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.

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 5: Isaac Asimov): patchy and shallow portrayal of famous science fiction writer and his influence

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 5: Isaac Asimov)” (2011)

Curiously in this episode on American SF writer Isaac Asimov, none of his really major works apart from parts of the “Robot” series perhaps gets a mention: reference to the “Foundation” series of novels or his “Nightfall” series is absent – but then the emphasis is all on robots and robotics, for which Asimov is known and remembered, rightly and wrongly perhaps. As with the other episodes in this series “Prophets of Science Fiction”, the program examines Asimov’s life and significant events in it that spurred or influenced him to write the stories that he did, and the scientific, medical and technological advances that his stories, novels and other writings inspired with a mixture of interviews, different forms of animation, dramatic re-enactments of moments in Asimov’s life, excerpts from Hollywood movies and archival films. The documentary breathlessly covers, among other things it ranges widely over, the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov developed as a thematic device to generate and plot short stories and novels, and through them explore the relationship between humans and their technology and what happens when (usually of course) any of the three laws is broken.

It’s a pity in a way that only Asimov’s influence on science through robots and robotics is the focus here, impressive though the innovations in that field are. The man was a true polymath, writing widely on many topics including history and science, and his influence on science fiction writing was so great that the history of science fiction writing itself can be divided into two periods: BA (before Asimov, the period before the 1950s) and AE (the Asimov Era, 1950 onward), as though Asimov were a Jesus figure; therefore, no one documentary can hope to encapsulate the full extent of Asimov’s influence over SF writing itself, let alone over science and technology! The episode contents itself by mentioning that Asimov wrote many non-fiction works and noting that he managed to have at least one title published in nine out of the ten categories of subjects in the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme.

Even Asimov’s fiction isn’t mined that much in the film for ideas and innovations: for example, the “Foundation” series, inspired in part by Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, has robot characters that can influence human minds and thinking and these characters could have inspired technology currently in progress that has the potential to change human thought, perhaps for sinister purposes. I have a very strong feeling that the film-makers picked those aspects of Asimov’s fiction to make connections to scientific, medical and technological innovations seen to be “safe” and easy for the general public to accept; the same criticism can be made of all other episodes of “Prophets …” I have seen so far. The focus in the series has generally been on fiction writers whose work tends towards optimistic scientific and technological progress and takes the values and assumptions underpinning such scientific and technological progress for granted.

The coverage of Asimov’s life and achievements is patchy and gives the impression that he did little else but write loads of stories (although a brief stint in the military is mentioned). There is cursory reference to his phobia of wide spaces and nothing about his fear of flying or his membership of unusual clubs such as the Trap Door Spiders, an all-male partying literary club made up of science fiction writers, which influenced some of his writing.

As with some of the other episodes, Hollywood movies like “I, Robot” and “The Bicentennial Man” are mentioned as examples of the extent of Asimov’s popularity in pop culture; a better example might have been Asimov’s association with Gene Roddenberry and the “Star Trek” TV and movie franchise. Overall I am rather disappointed with this episode’s presentation of Asimov the man, the writer and the futurist.

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: Mary Shelley): conservative message about scientific responsibility delivered

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 1: Mary Shelley)” (2011)

This episode revolves around Mary Godwin-Shelley’s famous novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” and the circumstances in which it was inspired and written, and the scientific ideas and innovations the novel generated. Mary Shelley was the product of the English Enlightenment: her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a famous feminist who died partly as a result of giving birth to her and her father William Godwin was a philosopher who educated his daughter; as indicated by the documentary, much of Mary Shelley’s early childhood focussed on finding out as much about her dead mother as the girl possibly could, reading all the mother’s writings and visiting her grave often. As a teenager, Mary eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley and in the summer of 1816, affected by the atmospheric fallout of Mount Tambora’s eruption in Indonesia the year before, the two wound up at a place near Geneva in Switzerland with various friends who included the English poet Lord Byron. Byron set all the friends a fun task to see who could write the best horror story and after thinking about a possible plotline for some weeks, the idea came to Mary during a dream in which a scientist creates a new life from dead flesh and becomes terrified and disgusted by what he has done. “Frankenstein …” was born.

Using a mix, often fast-moving and bewildering at times, of animation, CGI animation, dramatised re-enactments, excerpts from the 1994 film “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” made by Kenneth Branagh and snippets of interviews with fiction writers, scientists, computer experts and others, the film makes a plausible case that the novel has inspired and even foretold many scientific, medical and engineering concepts and innovations. The use of electrical impulses to stimulate dead or damaged tissue or parts of the spinal cord cut off from the brain through accident is portrayed in an impressive way with the example of paraplegic Rob Summers undergoing tests conducted by Professor V Reggie Edgerton of the University of California (LA); other innovations investigated include human genome research and engineering, artificial intelligence and transplants of organs and limbs.

Interestingly the film addresses the issue of scientific ethics and responsibility with regard to how the results of research and experimentation should be used, and how scientific research itself should be conducted. The interviewees themselves suggest that scientific inquiry should never be hobbled although it’s possible their words were edited in such a way that they come across as self-interested and a little arrogant about the role of science in society that they never intended. There’s nothing about how science and scientists can be compromised and forced by their employers, whether public or private, to fudge results or lie about them, or to run experiments and conduct research based on dubious assumptions and questionable ethics as in the case of German and Japanese scientists who ran hideously sadistic medical experiments on prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War.

The film does rush through Mary Shelley’s biography and the various ideas, concepts and issues raised by her novel, trying to cram as much information as it can into 40 minutes of TV viewing time. A message about being responsible for and owning the work you do and its results, and for science to serve the needs of humanity and benefit it, comes through quite clearly but it’s a limited, conservative one that says very little about the very real problems scientists often face today in thinking and behaving ethically in a world that’s becoming increasingly hostile towards scientific inquiry and the original Enlightenment quest for truth, objectivity, accountability and accuracy.

A brief tour of the novel’s influence on literature and popular culture comes at the very end of the documentary almost as an after-thought. Perhaps this part of the documentary should have been reserved for a separate episode on the influence of novels such as this, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” on pop culture products such as Hollywood movies, pop music, youth subcultures and computer games.


Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke): superficial and deferential treatment of major sci-fi writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke)” (2011)

Having never read any of Arthur C Clarke’s fiction, perhaps I’m not the best person to review this episode of the “Prophets of Science Fiction” TV series with respect to whether the author is fêted appropriately. Certainly the later years of Clarke’s life before his death in 2008 were under a cloud as an interview in which he admitted to having engaged in pedophilia was published shortly before his knighthood ceremony in 2005. Anti-pedophilia activists in Sri Lanka (where Clarke spent much of his life) were livid at their government’s apparently soft treatment of this British celebrity in their midst as the country’s anti-pedophilia laws passed in 1995 are strong and carry heavy penalties. Now that Clarke is dead (and presumably getting his just desserts from his maker), we have his literary and other output from which to draw his outlook on life and vision for the future which is the chief focus of this episode; the good thing is that Clarke’s optimism and enthusiasm about humanity’s future, based heavily on technology, space travel and space colonisation, together with his speculation on the evolution of human consciousness, are acknowledged as the main themes that inform the writer’s work. (For the record, Clark decried organised religion and was interested in the paranormal.)

For all his considerable output (over 30 novels and about 117 short stories / novellas), the program concentrates on just three of Clarke’s novels (“Childhood’s End”, “The Foundations of Paradise” and “Rendezvous with Rama”, the last co-written with Gentry Lee) and his screenplay “2001: A Space Odyssey”, demonstrating how each of these works gave rise to a scientific innovation or idea that has been realised or is in the process of realisation:respectively, these ideas are the further evolution of humans, especially human consciousness; a cable built with a super-material that goes to heaven (the genesis of the space elevator); an asteroid-warning system; and artificial intelligence. One significant innovation mentioned in the film is the geostationary communications satellite, conceived by Clarke while working as a radar specialist during the Second World War. These innovations barely scratch the surface of the ideas Clarke expressed in his fiction: among other futuristic ideas Clarke has been credited with are videophones, iPads and the personal laptop linked to other computers, through which the network of communication links that forms as a result will enable online banking and shopping.

In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Clarke conceives perhaps the most remarkable notion: that of a super-computer (HAL 9000 in the film) so sophisticated that it not only outstrips human intelligence and memory but acquires self-consciousness and knowledge, and becomes neurotic as well. Another breath-taking light-bulb notion, comparable and perhaps superior to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, is Clarke’s Three Laws of Prophecy: if a scientist well-known and respected in his/her field says something is possible, the thing will happen; if the same scientist says something is impossible, eventually it becomes possible; and one person’s technology will appear to someone of a less technological background as magic.

Through a mix of interviews with writers, film director Ridley Scott and various scientists including Michio Kaku, a voice-over narration, dramatic re-enactments and computer-based animation, the film paints a positive portrait of Clarke, blithely ignoring any dark side to his personality (only his brief marriage is mentioned in such a bland way that viewers not familiar with Clarke would never know that he had been gay) or scandals he might have been caught up in. On the whole, the film is enthusiastic about its subject and very reverential towards him but it might have been a much better documentary if viewers could have seen something of Clarke’s less attractive qualities. For all his intellectual brilliance and scientific knowledge, Clarke was still fallible and in some ways blind to aspects of his nature and human nature generally, and it would reassure people that he was like us and not a flesh-and-blood version of HAL 9000 without the neuroses.

Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 2: Philip K Dick): an introduction to a major 20th century science fiction writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 2: Philip K Dick)” (2011)

Philip K Dick is one of my favourite writers, though more for the 1950s novels he wrote about little people living lives of quiet desperation and failed dreams in a stultifying and conformist 1950s world of Senator McCarthy, racial segregation and Hollywood-manufactured fantasies about progress and the good life than for the science fiction novels he wrote. I fondly if vaguely remember one science fiction novel of his, “The Man in the High Castle”, for its alternative history of a United States defeated in World War II by Germany and Japan who proceeded to carve up the country in zones. In the novel, a man living in this alternative world discovers that, contrary to what he has always known and taken for granted, there’s the possibility that in another alternative world the United States defeated Germany and Japan in the same war and that this history is true. This plot, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” movie plot, derives from Dick’s concerns that run through nearly all his novels and which inspire the Hollywood movies based on them: concerns about darkness, disintegration or entropy, the nature of reality and humanity, technological change and its impact on human consciousness (especially its impact on memory and identity), and the relationship of individuals and humanity to the authoritarian state.

In this episode of the series “Prophets of Science Fiction”, Whitebloom uses a mix of interviews, dramatisations, archival film footage and excerpts of films based on Dick’s novels and short stories to explore scientific ideas and concepts that Dick foresaw and which have or are becoming close to realisation in our times. The pace moves at a steady clip and some of the concepts explored whiz by quickly; it may be necessary for some viewers to watch the episode again to understand what’s being explained. Ideas such as developing androids (robots resembling humans), technology that can implant artificial memories in our brains to override old memories, virtual reality, the use of surveillance technology to gather enormous amounts of information about people and construct profiles of them, technology that foresees and forestalls crime, the use of heuristic methods to write novels and other works of fiction, and the existence of parallel universes joined in a multiverse network … all these ideas and concepts foreseen by Dick are now becoming real, and not necessarily for the benefit of humankind and democracy.

For example, implanting artificial memories in our brains is becoming a real possibility with the intended idea being to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder in people affected by abuse or violence that occurs as part of their everyday work (as police officers, emergency workers or soldiers perhaps) but there is also the possibility that such memories can effectively wipe out a person’s entire memory and turn that person into someone else entirely different, thus “killing” the original person and “making” the person into an artificial one no different from an android. We may also wish to have artificial memories to avoid dealing with the messy problems of real life or, conversely, to help us cope with the messy problems of real life: education might no longer be necessary if all we need to know about something novel is to buy the memory and stick it into our heads. We might decide to be Napoleon Bonaparte for a day and instruct the memory to be wiped out of our heads after a certain time; on the other hand, we may wish to be Napoleon Bonaparte for several years to attain some other goal such as being a world leader long enough to reconstruct human societies to your psychopathic heart’s content.

There is some biographical information about Dick, usually of a sort relevant to the investigation of the ideas and notions that merit Dick being labelled a science fiction prophet. Narrator Jonathan Adams zips through the voice-over narration quickly and eloquently and the interviewees who include movie director Ridley Scott, physicist Michio Kaku and writer David Brin express their enthusiasm for many of Dick’s ideas, no matter how batty they might seem.

The discussion of what Dick foresaw is aimed at a general public so it doesn’t go into the topics very deeply. Many people interested in what Dick might have had to say about a police state that uses technology and technological methods to spy on people, create profiles of them, foresee what they do and say, and then hinder them from performing those actions and expressing those sayings, no matter whether they actually break the law or not, may be disappointed that the program simply mentions such technology and methods exist and goes no further.

Novels and short stories referenced in the film include “A Scanner Darkly”, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “We Can Remember It For You”, “The Man in the High Castle” which was Dick’s break-through science fiction novel, earning him a Hugo Award, “The Minority Report” and “The Adjustment Bureau”: all of these have been made into films by Hollywood.

The film is just informative enough that many people will be satisfied by it and seek no further; others will be enthused or maddened enough to want to check out more about Philip K Dick’s work and read it for themselves. As for what Dick might think of the film and the fame he now enjoys, he may well be in two minds about it: on the one hand, he would be very pleased that at last people take his work seriously; on the other hand, he might be alarmed that people are interested in his work precisely because so much of what he predicted has not only come to pass but is what he has always feared, yet people seem quite happy living in a panopticon society that gathers and stores information about us, information that might be put to sinister uses against us.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

The True Story of Black Hawk Down: too much detail and not enough overview of the Battle of Mogadishu as a historical event

David Keane, “The True Story of Black Hawk Down” (2003)

A very detailed documentary about the events that led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between US Special Forces and forces loyal to a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, during which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, hence the title of the film (and of the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” by Ridley Scott based on the Mark Bowden book of the same name). Eighteen US soldiers died, 73 others were injured and one pilot was captured while 1,000 to 10,000 Somalis may have been killed. The battle was pivotal in influencing US President Bill Clinton’s decision to pull all US troops out of Somalia a few months later.

Anchored with minimal voice-over narration from David Jeremiah, the film relies mainly on interviews with author Mark Bowden, whose efforts to chronicle what happened before and during the Battle of Mogadishu form the narrative of the documentary, various US Army Rangers and Somali civilians, and backed by archival footage and dramatisations of particular incidents, “The True Story …” is very strong on the details of events leading up to the battle and on what happened, blow by blow, during the battle from a mostly American point of view. The danger with this approach, focussing heavily on a day-by-day recount of events, is that viewers can quickly get lost in detail and lose sight of what the documentary is aiming for: an accurate narrative of the battle, the things that happened and why. There is some effort to capture the Somali point of view to provide a counterpoint to the American account of the battle but the US viewpoint dominates simply by the sheer amount of time allocated to interviews with several soldiers who participated in the mission; the Somali side is captured in snippets of interviews with a small number of civilians.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the interviewees and their feelings for their dead comrades, and certainly Mark Bowden is genuine about his mission and can see some of the Somali viewpoint, but overall I don’t find that the documentary adds much to viewers’ understanding of why Somalia in the early 1990s was such an unstable country and how the United States government failed to gain the support of the Somali people enough to challenge the power of the warlords and in particular that of the most prominent warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. There should have been some information about the overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had ruled the country for over 20 years with an iron fist, drawing on socialist principles to structure the economy, clamping down on clan rivalries and making some reforms, and how that led to political and economic chaos. On the other hand, the impact of the Battle of Mogadishu and the loss of American lives on US foreign policy and Somalia was great: the US withdrew all its military from Somalia not long after and international aid presence there soon collapsed with the result that the country remained chaotic and poor for many years. According to the film, the Clinton government became loath to commit US forces in other foreign conflicts and preferred to use aerial bombardment in military interventions whenever these occurred; this meant that in places like Serbia and Kosovo in the mid-1990s, warfare became even more bloody and dangerous as bombs not only spread death indiscriminately but also depleted uranium. The Clinton government avoided sending US troops to Rwanda when civil war followed by genocide broke out there in 1994; some 800,000 and possibly up to 1 million people died. This embarrassment to the US led to the development of the principles known collectively as Responsibility to Protect which assert that sovereignty is a responsibility and therefore states are responsible for protecting their citizens from mass murder and other atrocities, and if individual states fail in this, then the international community must assist the states or intervene, perhaps by force.

The film pays homage to the bravery of the US soldiers who participated in the battle and acknowledges, somewhat grudgingly, the determination of the Somali people in defending their country. It makes mention of the ugliness and brutality of war and how it changed the lives of the surviving soldiers. To be honest, and I know this will be insulting to the people involved, I found the conclusion rather banal: well of course war is horrible and people die horribly and in pain in war, and of course it dramatically changes participants’ lives and the lives of their loved ones. I would have liked to see, though, less humdrum detail about how some individuals got rescued – their experiences could have been turned into separate documentaries – and a better analysis of how the Battle of Mogadishu turned the tide of war against the US and how it influenced future US military conduct in overseas countries.