and social worker interviewees confirm the drug is associated with increased rates of crime, particularly property crime, and domestic violence. The descriptions and anecdotes alone are fairly gruesome so perhaps there’s no need for the physical evidence! The film then explores the issue of the supply of meth and how political control of the supply can be used to reduce the number of new addicts and control levels of addiction among current addicts. The film focusses on how pharmaceutical firms, in their quest for profits on cough medicines (which contain the active ingredient ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, similar in structure to meth and often used to create the stuff), have lobbied politicians against bills proposing to increase regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Though the film does a detailed job of how the supply of meth can be controlled and denied to drug cartels, it does very little to show how and why people start using meth in the first place. Do people take it up because it increases concentration, self-confidence, bravery, sociability and sexual libido and suppresses appetite? It would have been worth some time for the film-makers to ask addicts and ex-addicts why they started using meth. Are people persuaded to take up meth in a party environment, do they start using it to conform with a crowd at school or college? We might also consider factors like social and economic background: are people in a certain social class or in areas of high unemployment, widespread poverty and few social services more likely to abuse meth? If factors influencing demand are not addressed, then controlling and restricting the supply of meth is only half the answer to controlling meth abuse. People may simply gravitate to a meth substitute whose supply may not be so easily controlled if the original reasons for meth addiction go ignored and aren’t dealt with.

There are further issues associated with meth abuse the film doesn’t touch, such as the fire danger to families and their neighbours that arises when people cook meth in kitchens using chemicals that become flammable when in contact with meth, causing explosions and house or apartment fires; and the poisoning of the building, the property and the soil, possibly even underground water. This is an issue briefly touched upon in Debra Granik’s film “Winter’s Bone” in which the main character investigates the burnt-out ruins of a house that used to be a meth lab while searching for her father. It becomes apparent that meth abuse is more than a public health and social problem; it is a potential environmental problem that could ruin soil, water, vegetation and animal life and make land unusable.

The film does an excellent job of showing how pharmaceutical firms’ indifference to the meth abuse problem in pursuit of sales and profits adds to the problem itself, and how politics itself is all too often dominated by self-interest and influence by lobby groups with loads of money. Unfortunately the scope of the film remains very narrowly restricted to the issue of controlling the supply of meth and not investigating the environment that encourages or causes people to take up meth and other drugs in the first place. Also the political and economic systems in place that allow drug firms to ignore the problems and devastation their products cause to individuals, families and communities should be challenged. Even the fact that we have ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other drugs that have the potential to be misused in dangerous ways in non-medical contexts should call into question the kind of medicine and the approach to treating sickness and ensuring good health we have and use in modern society. Wouldn’t it be great if there were no need for people to use cough medicines – because people have been taught and trained to keep their bodies healthy and well?

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

The Matrix: film trapped in formula Hollywood action-thriller matrix of convoluted plot, trite message and flat characters

Larry and Andy Wachowski, “The Matrix” (1999)

Strip “The Matrix” of its sci-fi trimmings, its computer FX and choreographed martial arts and gunfight scenes and what do we have left? We have a bare film that conforms to the Hollywood matrix of convoluted plot and plot twists, most of which come near the film’s end, a bit of romance here, some philosophical mumbo-jumbo there in parts, undeveloped character stereotypes and a banal message about being your own person, making your own rules, living your own life and having the freedom to do that without restrictions imposed on you by society. Computer programmer / corporate wage slave Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who moonlights as hacker Neo has long been puzzled by messages about “The Matrix” appearing on his PC. He visits a club and meets a fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who can introduce him to Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) who in turn can reveal what The Matrix refers to. Sinister agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) turn up to prevent Neo from meeting Morpheus. After a few upsets caused by these guys, Neo meets Morpheus who encourages him of his own free will to know more about the world he lives in before he, Morpheus, can reveal what The Matrix really is.

Not surprisingly the revelation about Neo’s real world is very disheartening and he agrees to help Morpheus and Trinity change their universe. Of course, being a newcomer, Neo must undergo training and discover what abilities he has before he can be thrown into the deep business end of saving humanity from its oppressors. As the story progresses, the film’s pace quickens and its atmosphere changes from grungy noir to bright and colourful. No wonder the good guys and bad guys alike insist on wearing boring black shades and clothes for most of the film – all that sudden light and colour must hurt their eyes and fashion sense.

While watching Neo beating the crap out of Weaving’s Smith and his myrmidons is fun and the computer animation is slick and smooth, I did find the film very empty of substance in both plotting and characterisation. Of course with an action film featuring a winding plot, character development tends to take secondary priority – there’s too much plot for viewers to follow to pay any attention to how actors interpret and portray their characters – and the demands that Hollywood studios make of films these days to turn over loads of quick bucks don’t favour slow-burn character development. As a result the quality of acting is neither here nor there as all that’s needed from the actors is to go from A to Z and the whole cast does that smoothly. At least Fishburne does passingly well doing nothing in a late scene where he is tied up with electrodes attached to his head. The early oppressive noir atmosphere drops away once Neo re-enters The Matrix as a rebel and the film slips into pow-pow-pow action mode with kung fu fights and shooting sprees breathlessly piling on one after the other with no let-up in pace. As for tension, there’s no tension at all: the Wachowski brothers have no idea how to meld music and editing techniques to the story and action and the film’s characters are so blank that they invite no viewer sympathy for their sufferings and travails.

The premise behind “The Matrix” at least poses some interesting thoughts about the nature of reality and the role of religion and philosophy in everyday life. “Reality” for most humans turns out to be a computer construct created by machines which itself calls into question the nature of the relationship between humans and technology. Neo discovers his role in life is to enlighten his fellow humans about their “reality” and their role in it. Morpheus and Trinity believe without hesitation that Neo may be a messiah prophesied by a mysterious woman called the Oracle (Gloria Forster) and this plot development in itself throws up a paradox: Morpheus and Trinity have fought to get out of The Matrix only to willingly enter into another “matrix” which, like The Matrix, limits their thinking and behaviour. Neo also falls into this new “matrix” and experiences some inner struggle to get out of it in order to save Morpheus’s life. Reeves portrays little of the angst Neo goes through to convince himself and Trinity that they should be thinking for themselves and not simply follow what Morpheus or the Oracle says; Reeves’s blankness throughout the film may be a deliberate decision on the Wachowskis’ part to show how Neo, saviour or not he may be, is still close in psychology to the machine world he grew up and was nurtured in. The film could have delved more into Morpheus and Trinity’s belief about Neo and Neo’s discomfort with the trust they place in him and turned the threesome’s differences into an underlying conflict and investigation about religious faith and how some if not all individuals seem to need religion or belief in an external power to give meaning and motivation to their lives. A minor character, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), serves as a counter-balance to Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in that though freed from The Matrix, he actually desires to return there, seeing it as more real than the depressive reality that he endures rather than lives, and throws in his lot with Agent Smith to betray the other rebels.

As it is, all “The Matrix” can say is that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be bound up by rules they don’t understand or care much for. Problem is, if you’re traipsing along and a fence appears in front of you and you want to leap over it or tear it down, at least you want to find out why it’s there before you jump over it … and land straight on top of a buried landmine that blows your legs off. With freedom, there come consequences and responsibility to yourself and to others … and the ways that Neo, Morpheus and Trinity deal with their freedom are treated too lightly by the Wachowskis compared to the attention the directors have given to the look of the film, its technical aspects and its adherence to the action thriller formula. Needless to say, Neo and his friends and enemies alike, having escaped one Matrix, are trapped in another Matrix they have no hope of escaping from … the Hollywood Matrix that forces them to slave  in a tired plot stereotype peddling an overdone and trite message for big bucks.

One useful lesson viewers can take away from “The Matrix” is that the world we live in and take for granted itself may be as much of an artificial construct based on lies and propaganda designed to keep a small elite in power while the rest of us slave away and fill our lives with cheap pleasures, as is Neo’s world. As more people question the actions and motivations of politicians, corporations, the global banking and finance industry and other “leaders” in social, cultural, political and economic forums, it becomes clearer that we are indeed living in The Matrix where concepts of democracy, freedom, security and equality among others are exploited to keep us as ignorant and infantile slaves.