A Dangerous Method: lavish but perfunctory treatment of three psychoanalysts

David Cronenberg, “A Dangerous Method” (2011)

Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s stage play “The Talking Cure” which itself is based on John Kerr’s book “A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein”, this historical drama revolves around the tense professional and personal relationships formed by famous psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein who herself became a physician and psychoanalyst. It begins with Spielrein’s admission to the Burgholzli hospital where Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a practising physician. Using the then revolutionary talking method of uncovering a patient’s unconscious desires and needs and bringing them to conscious knowledge, Jung discovers the cause of the hysteria that afflicts Spielrein (Keira Knightley) which confirms his readings of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories. Jung then encourages Speilrein to study to be a doctor. His wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) persuades him to contact Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the two men establish a professional relationship that lasts some six years, during which time their beliefs and theories on psychology, in particular on the human sexual drive, the nature of unconsciousness and the importance of religion, diverge and cause tensions and arguments. At the same time Jung and Spielrein embark on an affair that includes sadomasochism; Jung breaks it off but later resumes it when he agrees to mentor Spielrein for her dissertation. Eventually in 1912, while attending a meeting to discuss psychoanalytical journals, Freud faints hysterically and Jung rescues him. After this, the two men reduce their contacts to letter-writing and eventually stop collaborating. In the same year, Spielrein stops working with Jung and returns to her family; she marries a physician, Pavel Scheftel.

Primarily dialogue-driven, the film isn’t more than a series of huffy-puffy temper tantrums and professional disagreements. Every time the psychoanalysts’ conversations threaten to become interesting, even if in a cartoony way when they discuss their dreams, the narrative cuts out before any analysis begins and the film pulls back by a quick edit to another scene. The result is that “A Dangerous Method” is not at all dangerous and the sex scenes, particularly those where Knightley is required to flash a nipple, appear entirely gratuitous. Although the actors do their best and Knightley overacts her role in early scenes when Spielrein is hysterical, their scenes are directed and filmed in such a dispassionate way that any significant things they say are undercut and severely weakened: Jung’s attempts to push psychoanalytic theory into something pro-actively therapeutic and transformative receive some attention but the film “balances” his ambitions with Freud’s supposed caution and staying within what is known, and Spielrein’s support of Freud’s position in spite of her sympathy for Jung’s opinion. This perhaps should have been the film’s major theme and conflict: psychoanalysis as merely a mapping of human sexuality and unconsciousness (the stand taken by Freud and Spielrein) versus psychoanalysis as striving to understand human sexuality and unconsciousness fully in order to effect a transformation of human motivation, behaviour and perhaps society itself.

Speilrein’s assertion that the sex drive contains within itself elements of the drive to life and of the drive to death merits only two small scenes; this treatment is quite typical of the film’s generally shallow investigation of the discoveries that she, Jung and Freud make during the period covered. There is no question then as to whether the film is sympathetic towards women or not: it really isn’t, particularly in its treatment of Jung’s wife Emma who is nothing more than a baby-making machine / homebody whose wealthy family supplies Jung with the money for his work and research. Jung’s reliance on Emma’s wealth is both his support and weakness: without that money, he would never have been able to pursue psychoanalysis but at the same time, he can never leave his wife though he becomes indifferent towards her. After breaking off his affair with Spielrein, he promptly takes up with another Jewish female patient, Toni Wolff, who is mentioned briefly near the end.

The film briefly touches on the backgrounds of Jung, Freud and Spielrein: both Freud and Spielrein are Jewish and Freud’s position on religion is negative, no doubt due in part to his having suppressed Jewish religious influence in his professional life in an age where anti-Semitism and German nationalism, based on Romantic ideas about returning to nature and shunning industry and cities, could be very strong (although it’s possible that Germans and Austrians as people were actually much less anti-Semitic and nationalistic than English and French people were in the late 19th century) while Jung, the son of a pastor, was more positive about admitting religion, the mystical and the paranormal into his investigations of human psychology. If I may digress, Jung’s ideas were eventually to lead to the idea of the collective unconscious and the development of psychological archetypes which in the hands of Nazis led to institutional race discrimination against Jews, gypsies and others and thus to the extermination camps set up in remote parts of Poland; and which in the hands of others can still lead to bizarre New Age beliefs and belief systems, new forms of racial and social prejudice and barriers, and impositions of idealistic ideologies on people which can encourage new forms of repression and denials of freedom. Jung had to be aware of what the Nazis were doing with his ideas and theories as he joined the National Socialist party in the 1930s and edited a journal that endorsed Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”; he later claimed that he joined the Nazis to save his career and theories but had he been genuine about saving his reputation and work, he would have done what Freud did and left Germany. As for Freud, he was content to limit himself to investigating the psychology and psychopathology of individual people, and the individuals’ immediate social environment, but he shied away from examining the larger socio-cultural context and its influence on individual and mass psychology; this limitation allowed his nephew, Edward Bernays, to hijack his theories and use them as tools in the service of American corporations and the US government to govern people and tell them what to think and feel.

Spielrein tragically did not have the opportunities that Freud and Jung had: returning to Russia in 1923, she raised a family with her husband (who was later purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s) and trained other doctors but when the Nazis arrived in her home town Rostov-on-Don, she and her two daughters were captured and shot dead by a German SS death squad along with 27,000 other Jews and Soviet civilians in Zmevskaya Balka in August 1942.

In short, “A Dangerous Method” attempts to cover serious topics in a shallow and clumsily comic way. The film’s narrative and visual format lavish more attention on recreating the late 19th century / early 20th century world in its bourgeois glory than on a rigorous, in-depth exploration of three psychologists and their complicated professional and personal relationships.





Kony 2012: is this film astroturfing for a US invasion of eastern Africa?

Jason Russell, “Kony 2012” (2012)

Having heard about nothing else but this 30-minute feature going viral across Youtube and various social networking sites, I determined to watch this film championed by mysterious US charity Invisible Children for myself. I found it a very slick and manipulative piece of propaganda aimed at young people and families with children. The film starts with director Jason Russell and his family, and zooms in on his young son from birth on to his preschool years before branching out to the lost children of Uganda, children like Jacob who have lost their families and have been forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army as soldiers (if they’re boys) or sex slaves (if they’re girls) under the sinister charismatic leadership of one Joseph Kony. Russell dwells for a little time on Jacob and his experiences before delving into a drive for support and donations to help other young people like Jacob, and suggesting ways in which people can bring the issue of child soldiers and finding Kony to be brought to justice to the attention of others.

Russell adopts a deliberate personal style to make very subjective appeals to people’s emotions. His use of his son as willing collaborator is creepy as well as exploitative, to say the least. The filming methods used are so slick as to raise my hackles: the editing and the images, even the sloganeering and strategies suggested to raise other people’s awareness, all look as if they’d been cooked up in an advertising agency that’s done work for past TV current affairs programs. The themes pushed by “Kony 2012” are so familiar as to be banal and devoid of genuine feeling: let’s change the world for the better, let’s be pro-active, let’s protect innocent and vulnerable children from exploitation (speak for yourselves!), let’s bond in solidarity with other aware young people and fight this monster Joseph Kony and triumph where older people can’t or won’t.

No historical context is given, which is extremely suspicious: the film never explains who Joseph Kony is, why he is such a bogeyman and who his Lord’s Resistance Army is fighting against. What is his background, how and why is he a rebel, what political / social / economic conditions existed in Uganda in the 1990s that enabled him to rise to his current position as Uganda’s Public Enemy No 1, and why should we get rid of him now when we could have got rid of him ages ago? Is the Ugandan government under President Yoweri Museveni so helpless that it must appeal to the outside world? Is Kony fighting the Ugandan government? Given that Museveni has just been “elected” to a 4th term and has been in power for 25 years with a blemished record in violating human rights, invading parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and holding elections that yield suspect results that support his continued rule, perhaps Kony is doing the right thing in resisting the Ugandan government!

The film’s suggested solutions are pathetic and laughable: let’s make Kony famous by plastering posters of him across cities around the world on 20 April 2012! Support celebrities like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Bono against Kony! Buy the Action Kit package! Wear the “Kony 2012” bracelets! Donate money to the cause! The Kony 2012 awareness campaign looks too much like an election campaign to ring true. And why should the public be asked to cough up money when famous Hollywood celebrities and other stars in politics and the commercial music industry have more than enough money among themselves to capture and bring Kony to justice and rehabilitate the child soldiers and sex slaves he has abused?

And now that all is said and done, one suspicion remains: the recent announcement of the discovery of at least 2.5 billion and maybe as many as 6 billion barrels of oil in Uganda couldn’t have anything to do with the release of the “Kony 2012” film? How cynical of me to think that a future invasion of Uganda by AFRICOM might need support from young people in the form of a “humanitarian” campaign!

In the meantime, hundreds of children in northern Uganda have fallen victim to a mysterious and fatal neurological disease known as Nodding disease spreading across the border from the newly independent Southern Sudan. It is arguable that this problem deserves more immediate attention and help than pursuing a shadowy warlord who may not even be in Uganda now or be alive still.

Postscript: Since I wrote this review (11 March 2012), I have come across information that Invisible Children has received money from the National Christian Foundation and the Christian Community Foundation, two organisations linked to Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Discovery Institute, the first two of which oppose abortion and rights for homosexual rights, and the last of which advocates the teaching of “intelligent design” (creationism by another name). These organisations have encouraged the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda to the extent that Ugandans charged with engaging in homosexual activities can be subjected to the death penalty. In addition, Jason Russell has spoken publicly at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school founded by former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell who supported South Africa’s apartheid regime in the past.

Our Lady of the Sphere: experimental film’s welcome wears out quickly

Larry Jordan, “Our Lady of the Sphere” (1969)

An intriguing and colourful film, “Our Lady of the Sphere” is based on the Bardo Thodol, a Tibetan funerary book usually known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book describes the experiences a soul may have in the interval between death and rebirth. (Death and rebirth are represented by outer space scenes in which a figure passes into or out of a pock-marked moon.) The film short is a collage of scenes usually dominated by one colour that appears as a blanket shade over the scene or in various shades throughout the scene. Objects float or slide over figures and backgrounds in the various settings; the animation resembles old Monty Python cartoons made up by Terry Gilliam or album cover sleeves for old Amon Duul II recordings like “Tanz der Lemminge”. (Amon Duul II was a famous German space rock band of the early 1970s; I have the band’s first three albums.) In several scenes mysterious astronaut figures with Christmas baubles for helmeted heads appear and it seems that these figures are guides to the soul making its way through the shadow world towards its new life.

Viewers not familiar with the Bardo Thodol – and most won’t be as most Westerners are not believers in Tibetan Buddhism – will find the film’s novelty value wearing off very quickly: there’s no apparent plot to speak of, there’s no narrative structure to be discerned, so the film presents as just a series of pretty unrelated collages with lots of floaty objects or somersaulting gymnast figures. The music soundtrack is based on “Largo for Glass Harmonica in C minor” by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, interrupted at intervals by an annoying buzzing doorbell noise which usually heralds a transformation. The central part of the soundtrack is taken up by a famous circus / carnival / sideshow musical motif which everyone knows but whose name remains obscure. Probably the most interesting part of the film short is a scene near the end in which two astronauts, representing the soul and its guide, pass through a rapid series of backgrounds which change quickly, their colours shifting as well and drenching the astronauts in different hues, and arrive at a staircase that may lead back into the material plane of existence.

Worth a look just to hear the circus music and watch the performing gymnasts but the film’s experimental nature is not much consolation for those expecting a message or theme.

Asparagus: colourful surreal exploration of female sexuality

Suzan Pitt, “Asparagus” (1979)

A stunning and very colourful film short with a distinct animation style reminiscent of old cartoons from the 1930s, “Asparagus” is an exploration of female sexuality and wish fulfilment. An unidentified woman who is viewed mostly from behind lives alone in a house rich in flowers, small objects, cosy and lived-in furnishings and a doll’s house that in the manner of matryoshka dolls reveals more doll’s-houses within. The woman puts on a mask from one of the inner doll’s houses, goes to the cinema and observes claymation figures watching a barren revolving tube; she sneaks off behind the screen, opens a briefcase and releases a Pandora’s box of marvellous objects, familiar yet also alien and vaguely of a sexual nature, through the tube. The objects breach the fourth wall and stream over the heads of the astonished viewers who are also nearly overcome by the fragrances that waft out from the tube as well. Satisfied, the woman returns home, removing her mask to reveal a blank face.

The animation has a lush, rich, decadent style: very curvaceous and sexually suggestive in its vegetable and flower forms, harking back to the Art Deco artistic style of the 1930s and the Pop Art of the 1950s  perhaps. Colour is an important element though there isn’t much overt symbolism in the use of particular colours; I note only that the revolving vagina / cornucopia tube on the cinema screen is a cold cobblestone-blue colour which doesn’t change when the objects start floating out of it. Many scenes involve red curtains or screens being pulled across windows to reveal or to cover images of gardens and garden plants and a sexual message is implied here. The pace is always steady and calm: although surprise builds upon surprise, somehow we viewers ourselves expect the unexpected to happen, not the expected; the sexual imagery is also no surprise though it becomes more blatant as the film progresses. No obvious narrative is to be discerned here although on repeated viewings the film’s message becomes clearer and it is this message that anchors the film.

Unfortunately the volume was low even when I turned it up to 100% but the dream-like carnival music, composed by Richard Teitelbaum, is steady and even and doesn’t relate to the film in any way at all. It could have been removed and no-one would notice.

The eponymous asparagus fulfills quite a few varied functions including one that bananas might have been expected to fill and viewers may not view the humble monocot vegetable the same way after seeing “Asparagus”. Some viewers may be impatient with the film’s rather bland, steady and unemotional presentation and the apparent lack of plot or structure. It’s worth seeing a few times just to take in the layered animation and its details; there is a lot of detail to appreciate!


The Thomas Beale Cipher: good-looking collage / rotoscoped animation film let down by small scale of plot and concept

Andrew S Allen, “The Thomas Beale Cipher” (2010)

Unusual collage-type animated film that’s based on the legend about the three cypher-texts that supposedly reveal the location of a treasure chest of gold and silver worth millions of dollars, this is quite fiendish to watch and requires repeated viewings to understand and to find 14 supposed clues. Protagonist Professor White, a noted cryptographer on the run as a suspected Nazi spy, is on the trail of this chest and boards a train. Shadowy figures claiming to be FBI are hunting him and he must evade them. An ingenious sequence of overhead luggage improbably slamming into one another and then attacking the agents saves White’s hide and enables him to flee. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot.

The film has the look of an aged historical document and the animation technique used appears to be rotoscope with cut-outs of material and real human eyes to give the film a fresh, rough-hewn look. Bits of fabric like tweed or carpet cut out into shapes of people or objects recall textures of materials once used on clothes or objects and add particular historical flavour. Main and minor characters alike look real yet slightly eccentric and one train passenger looks downright steam-punk weird. A beautiful woman looking out the window may be a stereotypical film-noir mystery dame. Characters wear clothes of flat floral or herringbone pattern and Professor White’s glasses reproduce numbered code at various points in the short as his thoughts through his eyes lay out a hilarious plan of escape and deception.

The plot proceeds with the benefit of voice-over narration by White which allows the film to delve into a bit of flashback history about the treasure and Thomas Beale himself. The story is told with the use of first- and second-person points of view: White addresses the young woman (and the audience) and although the lady does nothing other than smoke and look out the window, she is in fact an active participant in White’s scheme.

Disappointingly the film ends with White rushing into the hills while senior agent Black glares at him from the departing train. One hopes a sequel might be made but the short is so self-contained that I doubt that possibility. There are several sight gags – one funny one being where White hides behind a newspaper whose back page is emblazoned with his portrait, in itself probably a familiar trick disguise from Hollywood films – and ingenious camera angles and points of view that take advantage of the train-carriage setting with the overhead luggage section.

For such a good-looking film, the plot is insubstantial and the whole work would benefit from an expansion into a 30-minute piece with a few more, less complicated clues as to the characters’ nature and motivations, and how White and Black are related to each other.

No I haven’t worked out what the clues are but interested readers can Google thomas + beale + cipher + Facebook to find the Facebook page where people discuss the clues and a solution by Czech computer student Miroslav Sustek has been posted.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired – an examination of celebrity culture and corruption in US justice system

Marina Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (2009)

On the surface this film is about Polish-French director Roman Polanski’s conviction for having sex with an underage girl, Samantha Gailey, in 1977, and the trial and the accompanying media circus that followed which culminated in Polanski’s flight to Europe, never to return to the United States and Hollywood; on another level, the film also examines the cult of celebrity and sensationalism that surrounded and continues to dog Polanski, and the miscarriage of justice that could have occurred in his case had he remained in the US and what it says about the attraction of fame and the pressure of maintaining an image or reputation, that individuals are prepared to waive fairness and justice and to ruin people’s lives to pursue or preserve their image. The film delves into Polanski’s past including his arrival in Britain to make his first English-language film “Repulsion” and his marriage to the impossibly beautiful Sharon Tate whose murder is also covered in some detail. A mix of archival newsreels, interviews with the people involved in the case (including the victim, Samantha Gailey-Geimer), sub-titles against a black background and snippets of Polanski’s films carries the details of the case in more or less chronological order.

At first the film jumps around from the court case as it starts to unfold, to Polanski’s early career in Britain and the US and his marriage to Tate, giving the impression of uncertainty as to what direction to follow. The effect of Tate’s murder on Polanski is described to some extent. The picture that emerges of the young Polanski is a man possessed of vitality and an appetite for life, and a desire to document injustice and corruption in society through his films; at the same time, he has a strong and unusual connection with death due to his unique experiences as a Shoah survivor. The film also examines the character of Judge Laurence J Rittenband who presided over the case: he emerges as someone susceptible to the blandishments of the cult of celebrity and concerned about maintaining his reputation as a tough “hanging” judge – in short, he’s not the judge you want to be in charge of a case like Polanski’s. Once the film dives into the chronology of the case, what Polanski was required to do after pleading guilty to the charges against him, the pace picks up and the film proceeds smoothly and determinedly all the way to the end. It makes clear that Polanski was willing to sit in jail for 90 days in spite of the danger the other inmates posed to him (he ended up sitting in jail for 42 days) and to undergo psychiatric evaluation above and beyond what California state law actually required in 1977. The film also shows the machinations that Rittenband got up to, to restore his image and reputation, after allowing Polanski to travel to Europe to work (and where he was photographed at an Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, sitting between two young women) and having to weather media criticism when the photograph starts appearing in newspapers.

Interestingly Polanski himself isn’t interviewed directly by Zenovich or a member of her crew; he appears rather as a character around which everything revolves. The really important people in the case other than Polanski – Geimer herself, Polanski’s defence lawyer Douglas Dalton and the prosecutor Roger Gunson – acquit themselves as the only sane people, surprised and not a little horrified at the shenanigans Rittenband got up to. Both Dalton and Gunson complained about Rittenband’s behaviour and had him removed from the case in 1978. Most interviewees talk of their association with Polanski and of what they knew of his life up to 1977; many of them are contemptuous of Geimer’s mother for allowing her daughter to go into a situation where she was taken advantage of. Zenovich does not interview anyone other than Geimer who defends the mother’s actions.

It’s the issues raised by the film that make it more than just a blow-by-blow account of what happened during Polanski’s trial, why he suddenly left the US never to return and the aftermath of the trial and the effect the whole affair had on Polanski’s subsequent career. The impact of Polanski’s notoriety as director of the horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”, the bizarre and violent death of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s association with Hollywood glitterati and the lifestyles they led (in contrast to the humdrum lives of most Americans) on the US general public is fairly clear: many people saw him as a sinister dark dwarf-like creature far removed from the cares of making a living. Doubtless Polanski’s fame and perceived privileged status encouraged Rittenband to want to punish him severely. There is a sub-text about the sanctity of American teenage female virginity and how it must be defended from foreigners like Polanski; I am not excusing Polanski’s actions but if they had been committed by a native-born US man with no connection to Hollywood, a Jewish background or anything else that smacked of a cosmopolitan and artistic outlook at the time, the outcome of the case might have been very different. The miscarriage of justice that would have occurred had Polanski stayed is made clear but there’s no examination of the US legal system that would show how such miscarriage is allowed to happen. Surely Rittenband wasn’t the only corrupt / corruptible judge in California at the time? If the film had shown whether the kind of justice Rittenband was prepared to dish out to Polanski was common or not, viewers would get an idea of how much the system itself encourages outlandish and extreme behaviour. Unfortumately the role of the media and celebrity culture in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of the case as a result is investigated very little.

The film makes no claim to being impartial and tends to be more sympathetic to Polanski than it should. A lot of emphasis is placed on Tate as a kind of angel come to save Polanski from his personal demons, as if to excuse the hedonistic life-style he later led after her death which forms the backdrop to the sex scandal. Viewers are left to decide whether Polanski has been dealt with justly or not and it’s clear from the film’s presentation that Zenovich believes he has been treated badly by the US justice system. Polanski and Geimer have suffered enough from the case and any future moves by the US government to arrest him are likely to have hypocritical motives attached, especially after the pressure it placed on Switzerland in 2007 to arrest and extradite him in the wake of the Union Bank of Switzerland’s refusal to reveal the identities of US citizens (not all of whom might have been trying to evade US tax laws) who had UBS accounts.

An exceedingly demeaning portrait of a significant feminist / anarchist figure in “Emma Goldman – An exceedingly dangerous woman”

Mel Bucklin, “Emma Goldman – An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman” (2003)

This portrait of Emma Goldman, the American woman anarchist / political activist / writer / feminist / advocate for socially liberal causes, is as much a survey of politics and society in the United States from the 1890s to 1940, the year of Goldman’s death, as it is of her life; it also reflects in its narrative some unpleasant aspects of our current society of which more will be said later. The style of the documentary is deceptively straightforward: it’s a chronology of Goldman’s life, her work and the people she worked with, told through a mixture of photograph and picture stills, interviews with historians, artists and writers, and re-enactments of significant episodes in Goldman’s life, all laid over by voice-over narration. The pace is leisurely and the narrator and interviewees speak and explain particular aspects of Goldman’s life clearly yet paint a very complex picture of Goldman, the life she led, the contrast between her beliefs and ideals on the one hand and the reality she lived on the other, and how she navigated her way through a conservative society that was (and in many ways still is) unready for her politics, thinking and message of sexual equality in both private and public life. The film is part of the “American Documentary” series issued and distributed by PBS.

Goldman’s life is picked up in her teens when she has already emigrated to the US from Russia, has started working in a factory and is becoming political and radicalised through associations with radical workers and after-hours socialising. In those days (1850s – early 20th century), talk of revolution, socialism and better working and living conditions was popular with working class people (or it just seems that way from the viewpoint of our current self-absorbed cocoon society). After a short failed marriage, Goldman moves to New York City and meets anarchists Alexander Berkman and Johann Most: Most starts training Goldman as a public speaker and Berkman becomes her friend and eventual lover. Goldman and Berkman are involved in a factory strike which indirectly leads to Berkman being sentenced to 20 years in jail (the actual cause is that he tried but failed to kill the factory manager). Goldman later breaks with Most, and keeps up a busy life that includes jail-time (during which she studied nursing and read many books), lecturing in the US and abroad, writing a magazine called Mother Earth, and being implicated by Leon Czolgosz in his murder of US President William McKinley. After Berkman is released from jail, having served 14 years, the couple try but fail to pick up their relationship; Goldman later marries a doctor called Ben Reitman (the marriage is short-lived). She switches from advocating revolution and worker freedom to talking feminism, freedom in love, sex and marriage, and birth control. Come World War I and Goldman and Berkman oppose conscription; after the war, they are jailed briefly as traitors with the option of deportation. They go to the Soviet Union to live but although they follow politics and events in that country, they become disillusioned with Lenin’s government and its methods of repression and leave the country. Goldman spends the rest of her life travelling in Europe and Canada, lecturing and writing on various topics, maintaining her friendship with Berkman until his death in 1936, before dying herself in Canada in 1940.

The film concentrates heavily on events in Goldman’s life and not much on her anarchist philosophy or other writing and on her thoughts and opinions on subjects such as capitalism, fascism, feminism, prisons and criminal justice, atheism and homosexuality. Goldman’s life is split in phases depending on her relationships with men; there’s nothing about any women who might have been significant influences on her life. The structuring of Goldman’s chronology in this way does the woman a great disservice, given that she believed strongly in men and women being equal partners in all aspects of life even if she didn’t necessarily always practise what she preached. One woman who must have been a great influence on Goldman’s beliefs was the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger whom Goldman supported and whose pamphlets she helped distribute. Some significant events are brushed out of the film completely: there is no mention of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 9) in which Goldman took great interest and followed. Makes you wonder what else the film deliberately left out. There is no mention of Goldman’s influence on philosophical thought, feminist theory or popular culture after her death.

My impression is that the film packages Goldman’s life in a way that makes it palatable to a politically and culturally conservative audience and pigeon-holes her as an idealist naive about the reality of human nature and the society around her, and its capacity for improvement; this fits in with current ideas about humans as biologically rather than culturally predetermined in their behaviour. Goldman is made to sink into a funk after Berkman’s death and the ultimate message seems to be that even a rebel like Goldman needs a man psychologically if not physically to give meaning and structure to her life. Goldman’s continuing interest in politics, her opposition to World War II and her disgust at late-1930s life and society in Britain and France which led her to retreat to Canada to live are glossed over. It’s as if Goldman is just an interesting minor footnote in American political, social and cultural history and is mentioned in a documentary series aimed at the general public because some kids in high school might have to do a project on a historical American female personality.

A is for Atom (dir. Carl Urbano): educational propaganda film presents a mildly benevolent view of nuclear energy

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

Created and produced by John Sutherland and sponsored by General Electric, this promotional / education film is aimed at junior high school students, perhaps to inspire them to consider taking up science and mathematics subjects at senior levels of high school as preparation for the appropriate university studies. The entire film is delivered as an animated piece in the style common to many cartoons of the 1950s with sharp-edged animated figures and a colourful, 1950s-“modern” look. An off-screen narrator delivers the involved science lesson in mildly bright and carefully neutral tones so as to suggest the neutral nature of atomic energy in itself.

The film begins by carefully and clearly explaining what atoms are, what they are made up of and how atoms can be used to create energy. The narrator goes into some detail about what atomic weight is (it’s determined by the total number of protons and neutrons in the atom’s nucleus) and how isotopes of an element may differ by the number of neutrons in the atom’s nucleus. Sprightly animation likens stable elements to ordinary middle-class denizens minding their own business and going to bed early in their own tidily numbered houses while radioactive elements are restless beatnik types dancing wildly to jazz! The narrator then continues onto the history of how atomic energy was discovered by scientists in 1939 and the process of transmutation that they used to split uranium atoms and obtain massive amounts of energy. With the discovery of nuclear fission and chain reactions within nuclear fission, physicists could go on to create and design atomic bombs, learn to use neptunium and plutonium in the process of nuclear fission, and discover uses for atomic energy in agriculture, industry, other areas of science such as biology, and medicine. The film concludes by speculating on further uses of nuclear energy in transport technologies and in society generally, and emphasises that human wisdom and control of nuclear energy will open up a new world of discovery and material comfort for future generations of people.

The bright clarity of the narration and the stylish yet funny cartoons in explaining what an atom is, what elements and isotopes are and how artificial transmutation of uranium-235 created atomic energy make this film highly relevant still to current generations of young school students. Visual explanations and metaphors are straightforward and moderately paced if at times a little bizarre and are sometimes an unintentionally funny commentary on social classes and life-styles of the 1950s! The science presented in the film appears to be fairly accurate although the strong and weak nuclear forces are presented as semi-transparent liquid glue. There is a lot of information given and a couple of viewings might be needed but the imaginative animation is great to watch and even the backgrounds and settings are smart and bright. Atomic energy is presented as a strong, silent, stern but benevolent muscular giant standing over cities, hospitals and farms: a little bit like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Zac Snyder’s reverent film of the same name but without that character’s dangly bits or moral hollowness. Of course this film having GE as its sponsor, the tone of the film is positive about atomic energy and completely ignores its potential for destructive annihilation and crippling long-term health effects on individuals, their families and communities.

Of course the reality in the 1950s was much more complicated: not all physicists and other scientists in the United States and other countries agreed with the use of nuclear energy for industrial, agricultural, scientific and military purposes. The adoption of nuclear energy for such uses in many countries was driven more by political and ideological motives than by economic need and was often against public opinion (Japan being a notable example where politicians like Matsutaro Shoriki and Yasuhiro Nakasone pushed for investment in nuclear power). In 1957, a nuclear accident involving plutonium waste stored underground in Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union rendered a large area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres highly radioactive (it still remains dangerous to this day) and resulted in the evacuation of 22 villages with a combined population of 10,000 people; the Soviet Union suppressed reports of the accident for a long time but it has been suggested that the CIA in the US had known about the accident almost as soon as it occurred and also hushed up publicity about it to avoid loss of public confidence in the US nuclear industry. Doubtless the sponsors of “A is for Atom” would have approved.


Primer: a hit-and-miss film about causality, consequences and a road of good intentions leading to hell

Shane Carruth, “Primer” (2004)

A low-budget film (it cost about US$7,000 to make) about four enterpreneurial engineer / scientist friends and work colleagues working on an invention and stumbling across the secret of time travel, “Primer” isn’t an easy ride as a story but it is an interesting look at how real-life inventors in the early 21st century might go about creating, working on and protectting an innovation that’s far ahead of its time and whose potential might not be realised until decades later when the appropriate social-cultural-economic-technological setting is in place. Up to a certain point, the film is more about two friends, Aaron (Carruth himself) and Abe (David Sullivan), and how their discovery of time travel strains their friendship and their relationships with other people, especially Phillip (Anand Upadhaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden) the other entrepreneurs, and affects their thinking and actions as they use time travel to engineer or re-engineer events to suit themselves but discover there are physical side-effects and ethical consequences to deal with that their training as technicians hasn’t prepared them for. Although Aaron is the obvious ring-leader and appears in nearly all scenes, the film follows Abe’s point of view.

The plot is fairly straightforward at least until Aaron and Abe start messing with time and go backwards and forwards in time, figuring out what their doubles might be doing in parallel time-streams, and at one point Aaron meeting his double and fighting him. The last 30 minutes in particular can be very confusing and viewers should see the film at least twice and maybe a few more times to make head or tail of it all. The point that Carruth may be making is that trying to control fate and how it might pan out carries significant repercussions not just for yourself and others immediately around you but for time and space themselves. Aaron and Abe play the stockmarket but by the end of the film the guys look as though they haven’t made any profit at all and are instead contemplating leaving the US and each other, with Aaron going to France and assuming a different identity.

The main attractions of the film revolve around its reworking of the “mad scientist” stereotype: the mad men here are ordinary and likeable worker-bee employees of some nameless IT or scientific corporation who do a bit of PC-tinkering on the side for bored teenage hackers in their garage and who stumble onto a major invention they’re not too sure about and want to work on to fully understand it. As the truth dawns on them, they start using time travel to get what they want and rework events to suit them. They constantly react to things happening around them, they suffer strange physical ailments like bleeding ears and shaky hand control that forces them to write like small children and their solution to problems that occur from their time-travelling tinkering is to … do more time-travelling tinkering! A clear example of not being able to think “outside the box” because they’re just too caught up in their invention and are fearful of bringing others into their secret so they suffer from restricted groupthink. Eventually Abe tries to go all the way back in time to near the beginning of their project to fix things … only to discover Aaron’s done the same!

As might be expected of what is basically a labour-of-love home movie by someone with no experience of making films or education in telling a clear story, the acting is so wooden it could sprout leaves and the sets are basically what the crew could find in their home town and get permission from the owners to use. Carruth wrote, directed, scored the music, produced and played one of the leads in the film and he and several other actors drafted in family and friends to help out with filming and food and drink supplies. Scenes are set up and filmed very well with no jerkiness and the sequencing of scenes is easy to follow though the plot is not. Several critical passages in the film in which scenes appear to be edited choppily show a flair for using editing to suggest particular effects or make a point. The film sometimes has a fly-on-the-wall documentary-style appearance which enhances its freshness as a variation on traditional “mad scientist / sorcerer’s apprentice” sci-fi films.

Carruth certainly has some talent as a director and while “Primer” could have done with a tighter script and a clearer direction in plot and how it develops – it’s quite possible the actors improvised their dialogue and allowed the dialogue to more or less influence the direction of the story – the film does raise some very significant questions about the process of creating and developing an invention and how that invention and its potential might skew people’s better reasoning and ethics and lead them down a road paved with good intentions to hell.


Guy Maddin quartet of short films: a unique style and vision at work

Guy Maddin, “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” (2002), “My Dad is 100 Years Old” (2005), “Spanky: To the Pier and Back” (2008), “Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” (2009)

Canadian director Guy Maddin presents a very singular vision and style in his films. His short films are an excellent introduction to his work. From what I have seen so far, his short films at least are mostly silent and are presented in black-and-white; and they have the style of old films made in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Sometimes they may be set in near-recent historical or alternate historical periods. There is usually a definite narrative and the subject nearly always revolves around the subconscious and may be treated in a bizarre, surrealist way. His work has been likened to early Eraserhead-period David Lynch in its use of absurd imagery and juxtapositions, the implied sexual psychology and humour involved, but it could just as easily be compared to films made by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.

I’ve seen four film shorts so far and they’re at once similar yet different. “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” is close to being a music video of sorts: a housemaid (Valdine Anderson), singing the eponymous song taken from Thomas Ade’s opera “Powder Her Face”, reminisces about all her drowned sailor lovers who are shown rising from the ocean waves as they roll onto a sandy beach, reuniting briefly with her and then returning to their ocean graves. Quick editing and a fast pace sweep viewers breathlessly along with the floridly sung song. The singing is not synchronised very well with the speedy images and the film doesn’t quite succeed on current music-video terms but as a self-contained story with its own themes about the power of the subconscious in enabling someone to cope with unfulfilled love and a mundane life otherwise lacking in hope, it’s very touching. There might be a deliberate metaphor in the images of the dead men rising from the waves as these roll up the beach in early scenes.

“Spanky: to the Pier and Back” is an affectionate piece that might be about Maddin’s home city of Winnipeg: a small pug dog takes a long, long walk around various landmarks and scenic spots in an unidentified city. The style of the film is fast and choppy and suggests a home-made video by its jerky quality. Most noteworthy is the music soundtrack by Matthew Patton which starts off slowly and builds up amid the sounds of breaking ocean waves.

“Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” features Isabella Rossellini as a Woman hypnotised from afar by a sinister elderly man and lured to his secret hide-out where ghost men materialise out of the air and strap her carefully into an electric chair full of dangly wires, leather straps and steampunk-styled gadgetry. One ghost guy proceeds to tap-dance on a sparkboard while a ghost lady tickles the ivories on an upright piano; other ghost gals in skimpy sequinned costumes start shimmying about the place. The Woman, obviously distressed, is forced to sweat out her torture while her boyfriend (Louis Negin) – we’ll call him the Man – races up the spiral staircase (how did he know where she was?) to rescue her. In the chaos that follows when the Man bursts into the room, the senile Svengali looks to have the last laugh on the unlucky couple. Again the action is fast and agitated with several overlapping images and lots of quick, choppy edits; and the music is stormy, brassy and screechy.

Rossellini pays tribute to her father Robert – or rather, his gravid belly from the looks of things – in “My Dad is 100 Years Old” by appearing as various famous producers and directors he knew (David Selznick, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and an angelic Charlie Chaplin, complete with wings and sub-titles) and as her mother Ingrid Bergman, all engaging with the belly in a conversation about cinema as art and what the purpose of cinema is for. Should cinema reflect reality or should it just be about commercial entertainment? What should the film director’s role be in making films: is s/he merely a hack in service to commercial imperatives or can s/he, should s/he, must s/he encourage viewers to question the world as it is and broaden their horizons and awareness? “My Dad is 100 Years Old” looks at Roberto Rossellini as an eccentric who did most of his best work in bed (well, one of them is talking to him!) and who experimented with and stretched the boundaries, stylistically and technically, of what film-makers in his day could do.

The film itself is surreal and has at times a noir flavour, notable in the Hitchcock scenes where the portly one appears mostly as a silhouette in profile, standing in a distant balcony. Bergman appears on a screen larger than life in front of Isabella Rossellini, making the daughter appear very small. In contrast with the other films reviewed here, the pace is leisurely and most shots are maintained for more than a few seconds. Rossellini herself commands Maddin to bring the camera down low and close to her and her embrace of the giant belly in emulation of her father’s style and Maddin unhesitatingly obeys.

Rossellini’s tribute certainly is self-indulgent and in the hands of a lesser director would be laughably silly and kitsch; but in Guy Maddin’s sphere of control, the film is lovely to watch, comic and affectionate, and in itself is a homage to cinema history and its development. The surreal and the real blend easily, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

These shorts may not be representative of Maddin’s corpus but viewers certainly get an idea of and a feel for his style and vision.