Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things): informative documentary on neural plasticity spoiled by breathless commercial presentation

Mike Sheerin, “Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things)” (2010)

Hosted by David Suzuki, “Changing Your Mind” is an episode from the long-running science documentary “The Nature of Things” which is aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Seems funny in a way as the CBC is Canada’s equivalent of Australia’s ABC and the UK’s BBC so I sort of expected something less commercial in orientation and more impersonal. The emphasis in this program is on the recent discovery that the adult human brain is much more changeable or “plastic” as neuroscientists term it and the implications this has for our understanding of what the brain is capable of and what can affect it. One positive is that people, unlike old dogs, can continue learning new tricks and even compensate for limitations or damage once thought to be irreversible; the negative is that trauma and mental illnesses can affect the brain in ways that, once reinforced again and again, become major and chronic disorders that can severely limit quality of life and happiness.

First up, issues like obsessive compulsive disorder and repeated traumas such as childhood sexual abuse that cause post-traumatic stress disorder are dealt with through a narrative structure made up of several personal cases in which people explain their problems, how these arose and the treatment they sought to deal with the problems. The tone tends to be upbeat even in what seems to be hopeless and extremely traumatic and upsetting cases.

Knowledge of the brain’s chemical and neural plasticity has encouraged scientists to enquire into treating and even curing schizophrenia by changing the brain’s neural networks. Cognitive training using specially designed computer and video games that target problem-solving abilities and social cognition is shown to have promising results for treating and moderating some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

While the episode is informative, it’s rather breathless in style and has the air of an infomercial which has the effect of making its topics and the people involved seem less serious than they really are. It’s just too upbeat for me: the treatments used to help and cure the conditions mentioned are presented as holy grails and anyone watching who has reservations about some of the treatments isn’t exactly encouraged to voice their criticisms. The section on schizophrenia which takes up half the film’s running time does show one patient saying she still takes her medicine. One constant irritant throughout the  doco is the overly dramatic music soundtrack which has the effect of drowning out some of the patients’ testimonies about their condition and its treatment.

The message that neural plasticity in the brain is not necessarily a good thing comes through clearly throughout the film and is reiterated in the film’s conclusion; understanding neural plasticity and using that to develop therapies to treat mental illness and disorders is our friend.

Family Plot: skilfully made comedy thriller that deconstructs familiar Hitchcock motifs and themes for laughs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Family Plot” (1976)

Considering that the famous British director was in bad health when he made this film, I find “Family Plot” to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy thriller about two con-artist couples engaged in deception of one form or another – and trying to outwit each other. An elderly lady (Cathleen Nesbitt), remorseful over the way she treated her unmarried sister and the sister’s baby son years ago, consults phony psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) to find out what happened to the nephew. Blanche scents that a huge sum of money may be in the balance and she and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) try to figure out a way to get it; they find themselves on the trail of one Edward Shoebridge who may or may not be dead. They find out during the course of the film that he certainly is NOT dead; what takes them most of the film’s running time to discover is that Shoebridge is also Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jeweller who is also a thief, a kidnapper and extortionist, and who with his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and partner-in-crime Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is trying to shake off Blanche and George who are determined to investigate exactly what happened to Shoebridge. Hilariously, Shoebridge / Adamson turns out to be the nephew of the elderly lady.

The film is very much character-driven though the casting seems rather uneven: Harris and Dern as the amateur detectives totally out of their depth in a danger-filled investigation are hilarious (though Harris looks old-fashioned in her Doris Day get-up and is required to overdo the slapstick) while Black and Devane seem miscast and mismatched as partners in both crime and romance. Black is too nice to be a villainous vixen and Devane, very 1970s clean-cut and all flashing white teeth, looks a caricatured oleaginous and smarmy snake-oil dealer for a role that calls for him to be amoral and brutal (his back-story among other things includes his having locked his parents up in their bedroom and then burning the house down). Everything revolves around these couples so it’s just as well that in spite of their clean-cut looks, the actors acquit themselves adequately to well in a vehicle that combines light comedy and slapstick with quite dark and sinister themes in a highly improbable plot. For all his stereotyped moustachioed look, Devane pulls off a difficult role of appearing suave and sophisticated while being really malevolent without a redeeming bone in his body.

Admittedly the film looks dated – it looks more late 1960s than late 1970s in spite of the fashions the actors wear – due to the filming techniques used and the curious mix of dramatic orchestral music that was typical of 1960s Hollywood flicks and the harpsichord-toned soundtrack of the sort that became popular in the 1970s. (The music is the work of the famous Hollywood music composer John Williams.) The pace is slow to begin with but after the first half-hour, it starts to move more briskly and becomes enjoyable. Hitch is not averse to throwing in scenes that might remind viewers of “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief”: for heaven’s sake there’s even a silly and over-long runaway car scene reminiscent of the car chases of “North …” and ” To Catch a Thief”. Indeed, Hitch seems keen on deconstructing beloved motifs of his: the cool blonde lady in the first 20 minutes is really only wearing a wig; Blanche and George emerge from their wrecked car looking clean and tidy; the idea of opposed twins, represented this time by the scheming couples, bumbling amateurs pitted against intelligent professionals, is played for laughs; and the rocky path to romance, usually strewn with danger, death and the odd psycho killer, is more wacky than spine-chilling.

Hitch knew that he’d been left behind by a new generation of film directors, represented by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, and that he himself didn’t have much time left in the world so it’s rather fitting that he revisits familiar themes, plot ideas and motifs in a light-hearted deconstructive way that allows him to say goodbye to over fifty years of directing films. “Family Plot” may not rank among his best films but it is competent in execution and for all its aged looks and the miscasting, it has a zest that’s a bit slow to get going … but once it does, it makes the film fun to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

Nine Meals Away from Anarchy: home-made doco retreats into realm of individual self-reliance and cocooning

Jeremy Hopper, “Nine Meals Away from Anarchy” (2012)

Uploaded to Youtube early in 2012, this is an interesting if simply made documentary about the fragility of food supply in our modern societies. Director Jeremy Hopper more or less reads an extended speech for an hour over a series of images and film excerpts taken from news and current affairs programs sourced from networks such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today. He points out that food shortages and fears of food shortages often lead to mass rioting and demonstrations and marshals evidence from around the world to push home his points.

Hopper begins with a litany of examples from around the world of people protesting, demonstrating and rioting as a result of increases in prices of food staples or of food shortages, frequently in a context where the 2008 Global Financial Crisis has led to economic downturns, governments cutting back on spending on social services, severe job losses leading to rises in unemployment and poverty, and the failure of wages and salaries to keep up with inflation and cost of living rises. Hopper emphasises that First World nations are no more immune to rioting over food and energy price rises and supply shortages than Third World nations are. He states repeatedly that when people are faced with food shortages or other forms of food insecurity, they will resort to any means including violence (and in very extreme situations, cannibalism) to feed themselves. He cites a recent movie “The Road”, based on the novel by Cormac MacCarthy, as an example of what could happen in a post-apocalyptic world when there is prolonged famine.

Hopper even refers to incidents in American history in which people turned to cannibalism: in Jonestown (1609 – 1610), starving colonists became cannibals; and the famous Donner Party incident in 1846 when a group of settlers trapped in the Rockies during the harsh winter had to eat human flesh from dead bodies. In more recent times, German soldiers in Stalingrad in 1942 had to eat human flesh to survive; and passengers in a crashed Chilean aeroplane in the Andes in 1972 also resorted to cannibalism. In the late 1990s, there were leaked news stories of starving North Korean refugees having to eat human flesh.

Why do humans become cannibals only in  situations of chronically severe food shortages? Hopper draws on Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation to explain levels of motivation and demonstrates that basic physiological needs of humans must be fulfilled before other needs such as need for shelter, financial security and self-actualisation can be realised. He cites an experiment conducted in the mid-1940s in which test subjects were subjected to prolonged and severe food rationing: the men experienced incredible behaviour changes including dreaming about eating human flesh, constant stealing and thoughts of killing people for food.

On Youtube, the documentary is split in two parts. Part 2 looks at whether law and order enforcement has been effective in quelling mass unrest. Hopper uses the past history of mass riots in the US as a barometer of how police and other law enforcement agencies have been able to bring crowds under control and quotes statistics to explain how some riots were successfully put down and others not. He goes into some detail, based on a sample of riots in the US in the 20th century, to suggest an average ratio of one law enforcement officer (or equivalent) is needed for every 2.5 rioters during an unusual incident. If food shortages affect 3% of the US population, or over 9 million, and they all riot, then nearly 3 million law enforcement / military officers – the entire population of such people – are needed to suppress the riots. One has to consider that during situations of widespread rioting and ongoing instability, a number of law enforcement officers and soldiers will desert to look after themselves, their families or communities. Hopper concludes by saying that people must rely on themselves to feed themselves and their families if an incident or series of incidents leads to chronic food and energy shortages, then social breakdown and violence.

Initially I had thought that this home-made doco was going to be about how dependent societies have become on supermarkets and large corporations for food, how governments work together with the corporations to increase this dependency, and what people can do to lessen their own dependency on corporate systems and increase their own and their communities’ self-sufficiency. I had envisaged that Hopper would suggest people engage in guerilla gardening of open public spaces, turning nature strips and traffic roundabouts into food gardens, establish food exchange networks using local currencies or vouchers, set up communal rainwater tanks and form self-reliant food supply and distribution networks. Instead the film becomes more or less a personal plea for people, particularly men, to adopt individual methods of self-reliance to defend and feed their families. This makes me wonder just how accurate are the statistics Hopper uses to work out how many law enforcement officers and soldiers are needed to stop mass rioting, especially as he provides no credits and thus no sources of information viewers could check.

Although Hopper does not push an explicitly political agenda, I suspect he has a personal political philosophy based more or less on minimal government, small-scale capitalism and self-reliance, and he might come within the ambit of anarcho-capitalism. The problem with that kind of philosophy is that it doesn’t appear to admit the need for people to come together to co-operate on day-to-day issues that are beyond the capabilities of one person or one family to control. The film retreats into a conservative realm where it’s every man for himself and his family, and viewers gain no greater understanding of the corporate systems of control that have led to the present situation where corporations control what food we can eat, when and how much we pay for it.

 

 

 

Jiro dreams of Sushi: a meditation on work, the quest for perfection and father / son relationships

David Gelb, “Jiro dreams of Sushi” (2011)

Surely this documentary should have a great deal of significance for me as my parents ran a restaurant for nearly 30 years in northern Sydney, first in Gordon and then in Gladesville. The restaurant was never a success but it was enough to support four children, none of whom went into the restaurant business. Gelb’s film is the story of Jiro Ono’s tiny Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in downtown Tokyo and Jiro himself. The restaurant came to international notice as the first of its kind to receive three stars in the prestigious Michelin guide and despite being a tiny 10-seat establishment located in a nondescript subway station, so great is Jiro’s reputation as the world’s best sushi chef that customers must book seats at least a month in advance and a meal there costs 30,000 yen (US$800 at the time the documentary was made).

Not a great deal is said in the documentary about Jiro’s early life apart from his father leaving the family forever when Jiro was seven years old; we don’t even learn how, when and where he became an apprentice and then a sushi chef. The emphasis is on Jiro’s personality and his love of making sushi and running his business, to the extent that it consumes his life and the lives of his two sons, Yoshikazu and Takeshi. His zeal and quest for perfection are obvious throughout the film. It occurred to me that this would be a good documentary to show to high school and college students and people thinking about opening their own businesses as a way of educating them about choosing work that you love, dedicating your energy and talents to it, perfecting your skills, always seeking to improve your technique, always looking for new and improved ways of doing things, and never taking yourself and your work for granted. Food critic Yoshimoto, who appears frequently throughout the film, nails the characteristics of a good sushi chef (and indeed other great artisans, come to think of it) down to just five: quest for perfection, passion, impatience, effort and cleanliness (for other artisans, replace cleanliness with order and technique).

The real soul of the documentary though is Jiro’s complicated relationship with his elder son Yoshikazu which can fill listeners with some fear about what will happen after Jiro, in his mid-eighties at the time of filming, must eventually retire. In his fifties, Yoshikazu is already an accomplished sushi chef and more than capable of running the restaurant on his own but, due to Jiro’s reputation, he is forced to work in his father’s shadow and that is his tragedy. As another sushi chef, a former apprentice of Jiro’s, comments, customers only want to eat food prepared by Jiro: if Jiro were to retire and the business taken over by Yoshikazu, the restaurant’s reputation would fall and for Yoshikazu to prove himself his father’s equal, he would need to be twice as good as Jiro. One feels that if Jiro were to retire, perhaps the second son, Takeshi, who runs a branch of the restaurant at Roppongi Hills in metropolitan Tokyo, might be the better person to run the main branch but this would cast shame on Yoshikazu as the elder son in a society concerned with hierarchy and face.

Some time is spent on Yoshikazu and Takeshi’s childhood with Yoshikazu admitting he dreamt of being a fighter pilot and then a Formula One racing driver when a child. Jiro admits that both his sons wanted to attend university after leaving high school but he persuaded them to be his apprentices and to continue his work. It does seem rather creepy that a father should be so absorbed by his work that he practically press-gangs his children into it. Especially as training to be a sushi chef takes well over a decade in developing skills in food preparation and gaining the necessary experience to be able to run your own business.

The film is beautifully shot with skillful use of techniques such as slow motion, sped-up filming and overlapping of images to emphasise the artistry, skill and effort expended in making sushi and pleasing the customer. The entire documentary is shown from the point of view of Jiro, Yoshikazu and various others connected with their business such as the food critic, the men currently apprenticed to Jiro and Yoshikazu, the vendors at the fish market and the rice supplier. It’s interesting that the fish market vendors Yoshikazu relies on say that the profit motive does not motivate them; the tuna supplier in particular admits that his method of selecting tuna for Jiro’s business is unorthodox. As the film-makers follow him at the tuna auction, the audience sees that the supplier relies on intuition gained from years of experience and natural skill to select the best fish.

Music in this film is quite significant with a mix of nineteenth-century orchestral and more contemporary music, some of it composed by Phillip Glass, used in significant scenes where the chefs prepare and cook food for their customers.

And what of the future? Yoshikazu admits that good fish is becoming harder to find due to overfishing. He says that sushi cuisine was once exclusive with a refined reputation but with the advent of restaurants where sushi is served on conveyer belts, sushi has become commonplace. It seems that with Japanese cuisine becoming an international cuisine, sushi and other Japanese food items have lost what made them distinctively Japanese and become more or less mass market / industrialised products with the concomitant loss of their connection to the sea and the land, and the respect that went with that connection; the result is that seas have become overfished with fishing trawlers relying on wasteful and cruel methods such as drift-netting, and marine ecosystems are on the verge of collapse.

Altogether this is an absorbing documentary about the nature of work, the quest for perfection and the complicated relationship that can exist between a father and his son who are both partners yet rivals in the same business entity. One can see the dilemma facing Jiro and Yoshikazu: for his son’s sake, Jiro really should retire but retirement would be his death-knell; Yoshikazu on the other hand labours in Jiro’s shadow and his full potential will flourish only after Jiro is gone. As long as Jiro remains active, he is likely to live a long time but this means Yoshikazu may not be his own man until well into his sixties or even his seventies and his talent as a sushi chef may start to decline before then. There is no mention in the film as to whether Yoshikazu and Takeshi have families of their own and if they have sons who would follow them as sushi chefs.

At the same time, it has to be said that sushi is not the most important aspect of Japanese cuisine and other aspects of Japanese culture encapsulate Japanese values just as much as making sushi and running a sushi restaurant do.

 

 

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: H G Wells): well-presented if restricted portrait of influential SF writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: H G Wells)” (2011)

For some reason, SBS TV chose to screen this episode last even though it’s actually the first episode in the “Prophets of Science Fiction” series. Oh well – it’s fitting that Wells should be one of the first fiction writers featured in the series as four of his novels, written in a short period from 1895 to 1898, became sci-fi classics that virtually defined the genre in their emphasis on scientific and technological discoveries and predictions, and their theme of humans’ relationships to their inventions and what light – or darkness perhaps – such relationships shed on human nature and morality.

The episode presents H G Wells’s work and predictions in four main sections, each centred around one of the four significant novels that he wrote, plus an additional minor section that deals with his later years. The episode takes a rough chronological view of Wells’s life, beginning with his early upbringing, education and first career as a teacher before he was compelled to give it up. Wells’s debut novel “The Time Machine” is published in 1895 and is a commentary on the social hierarchy that existed in England during his time; around this novel the documentary explores the possibility of time travel and briefly investigates the grandfather paradox, in which a man may travel back to the past and shoot his grandfather before his own father is born as a way of committing suicide. (Or was it the milkman he shot?) “The War of the Worlds”, published in 1898, describes an aerial attack by Martian aliens on England – Wells sets the novel in Surrey and includes landmarks familiar to him in the novel – and what a direct military attack on civilians, and the upheavals and chaos they face, might be like. Around this novel the film explores the use of laser beams, anticipated as “heat rays”, and their many industrial and military applications.

“The Invisible Man” (1897) expresses an anxiety that advances in society and technology may have adverse effects on individuals’ morality and social morality generally. This section of the documentary is the focus for investigations into meta-materials or invisibility cloaks which can divert light around the objects they cover so these can’t be seen. The theme of the amorality of science and how it can be put to immoral use is referred to also in “The Island of Dr Moreau” (1896), the focus of a discussion on genetic manipulation and the creation of artificial chimeras (animals with genetic material from three or more separate species).

In addition to these novels, the film refers to some of H G Wells’s short stories and non-fiction, particularly works like “The War in the Air” (1908) which predicts aerial warfare and “The World Set Free” which predicts the invention and use of atomic bombs or bombs that explode continuously. The film mentions that this latter work was read by physicist Leo Szilard who was deeply impressed and influenced by it. In the 1920s, Wells became enthusiastic about cinema and wrote a screenplay for “Things to Come” (released in 1936) which deals with biological warfare, social collapse and the rise of global technocracy.

With a mix of interviews of regular guests like physicist Michio Kaku and writer David Brin and various others who don’t appear in other episodes, dramatic re-enactments, archival film footage, animation and excerpts from well-known Hollywood films, the episode is well-structured and orderly and presents Wells as a mostly sane and rational writer; apart from references to his unconventional private life (Wells had romances with several women with the apparent approval of his wife and his four children were born to three women), there is hardly any mention of his personal affairs insofar as they had no direct or obvious effect on his career. Possibly controversial issues, or at least those that might upset God-fearing, Republican-voting Americans, such as Wells’s politics, his ideas on gender relations, opposition to Zionism and mixed views about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin aren’t mentioned, even though they may have had some influence on what he wrote.

The documentary sticks resolutely to the idea that running throughout Wells’s work is the belief that human beings’ dark nature is the chief problem when the issue of the misuse of science and technology arises. This is a very simplistic black-and-white view of Wells’s beliefs about human nature and society: the Wikipedia article on Wells mentions among other things that he was a strong believer in meritocracy and envisioned the rise of a world government. Towards the end of his life, Wells became outspoken against the Roman Catholic Church and seems to have been regarded as a crank by his literary contemporaries.

So overall we have a film that celebrates Wells’s literary reputation (with some reservations) but which gives a fairly sketchy view of the real man behind the novels who surely was a far more interesting and eccentric individual than the one presented here.

 

Prometheus: a mess of clichés with sick jokes, wooden characters, bad plotting and B-grade sci-fi tentacle bondage

Ridley Scott, “Prometheus” (2012)

Originally conceived as a predecessor to “Alien” and its successor films, “Prometheus” is Ridley Scott’s attempt to answer questions left by his original slasher-in-space flick and ignored by James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; questions such as who or what the space jockey in the crashed space-ship found on Acheron was and whether the message that ship sent that was intercepted by the cargo ship Nostromo really was an SOS message or a warning. In making the film Scott attempts to explore the nature of human existence, why we have been created and what is our purpose in the universe, and for good measure throws in messages about scientific and intellectual hubris and free will, and yet another stab at portraying a dysfunctional family with an Oedipal complex of the sort seen in “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator”.

Although beautiful to watch, the film is a mess of clichés from “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, even some of the successor “Alien” films and a bit of James Cameron’s “Avatar”.  Archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover prehistoric paintings in a cave on Skye in Scotland; comparing their discovery with previous finds made by  other scientists, they realise that people in different places and time-periods had the same star-maps as detailed in their art and religious worship and must have worshipped the same or similar deities. Years later, inspired by their research, eccentric zillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation funds  a space expedition headed by Shaw and Holloway to a far distant moon around a planet in an exo-solar system identified from the various star-maps. (You can hear Cameron shouting, “Where’s my cut?!”) While the crew of seventeen slumber in the Land of Nod aboard the Prometheus vessel, android assistant David (Michael Fassbender) monitors the voyage and in his spare time studies enough linguistics to earn several doctorates ten times over, watches the entire Earth’s output of old celluloid movies and reads the US Federal, State and county taxation guides during the boring bits of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey”. The ship arrives on the moon, the crew is woken up by David and mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and subjected to a lecture as to what they are all supposed to do.

Dutifully they trek out to what looks like an artificial landscape feature and explore the labyrinth within. A couple of scientists, Fifield and Milburn, get fed up and try to go back to the ship (and get lost). The rest of the crew find several stone cylinders, a giant humanoid stone head (which Shaw and Holloway assume represent the appearance of those ancient deities, whom they call Engineers) and the corpse of a giant alien. They take the alien’s head and David picks up one of the cylinders. An approaching storm forces the crew to leave the landscape feature and return to the Prometheus, leaving Fifield and Milburn lost in the labyrinth. Back at the ranch, David discovers some icky ichor stuff in one of the cylinders and drops a bit of it in Holloway’s drink. Holloway and Shaw later have sex together. In the meantime, Fifield and Milburn, stumbling around in circles (geez, you’d think their helmets might feature in-built GPS systems), chance upon the cylinders which are now leaking the ichor. A slimy amphibian critter kills Milburn and its blood corrodes Fifield’s helmet, exposing the man to the black liquid.

In the morning, the crew return to the hidden labyrinth and find Milburn’s corpse. David ventures alone and discovers the aliens’ navigation control room (thus proving the artificial landscape feature is a spaceship overgrown with vegetation), an Engineer in suspended animation and a star-map showing Earth as the Engineers’ preferred holiday destination. Holloway sickens and the crew must hurriedly return to the ship with him. Vickers sensibly won’t allow Holloway back on board and to show she means business, blasts him away with a portable flame-thrower; he’s begging to be killed anyway so at least her conscience is clear. Shaw faints at Holloway’s death; later, when she revives, David helpfully informs her that she is three months pregnant in spite of Shaw being unable to have children.

After performing a hilariously bonkers DIY emergency Caesarean section in a machine not cut out for the job (it was made only for surgery on men!), Shaw discovers that Peter Weyland has been on board the Prometheus all along; the old guy explains that he wants to meet the Engineers in person so that he can ask them how he can avoid dying. Meanwhile Fifield, hideously transformed, returns to the ship and starts attacking everyone before being killed by Janek (Idris Elba) in a scene reminiscent of the one in Cameron’s “Aliens” in which Ripley drives a tank over an overgrown bug. Janek later theorises to Shaw that the labyrinth they have visited is in fact a military base in which the Engineers were engaged in a nefarious genetic experiment and produced a dangerous bio-weapon in the ichor.

Weyland, David, Shaw and a couple of others revisit the labyrinth and wake up the Engineer who repays them for their kindness by decapitating David and killing everyone else except Shaw. Shaw escapes with her life; the Engineer promptly sets his controls for the heart of the sun … I mean, Earth actually, so Shaw radioes back to Janek to stop the alien craft. Janek figures the only way he can do that is to ram the Prometheus into the alien ship, which he does so, killing himself and his crew but not before Vickers ejects to safety. Not that this helps Vickers much: no sooner does she land than the alien ship conveniently falls on top of her. Shaw finds Vickers’s life-boat (where she had her operation earlier) and discovers the abandoned baby now grown to adult size. At the same, the Engineer shows up, justifiably upset at his sabotaged voyage and ready to pound hell out of Shaw …

Perhaps in order to justify the hype and the expensive visuals and effects, the script-writers and Scott try to wring out so much sensationalism from the thin plot that plot-holes, inconsistencies and assumptions that defy logic and assume telepathy and foresight in humans abound. Most parts of the plot stretch logic to wormhole credibility levels and even plain old common sense is absent. One would think that a DIY surgery table costing zillions would have been made for both men and women but in the interests of Hollywood sensationalism it has to be men-only, forcing Shaw to do her C-section manually for extra tension, gore and laughs; afterwards, she’s called upon to perform incredible physical acts like jumping huge gaps and abseiling despite having cut abdominal muscles that should have put her in bed for a couple of days at least. Several questions arise in this viewer’s mind: how does Janek know what really went on in that hidden labyrinth? how does David deduce that the Engineers wanted to go to Earth of all places? why do the Engineers look like they’ve stepped out of a 3-D printer? why does Scott love holographic projections so much?

Character development and motivation are so bad that the actors should be forgiven for woodenness. As scientists, Shaw and company break every rule in the book: their curiosity and stupidity override scientific method to the extent that they endanger themselves and others. Guess that supposedly passes for scientific and intellectual arrogance overriding common sense and intuition and causing destruction; the film is called “Prometheus” after all in reference to the Greek myth. Theron as Vickers is wasted as the film’s token Ice Maiden; there is a later twist in the plot that reveals her relationship to Peter Weyland and David and explains her jealousy and suspicion of the replicant … er, android, but fortunately there are no head-busting / strangulation scenes. Rapace tries hard as the wannabe Ripley but there’s too much she’s forced to do in the film – and the actress lacks Sigourney Weaver’s height and presence as well – for her to carry off the plagiarism with personality to spare. Only Fassbender impresses as the icy Roy … um, David (sheesh, I must remember I’m reviewing “Prometheus”), as the plot forces him to obey one master and then another. Poor David has to learn the hard way what the difference between being human and repli … oops, android, really means and it’s not flesh-and-blood versus metal-and-milky-stuff: it’s about overcoming your early conditioning and questioning the things, people and relationships you’ve always taken for granted and deciding to be your own person and discovering your own values. Having partly learned his lesson, David literally becomes a round object shoved into a three-dimensional square in the form of a carry-bag as he and Shaw ride off into the sunset to – guess what? – find more Engineers! Don’t they ever learn from experience?! 

Meanwhile the Engineer in Vickers’s life-boat is left to soothe a very abandoned and angry child … which leads to yet another sick joke from Scott in a movie full of sick jokes, one no doubt aimed at James Cameron who imagined the original aliens as over-sized ants and their ancestors now re-imagined by Scott as over-sized calamari wrestlers. The mind boggles at Scott’s conception of the relationship between hexapods and molluscs and I daresay more than a few flatworms, earthworms and tapeworms will complain that once again in the universe of science fiction monsters they were overlooked but hey, as acid blood, a hive mind that communicates telepathically to both pure-blood aliens and alien-human hybrids, and giant over-breeding queen hymenopterans have been done to death, it’s time for a bit of naughty tentacle rape and bondage squeeze!

“Prometheus” is a mega-disappointment which doesn’t surprise me, given that since “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and a couple of others, Scott has turned out to be just another hack Hollywood director in need of  proper script-writers and fresh vision and direction. There are some stabs at existential inquiry and the question of free will but they are so faint that viewers will miss them. I thought Cameron’s “Avatar” was silly enough but “Prometheus”, for all its visual spectacle, makes that movie look intelligent. Now all we need do is wait for Scott’s “director’s cut” version showing Shaw is also some kinda repli … android thing which would explain all those post-natal leaps and bounds.

 

Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction: lightweight look at American phobias and anxieties through science fiction films

Clara and Julia Kuperberg, “Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction” (2011)

An entertaining and lightweight look at famous Hollywood science fiction films made since the early 1950s and how they reflect the anxieties and fears of American society, this is Clara and Julia Kuperberg’s documentary “Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction”. The film flits between various well-known directors such as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Roland Emmerich and James Cameron, all of them distinguished by having made influential science fiction movies, a couple of screen-writers and an academic commenting on the films on one hand and on the other snippets of famous sci-fi flicks beginning with B-grade sci-fi films made for teenagers and short educational films about the dangers of atomic radiation.

The film is held together by a chronological account of the films spotlighted by the film-makers as influential, starting from 1950 and steadily working through the decades to the present day. Curiously, famous films made in the 1960s like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” are not referenced and even the period from 1970 to 1976 is poorly represented by “Soylent Green” which starred Charlton Heston. Numerous cinematic elephants and chest-beating gorillas like the Planet of the Apes series of films are passed over. The documentary remembers to pick up George Lucas’s “Star Wars”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and “Blade Runner”, George Miller’s “Mad Max” and James Cameron’s “The Terminator” and continues through the 1990s and the early 2000s with Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers”, “Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”.

James Cameron reminisces about his childhood and his experience of atomic bomb scares and school drills that included watching the educational short “Duck for Cover”; other directors draw connections between the fear of radiation and how it can cause mutations, and the popularity of films about giant tarantulas and mutated lizards that grow to giant size, breathe death rays and terrorise people in Tokyo. Especially noteworthy is the connection made between mind control and the famous film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers while the fear of Communist invasion is reflected in the film “The Day the Earth stood Still”. The directors also talk about how their particular fears (in James Cameron’s case, his fear of nuclear bombs might have been encouraged by watching educational films warning of atomic bombs and radiation) influenced them to make films that have become pop culture favourites; Cameron’s own nuclear bomb bug-bear became the inspiration for “The Terminator”.

Without a voice-over narrator guiding viewers through an often interesting landscape of shifting attitudes, fears and hang-ups and the films that reflect those anxieties, the film lacks direction and becomes a series of talks by a small group of directors who are made to look as if they’re trying to justify the importance of their work by attaching it to whatever fear was trendy at the time they made their movies. It does seem quite contrived at times. No great psychological insights are uncovered and all the viewer comes away with is either the feeling that the documentary is making a mountain out of molehill or that Americans have a lot of hang-ups about atomic bombs, Communists, genetic manipulation, runaway science, resources depletion, mind control, identity theft, terrorism and humongous natural disasters like giant tsunamis caused by anthropogenic climate change.

It might have been much more interesting if a narrator had been on board and commented on the directors’ responses to the (out of range) questions put to them and whether the directors hit a raw collective nerve with their films and found it terribly exposed. There could have been some discussion about what the various fears the movies address say about American society and the American character, and why Americans always have to be on the alert for an enemy or something sinister. How this constant vigilance arose and the historical / cultural context this guardedness arose in, how it has shaped the American character and society for better and for worse, how politicians and corporations manipulate this fear for their benefit, and how the fear and its manipulation have led the US into invading countries around the globe since the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and impoverished the US economically and morally as a result are never touched on. One thing for sure though is that as long as there is something for Americans to be afraid of, there will always be science fiction films seizing on that topic in some way and reflecting the fear back at their audiences.

The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): psychological study of sexual / cultural repression

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Birds” (1963)

Based on a 1952 short story by English writer Daphne du Maurier – one of Hitchcock’s favourite sources for film plots as he also filmed du Maurier’s “Rebecca” decades earlier – “The Birds” initially looks like a suspense / horror flick about a small seaside resort attacked by vicious hordes of birds. It actually ends up a character study that investigates, among other things, relationships within a family that has lost its male leader and tries to replace him with his son and the strains that arise when the son falls in love with a young woman who is not only alien to the family but to the insular community where the family lives. Familiar Hitchcockian themes such as relationships between domineering mothers and weak(ish) sons; the uncertainty of romance, especially for women; the vulnerability of women, especially women without partners, in a society in which men dominate women and women depend on them for identity and validation; and birds as indicators of freedom / repression appear. There is also a wonderfully ironic comment on the relationship of humans to nature – and perhaps by implication the relationship of humans to their sexuality or society – in the narrative’s contrast between caged birds and birds that are free and how the humans deal with both.

Rich socialite girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is “working” in a bird shop when lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) appears and pretends to mistake her for a salesgirl; he asks her for a pair of lovebirds for his baby sister’s 11th birthday. Infuriated by his teasing, Daniels buys the birds herself and hunts down Brenner to Bodega Bay, a seaside holiday place in California. She delivers the birds with a note at his farmhouse but not before she’s attacked by a seagull. The incident introduces Melanie to Mitch properly and to his dependent mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his ex-girlfriend, school-teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Melanie ends up thoroughly nested in the Brenner family’s affairs; at the same time, a series of bird attacks, each more vicious than the last, starts harassing the little town, first at Cathy’s birthday party, then at her school and then at the town restaurant. Melanie takes refuge with the Brenners in their farmhouse, helping them to board up the windows; but during the night, when all are fast asleep, Melanie wakes and hears a noise upstairs so she goes to investigate …

The first forty minutes pass fairly slowly as a straight romantic drama, establishing the major characters and their foibles and vulnerabilities. Melanie is revealed as a spoilt rich kid who is tiring of her party-girl reputation and wants purpose and direction to her life but isn’t sure (or is restricted by her reputation and past history, and perhaps social expectations of her) about how she should achieve what she desires. Brenner seems happy commuting between Bodega Bay, devoted to his mother and young sister, and San Francisco, devoted to his law career; but one senses he’s just as lacking in direction and purpose as Melanie. Lydia Brenner and Annie Hayworth are trapped in their own half-lives. The birds are a device to bring Melanie and Mitch together and thus change everyone’s lives, for better or for worse; how people fare in the film and whether they might survive the birds’ attacks depends on a combination of luck and on how willingly they embrace change and break out of old patterns of thinking and behaving. The film’s conclusion comes as a surprise: Melanie, willing to change her past behaviour, becomes trapped and Lydia, whom viewers will think least likely to want to change, does so; but the conclusion is so ambiguous that an argument can be presented that Lydia maintains her position as matriarch and accepts Melanie as another “child” she can dominate – so no-one changes after all and the seaside resort will eventually resume its customary life. The birds may be assumed to fade away, having neutralised outsider Melanie and what she represents to the townspeople.

The film is beautifully shot: each scene is carefully set up for the camera to take in exactly what Hitchcock intended the audience to see and each little technical detail seen is symbolic of aspects of the film’s themes or narrative. In an early scene where Melanie is driving to Bodega Bay, the swaying of the little birds in the cage in her coupe symbolises the ups and downs of romantic relationships. In a later scene, Lydia picks up broken china in her home – this is a precursor to the scene when she visits a farmer and sees broken china in his house. The whole movie looks staged (and the actors right down to minor actors playing the local drunk or the pessimist yelling “The end is nigh!” are either well-dressed or at least well-scrubbed) but then the plot – a bunch of birds hounds a small, idyllic tourist town for no reason at all – is really hokey when you think about it. No less than a slightly surreal, dreamy and staged look is appropriate for trying to bulk out the thin plot into a study of small-town and isolated family attitudes towards outsiders and pulling the whole thing off.

Acting is not very remarkable: appearing in nearly every scene save for one scene where the film adopts Lydia’s point of view, Hedren is competent as Melanie but ill at ease in displaying emotion. As a result Melanie’s romance with Mitch seems forced for the purpose of the plot. Melanie’s character would have suited Grace Kelly had she been able to make a film comeback (and indeed Kelly had been Hitch’s first choice for the role but husband Prince Rainier denied her this): beneath the rich-little-girl exterior, Melanie is smart, resourceful and determined with potential to be a heroine. In a period when women were supposed to be content with marriage and motherhood, she wants something more out of life. However, Hollywood movie conventions being what they were in the early 1960s, Melanie has to be put into her place by the birds and this is the film’s real horror: Bodega Bay should be a place of freedom away from big city life and “civilisation” but instead is a compressed metaphor of the way society beats down individual men and women, forcing them to live in stereotyped twilight roles and relationships.

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 6: Robert Heinlein): tame and timid treatment of controversial SF writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 6: Robert Heinlein)” (2011)

After a few episodes of worthy yet not very controversial science fiction writers, this series now switches to a writer who espoused a range of seemingly contradictory as well extreme opinions about humans’ relationship to their society and people’s obligations to maintaining social order versus their responsibility as free and independent individuals to resist conformity and defend liberty. Robert Heinlein was a prolific writer of sci-fi short stories and novels throughout his long career that spanned nearly fifty years; his most famous works include “Stranger in a Strange Land”, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Starship Troopers”. Born and raised in Missouri in the early 20th century, Heinlein absorbed the values and attitudes of a politically and socially conservative mid-western American culture; he joined the Navy as a young 20-something but had to leave in the mid-1930s and thereafter held down a series of jobs including campaigning for US writer Upton Sinclair’s socialist End Poverty in California movement and himself campaigning for a seat in California State Assembly. When he failed to get a seat, Heinlein turned to science fiction writing and struck gold; he began writing SF fiction for a magazine and in 1950 contributed to a space exploration movie “Destination Moon” which won an Academy Award.

Through the usual mix of interviews (most of which are with the same people who’ve featured on other episodes of “Prophets …”), animation, archived film, historical drama re-enactments, excerpts from Hollywood movies based on Heinlein’s work and voice-over narration, the film conveys some major themes of Heinlein’s work: his firm and unwavering belief in self-reliance, self-determination and personal liberty, his patriotism and belief in a strong US military and defence against America’s enemies both political and ideological, and his faith in US scientific and technological progress. Several technologies and modern concepts such as the use of exoskeletons, travel to the moon and lunar exploration, the Internet with its decentralised networks and transcranial magnetic stimulation – the use of electromagnetic induction to produce weak electrical fields with a rapidly changing magnetic field to stimulate or influence activity in the brain or parts thereof – are shown to have been predicted in one way or another by Heinlein in several of his novels and short stories.

Interestingly, the film veers away from examining Heinlein’s attitudes on race, sexual liberation as a necessary adjunct to personal liberation, incest and child sexuality, unorthodox family structures and his interest in the work of philosopher / scientist Alfred Korzybski (whose theory of general semantics states that the structure of human nervous systems and of languages limit and even distort human knowledge and acquisition of knowledge) and in cultural relativism; and makes of Heinlein a less complex and more conservative figure than he might have been. All of these interests Heinlein had surely stem from his belief that humans are capable of determining their own values and ways of thinking, behaving and living, and that humans should not conform for the sake of conformity; at the same time, he was a fervid believer in upholding the US military and US military capabilities against Communism and in space and cyber-space. The novel “Starship Troopers” holds that citizenship is to be earned and people should respect the military and soldiers; the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who is interviewed in the documentary, turned the novel into a satire on US politics and culture.

The documentary ends up treating Heinlein very gently and seems rather at a loss in explaining his seemingly contradictory positions on many issues. It notes several times that “Stranger in a Strange Land” attracted the attention of the US counter-culture, as if the film-makers can hardly believe that fact themselves. Yet Heinlein’s beliefs on sexuality and free love are of a piece with his libertarian outlook.

At this point, it might be fun to consider what Heinlein would make of contemporary US society were he still alive: doubtless he’d be glad to see a black man as President but he’d also be horrified at the killing machine the US military has become  across the world (Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan among others), at how US military values have been warped and US soldiers forced to fight and die in foreign lands to serve the interests of a small elite that controls politics, the economy, the media and religion in his beloved America. He would be incredulous at the extent to which the Internet and Internet-based social networks and search engines are increasingly used by governments and private interests to spy on people and track their movements through cyberspace for profit or as a way of controlling and managing dissent. He might realise that current Western capitalism itself can embody values and ideologies that are just as destructive of self-determination and individualism as belief systems that favour the group above the individual – because ideologies based on a negative definition of liberty and which don’t include a positive definition not only verge on psychopathy but are ultimately self-defeating. “Freedom” is not really freedom if it chains you to a worse master than externally imposed political / social / economic tyrannies: your inner desires and appetites.

The Dictator: comedy savages Western self-righteousness, ignorance and hypocrisy

Larry Charles, “The Dictator” (2012)

I confess I saw this latest Sacha Baron Cohen film to see how offensive and tasteless it is. Truly dictatorial “The Dictator” is, in dredging up every known Western stereotype about Middle Eastern / North African countries and peoples, and tin-pot dictators around the world, and throwing it all hard and brutally back in our faces. At once LOL idiotic, puerile and revolting, SBC’s latest comedy vehicle hides a subversive and biting satire on Western ignorance of other peoples, cultures and religions, the West’s cynical support for freedom and democracy in Third World countries which masks corporate greed for those countries’ natural resources, and how easily so-called progressive and idealistic causes can be corrupted by contact with rapacious capitalism and political oppression.

The movie is at once a romantic comedy and a “fish out of water” adventure. Admiral Shabaz Aladeen (SBC) of the oil-rich desert nation Wadiya, located where Eritrea would normally sit (and thereby potentially antagonising real Eritrean people), is compelled to visit New York City to address the United Nations Security Council when that august body threatens to invade his country for stubbornly forging ahead with  a nuclear weapons production program. Little does the feckless Aladeen know that his wicked uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plans to usurp him and take his place as Supreme Leader so he can “democratise” Wadiya and open up the country’s resources to Western oil companies. Soon enough, Tamir’s hired hitman kidnaps Aladeen but the dictator escapes and finds refuge with Zoe (Anna Faris), an eco-activist who manages a food co-op with the help of Third World refugees. It so happens that the co-op supplies food to the Lancaster Hotel where Aladeen’s entourage is staying so with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the exiled former head of the Wadiya nuclear weapons development program, Aladeen attempts to infiltrate the hotel and get rid of his simple-minded double who is being manipulated by Tamir.

Along the way, Aladeen learns about co-operating with people of different origins and cultures, running a business based on lofty idealistic principles, falls in love with Zoe, discovers the extent to which Muslims and Arabs are detested in the West and finally recognises the worth of democracy – or maybe not in all cases.

The film is chaotic and messy (though not as meandering as SBC’s earlier “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan”) with skits raggedly put together and then wrung and squeezed to their utmost for bad-taste comedy. A scene in which a woman gives birth in Zoe’s store can be excruciating to watch for layering several tasteless vulgarities to the nth degree and the punch-line Aladeen utters when the baby (inevitably) is a girl can be predicted ten parsecs away. The funniest bits are quite subtle and easy to miss, and not for the first time (nor for the last) did I find myself the only person in the cinema – I admit that there were not very many people watching the film with me and we could all be counted on the fingers of two hands – laughing out too loudly at idiotic jokes like the Fallujah Firebomb during the torture scene, the equation of Dick Cheney with Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gadhafi during the would-be suicide scene and the UN Assembly scene in which Tamir requests Exxon not to use BP oil-rigs in its share of Wadiya’s territorial waters.

Director Charles and SBC pay attention to visual details that lampoon the media and the profligacy of wealthy political elites: two talking heads for a TV news program dissect the performance of Aladeen’s double at a conference and wildly misinterpret his bumbling behaviour as having momentous import for viewers, some of whom might be policy-makers and other government lackeys; and it’s not only Aladeen who is misogynist and has flamboyantly bad taste in furnishings, recreational pursuits and clothing – diplomats from other, better-behaved countries are also portrayed as vulgar twats. The music, chosen by SBC, loudly and merrily runs the gamut from lovey-dovey schmaltzy to trash disco and faux Middle Eastern techno.

The film makes its biggest Laugh-Out Loud impact in the climax in which Aladeen tears up Tamir’s “democratic” constitution and expounds at length on how tyrannies should exercise social and political control over populations: his speech ends up a condemnation of the US (and by implication the entire First World), the global financial industry, the global media (News Corporation and the Murdoch family being singled out in particular) and the way in which a tiny elite – the “one percent” – controls everyone else through debt / global finance and culture.

Just as hilarious and creepy is Aladeen’s management of Zoe’s food co-op, using the violent and unorthodox methods he used as the Wadiya kahuna in turning around the fortunes of the store and winning back the contract to supply food to the Lancaster Hotel. This suggests that progressive causes more often than not end up in bed with the very politically and socially reactionary forces they claim to be fighting, especially when the issue involves identity politics, as in Western feminists supporting NATO intervention in Afghanistan or Jewish activists supporting the elimination of racial discrimination and forms of apartheid in all countries except Israel.  

Another outstanding skit finds Aladeen in the emigre district of Little Wadiya where everyone he meets turns out to be someone he condemned to death years ago but who was spirited away to the US by the Wadiya state executioner; this scene is a commentary on the travails of refugees when they reach what they imagine are countries offering friendship and security but which spurn and consign them to lowly neighbourhoods where they eke out an existence running restaurants catering to their own community. A fourth very funny skit is the helicopter scene in which Nadal and Aladeen chat excitedly in Wadiyan about visiting the New York City sights while two American passengers opposite them grow alarmed at what they think is a discussion of plans to bomb the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium.

The film narrowly escapes charges of being racist and discriminating against Muslims and Arabs by taking on a range of targets and skewering each and every one of them in crude and savage ways: the laugh is on us Western audiences and our smug self-righteousness, hypocrisy and ignorance about peoples and cultures we continue to care less about. Still, I have a niggling feeling that SBC does pull punches when issues of his identity as a Jew and his support for Israel and Zionism come under the spotlight.