Faust: a visually stunning film with many magnificent scenes – but a thin story weakens it

F W Murnau, “Faust” (1926)

Visually powerful and stunning, with an incredible opening scene of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding high in the sky, “Faust” is an ambitious film that retells the story of Faust and the pact he made with the devil Mephistopheles. Special effects abound in this movie; modern audiences will be flabbergasted that, back in the 1920s, special effects were rarely used in films generally.  Even though the plot is thin and predictable – even those not familiar with the original “Faust” tale can guess how the plot will turn out – the passion and energy with which it is told, at brisk place, are evident. The acting may appear exaggerated to modern Western audiences but actors playing the main characters do their utmost to portray their characters’ feelings, emotions and pet fears.

The plot may remind readers here of the Book of Job in the Bible, Job being a fellow hit by many calamities – his children dying, his enterprises going bust – and undergoing trials set by God to test his faith. The Archangel Gabriel rebukes  Mephisto (for Mephistopheles) for glorying in war, violence and bloodshed. Both agree to make an example of Faust (Gösta Ekman), an ageing alchemist and healer, and subject him to a trial of his spiritual faith, with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) declaring that he will own Faust’s soul at the end. The deal having been struck, Mephisto promptly blasts the plague over Faust’s home town and Faust is helpless to prevent mass deaths. He casts all his books of knowledge into a bonfire but one book reveals a path out of his dilemma: he can appeal to the Prince of Darkness to gain power. Faust takes this path and meets Mephisto who gives him great power to heal others. Faust promptly starts using this power to bring people back to life but when they discover him shunning the cross, they reject him. Faust then appeals to Mephisto to take him away and give him youth; Mephisto does so, under certain conditions.

In his new youthful guise and living in a new country, Faust seduces an aristocratic woman, whose seduction comes to be the ruin of her marriage. Eventually tiring of the woman, Faust wishes to go home. Mephisto takes him back and Faust meets a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), of pure heart and soul. His desire and lust for Gretchen leads Faust to seduce her as well – but as with the aristocrat, so too does Faust’s desire cause destruction of Gretchen’s family and ruin the girl’s reputation. Gretchen is punished for harlotry and, much later, is tried and convicted for the murder of her child. She is condemned to burning at the stake. On hearing that Gretchen is to be burned, Faust rushes to save her.

Ekman plays both the old and the young Faust well but (as viewers might expect), Jannings steals the film as the malevolent yet often comic Mephisto. Horn’s performance as Gretchen is not bad but the character is definitely very stereotyped as a fallen innocent girl. The real stars of the film though are the sets, influenced as they are by German expressionism, the cinematography and the special effects.  A highly memorable early scene shows Mephisto, grown giant, spreading his black wings over Faust’s town and blowing black clouds of plague through it. The special effects which include animation are bold and incredible for the period in which the film was made.

While the film’s message of the redeeming power of love and self-sacrifice may be heartening, in its own way the film is also quite bleak. In order to understand the true power of God’s love and compassion for humanity, Faust is forced to experience the deepest despair possible and the corruption that having power over others and objects can bring. One might ask if it was really all that necessary for so much suffering and death to occur just so Faust can realise the error and selfishness of his behaviour and actions. Gretchen loses all her family and ultimately her life as a result of Faust’s actions towards her. Also, if God is willing to horse-trade humans with the Devil just to prove a point about love and redemption, is He really worthy of worship?

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

A Tale of Two Traitors: short documentary on two double agents is short on answers as to why spies turn traitor

Ronna Syed, “A Tale of Two Traitors” (Fifth Estate, March 2018)

In the wake of the recent incident in the UK concerning a suspected poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and their continued incarceration in a small general hospital while the official account of how they were poisoned and what they were poisoned with continues to change from one week to the next, the Canadian investigative news documentary series The Fifth Estate revisited Canada’s own answer to Sergei Skripal, a KGB spy codenamed Gideon. In the early 1950s, Gideon was posted to Ottawa where he fell in love with the wife of a soldier and was persuaded by her to spy for Canada. Gideon apparently gave much valuable information about the Soviets to his new masters in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Surprisingly, an RCMP employee, James Morrison, was spying for the Soviets at the same time and revealed to his masters that Gideon had betrayed his country. In 1955, Gideon was recalled back to the Soviet Union and the Canadians presumed that he would be executed. In 1982, James Morrison spoke to The Fifth Estate and admitted having betrayed Gideon to the USSR. For his betrayal, Morrison was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In 1992, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, a former security officer, Don Mahar, received a phone call advising him that a man had appeared at the British embassy in Lithuania claiming to be Gideon. After interrogating the man with questions that only Gideon knew the answers to, Mahar was satisfied that the man in Vilnius was indeed Gideon. Gideon was brought back to Canada. The news that Gideon was still alive and moreover safe in Canada brought relief to James Morrison and his lawyer Peter Cronin, and to investigative reporter John Sawadski who had been following the story for several years. Morrison died and was buried in an unmarked common grave in 2001 with no eulogy and few people in attendance. Gideon died in 2009, having never tried to re-establish contact with the woman he fell in love with and who had encouraged him to turn traitor.

The nature of what Gideon gave to the Canadians, that was apparently so serious that when he returned to the Soviet Union he was presumed to be going to an early grave as a traitor, is not revealed in this short report. The fact that the Canadian security services were so sure that Gideon had been executed for treason that they considered his survival a miracle might say more about their prejudices about the KGB and the Soviet Union, than about the Soviets themselves – but the program does not inquire into this angle as its focus is narrow and extends no further than exploring the shenanigans of two double agents. (The Canadians do not consider the possibility that the Soviets might have regarded Gideon so beneath contempt for betraying his country that execution would have been too good for him, and career and social ostracism would be judged a more fitting punishment.) On the other hand, the report does not go into much detail as to why Gideon and Morrison decided to betray their countries for selfish and quite trivial personal reasons: Gideon’s romance with another man’s wife must have turned out a short-lived fling and Morrison betrayed Gideon for a small sum of money. For such short-lived thrills, the consequences of what these men did stuck to them, millstone-like, for the rest of their lives. Morrison died in disgrace as well.

I’d have liked to know more about how and why agents turn traitor, and why they would betray their countries for often superficial and not well thought-out reasons, or small amounts of money, when surely they would know that doing this would jeopardise their lives and the lives of their families back home, and bring public condemnation on themselves that will last the rest of their lives. The program can viewed at this link.

 

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

The Curious Incident of the Skripal Poisoning in Salisbury, UK: a View from the Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry Meeting with Foreign Ambassadors on Skripal poisoning case (21 March 2018)

For nearly all of March 2018, the world was gripped by a strange incident in the sleepy English cathedral town of Salisbury – the kind of provincial English urban centre that might be a setting for a low-budget television crime / mystery series – in which an elderly Russian ex-spy and his adult daughter from Moscow were found unconscious (and the daughter suffering convulsions and loss of body functions to boot) on a park bench in the town’s shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. The couple are attended by a doctor who administers first aid before they are taken to the local general hospital. Initially the two are thought to have suffered an overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid drug which can be fatal in small amounts, not just to those who ingest but also to first-response emergency personnel who accidentally breathe or touch the particles while treating the victims. The narrative however starts to change from one day to the next: a police officer is reported as having been stricken by the same poisoning agent (which changes from fentanyl to a mystery nerve gas toxin) but the onset of his symptoms is very different (sudden as opposed to gradual in the case of the Russians) yet his condition is described in media reports as serious but stable while the Russians’ condition is critical. British police make a strange show of going to the local cemetery in Salisbury to cordon off the graves of the ex-spy’s wife and son and having two officers in hazmat suits perform a lap around them.

By the middle of March, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have blamed Russia for poisoning the Russian ex-spy Sergei and daughter Julia Skripal with a Novichok nerve gas agent, and demanded an explanation from the Russian ambassador, despite having no evidence that the Russian government or its agents had anything to do with the poisoning, if indeed poisoning with a man-made agent let alone Novichok did occur. At the same time the British government refused to share any information about the Skripals’ condition or to reply to Russian requests about Julia Skripal, and denied Russian consular access to the stricken woman. The British government also appointed a barrister to represent the Skripals’ interests in a High Court hearing on 22 March 2018 to allow doctors to obtain fresh blood samples from the couple; as far as is known, said barrister refuses to contact family and business connections of the Skripals in Russia.

With the British ultimatum to Russia demanding an explanation for the poisoning of the Skripals passing its deadline, the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow summoned all foreign ambassadors to a meeting on 21 March 2018 to discuss the Skripal poisoning incident. Speaker Vladimir Yermakov gave an outline of the situation surrounding the incident from a Russian point of view, noting that Russia was within its rights in requesting samples of materials for testing for the presence of Novichok from the British. He observed that the British had not shared any information about the incident or the condition of the Skripals with Russia, and that the way British authorities were dealing with the incident and blaming Russia was clumsy and inept. The possibility that British authorities themselves were involved in the attack on the Skripals, directly or indirectly, was raised.

Yermakov noted that the Director-General of the Organisation of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had met with the United Nations Security Council to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, at which meeting the Salisbury incident was raised by the British. The Russians asked questions about the incident, to which the answers were evasive. Yermakov went on to say that Russia itself had destroyed all its chemical weapons stockpiles under OPCW supervision and control by late September 2017.

Two other speakers were invited to give a broader context to the issue of the possible use of Novichok or a Novichok-like agent in the Salisbury incident. Major General Igor Kirillov from the Ministry of Defence spoke of the recent discovery made by Syrian Arab Army soldiers in East Ghouta (which had been held by jihadi forces for several years), in the Damascus region, of secret laboratories for the production of chemical weapons. Jihadis in that area had been preparing a large-scale CW attack that would be blamed on the Syrian government. He went on to discuss the issue of Novichok and how most information about it in the West comes from one former Soviet chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, who currently lives in the US and who holds anti-Putin views. Mirzayanov published the formulae for making Novichok in a book and on the Internet – which means that anyone with a chemistry background up to and including undergraduate university level can make the stuff. More information about Mirzayanov and his publications, and the research on Novichok and related nerve gas agents (including a list of these) was provided by Viktor Kholstov from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Kirillov also reminded the audience that the UK also researches and makes toxic nerve gas agents including VX nerve gas and sarin in its Porton Down laboratory (some 12 kilometres away from Salisbury) and has tested them on human guinea pigs in the past. He mentioned in particular the name of Ronald Maddison, a young soldier who was killed by sarin liquid in one experiment in the 1950s which he had volunteered for after being invited to participate in a flu vaccine trial.

There then followed a Q&A session in which ambassadors from various Western European countries and the US expressed support for and solidarity with Britain on the Salisbury incident. The ambassador from Bosnia and Hercegovina complained about the Serbian ambassador having mentioned incidents in Sarajevo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that were used by NATO to justify bombing Serbia, and suggesting a parallel with these incidents and the Salisbury incident, in that the Salisbury incident was being exploited by the West to isolate and demonise Russia. The ambassador from Venezuela expressed support for Russia to resolve the investigation of the Skripal poisoning in a manner transparent to everyone and urged the British to do the same.

This meeting should be of interest to all those keen to see the Salisbury incident dealt with in the manner that all incidents in which individuals are victims of possible foul play should be treated: in the manner that shuns finger-pointing, blaming others and holding kangaroo courts before evidence is properly collected, sorted and analysed to determine how the incident occurred, who most likely had the means to cause and create it, and the possible motive the perpetrator had to do it. The meeting presents the official Russian point of view of the Salisbury incident and provides a good (if embarrassing) example of how Western nations have closed ranks around the British position despite the lack of definitive evidence or proof provided by the British government so far of Russian involvement in the attack on the Skripals.  (For an example of such evidence, see this slideshow presentation made by the British Embassy in Moscow.) The British reaction to the Salisbury incident and the British government’s exploitation of it demonstrate the extent to which British elites are prepared to jettison British principles, values and institutions – and the British people themselves – to pursue an agenda against Russia.

Lady Macbeth: a disturbing character study told in a minimalist, understated style

William Oldroyd, “Lady Macbeth” (2016)

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, this character study investigates how an apparently demure young woman becomes a psychopath in a context where differences of class and race, rigid social expectations of women, and repressed emotions and desires intersect. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold by her family into a loveless and barren marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man far older than herself. She and Alexander go to live at his father Boris’s country estate in Scotland where the old crotchety fellow forces Katherine to wait up for her husband at all hours regardless of her own needs and forbids her from leaving the house. Boris (Christopher Fairbank) condemns Katherine for being childless even though her husband is so sexually repressed that all he can do is masturbate while looking at the back of her naked body. Katherine is forced to spend her days being bored and sleeping long days which leaves her tired.

Unexpectedly an accident occurs on the estate, forcing Boris and Alexander to leave the house (never fully seen from the outside) which means for the first time Katherine is in charge. She discovers the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) being beaten by the farmhands and is attracted to the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Before long, Katherine and Sebastian have begun an affair and Katherine’s new-found lust and longing for Sebastian leads her onto a dark and disturbing path of lies and murder: first, Boris is despatched with poison and then Alexander is bludgeoned to death. Later, a woman and a child claiming to be Alexander’s legitimate heirs – the child supposedly being a result of an affair the woman had with Alexander – arrive and settle in the house. The child’s presence unsettles Sebastian and he forces Katherine to choose between him and the boy. Katherine’s decision and subsequent actions, and Sebastian’s remorse at the role he plays bring the pair into conflict with each other and with the wider society, with tragic consequences for both.

Nearly all the action takes place in the country estate house, the bare furnishings of which emphasise the bleak and oppressive isolation that surrounds Katherine, Sebastian and Anna. Boris and Alexander may go early on but their baleful influence survives in Katherine’s misuse of her freedom and power as one murder leads to another and another. The lies and subterfuges pile up as well until an innocent person is taken away along with a murderer, both presumably to be hanged by police. Katherine finally obtains absolute freedom and power but at the cost of cutting herself from human society forever; how she will survive on her own is anyone’s guess.

For all her youth, Pugh delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance as the put-upon victim who becomes cruel and ruthless in order to free herself from the control of the men who rule her. The message one might take away from Katherine’s actions is a depressing one: to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where violence is always simmering under a placid surface, one needs to be equally selfish, brutal and amoral. Viewers are confronted with the choice of either cheering Pugh on as she upends a hierarchy based on oppressing women and the peasant classes, or condemning her for her crimes and blatant lies that will send an innocent woman to her death. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Pugh and their performances are average to good though Ackie deserves mention as the unfortunate maid who loses her voice after Boris and Alexander are killed.

Oldroyd’s direction emphasises ambience, mood and plot with many scenes lacking dialogue: the result is an almost Gothic film of people forced to make choices and confront the consequences of these choices in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Despite its short length, the film does seem rather long perhaps due to the plot’s predictable nature and the film’s minimalist style which extends to the plot itself in its second half. At this point also the plot changes significantly from the novel’s original plot (in which Katherine was convicted and imprisoned) to stress Katherine’s growing freedom and power, even as she is increasingly ostracised by the wider community. The cinematography is very good with scenes framed as though they are paintings.

The film is interesting as a study of how people are forced to cope under pressure from unenviable forces of bullying and isolation, but may not bear up under even a few repeat views.

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018): a new vision, a new path to greater prosperity and unity

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018)

Usually the Russian President gives an Annual Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in the first week of December but on this occasion the speech was delayed and set back to 1 March 2018, some seventeen days before the Presidential elections are set to take place. Current President Vladimir Putin is standing for re-election for the second and last time, and if he regains the presidency (as many expect him to do), then this March 2018 speech will serve as the mid-point of a remarkable period in which Russia transforms from a developing country, having suffered near total economic collapse, political corruption and social decay during the 1990s after some decades of stagnation, into a major global political power with a diversifying economy balanced among manufacturing, a renascent agriculture and mining, and a considerable potential to project soft power and influence in the form of a rich history and culture. Putin himself has overseen much of the country’s reconstruction since becoming President in early 2000 and staying at or close to the helm of the nation for the past 18 years. During this period there have been very many developments for better and for worse that have influenced the path Russia has taken in its reconstruction: on one side, there have been major technological achievements that promise to transform people’s lives (not necessarily always for the better) and communities; on another side, the rise of China as a major political and economic power opens up opportunities for the Russians and Chinese to work together to bring economic, political and social benefits to their peoples; on yet another side, Russia faces the enmity of nations in the West angered that their attempts to usurp Russian natural resources from the control of the Russian people in the 1990s have failed with the ascent of Putin to the Russian Presidency.

Putin recognises the possibilities, opportunities and threats faced by Russia in his March 2018 speech: the first and larger half of his speech deals with domestic issues, and the challenges that these present to the government; the second half of his speech – and the half that has dumbfounded much of the world’s media – concentrates on Russian defence capabilities with an emphasis on new defensive technologies and weapons. Let’s look at the first half of Putin’s speech, that half that is focused on issues of concern to ordinary Russian citizens, as this is essentially dedicated to securing a foundation of stability for Russian families, communities and larger rural and urban settlements, and on which the nation’s future progress depends. Providing meaningful and well-paid work, improving and extending necessary infrastructure (including Internet-related technologies) in cities, towns and villages, building more houses and making them more affordable with the appropriate housing finance, improving healthcare, social services and education, committing to high standards of environmental safety and protection: these are all issues that the President referred to in some depth in his speech, enumerating achievements, pointing out deficiencies that could be worked upon and solved or improved, and setting out tough but attainable goals. In each topic, the President ranges from the very specific, focusing on particular problems and on targets, to the general.

A nation with the ambitions Russia has needs a sound and stable investment environment and Putin spends considerable time detailing the desired economic structures and policies needed to grow the economy to the target levels. Encouraging the growth of small businesses, investing in new or upgraded technologies, increasing wages and offering better and more accessible financial resources are some policies the government will adopt. At the same time, Putin observed that the agricultural industry has undergone a renaissance (thanks partly to economic sanctions against Russia by the US and Europe) to the extent where Russia has brought in bumper wheat harvests two years in a row and is poised to become the leading global exporter of wheat. For agriculture and other industries to continue to develop, appropriate government institutions and networks are needed to supply the proper advice and assistance to small business owners and the self-employed.

Such ambitions, goals and grand plans also need a secure environment to take root and thrive, and for much of the rest of his speech Putin focuses on the most recent advances in systems of Russian strategic defence weaponry, including nuclear-powered energy cells that can be inserted into missiles and unmanned submarine drones. Putin states that these advances and new systems are a response to the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2000, which Russia had relied upon to stop the reckless deployment of nuclear weapons. While one suspects Putin very much enjoyed delivering this part of his presentation, like a child revelling in his toys, the President also took care to praise the scientists, engineers, designers and technical people who dedicated their energies and talents in creating, testing and developing these systems and weaponry. Putin concludes his presentation by reiterating that while Russia is ready and prepared to defend itself, the nation has resolved to follow its own path to prosperity and freedom, to respect and observe international law, and to work together with other nations to preserve global peace, stability and wealth.

This is a very wide-ranging speech with much detail in its different parts with an emphasis on doing things, setting targets and striving to achieve them. Wherever possible the President emphasises collaboration and co-operation at all levels of work and hierarchy, and focuses on the unity of all individuals, groups, communities and institutions in working together. For a political speech, this presentation is visionary yet does not look or sound at all impractical or tries to bedazzle listeners with gee-whiz technical gadgetry that looks great on paper or a digital screen but morphs into a hugely expensive white elephant in reality. The humour – yes, there is humour! – is of the dry drop-dead kind: “… Friends, Russia already has such a [hypersonic] weapon …” to take one example.

While people may wish that the ideological thrust of the President’s speech were more socialist / democratic, and the economic platform concentrating less on economic growth and concerned more with quality of life and environmental sustainability, the fact is that Putin is a pragmatic populist in his own way, who prefers to stick with the tried and true (in insisting on running a real economy as opposed to following the dictates of Wall Street and the demands of the global financial economy) and ends up a leader in much more than the strict political or economic sense – which is much more than can be said for the current generation of Western political leaders.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda: the history and nature of a long-running hybrid war for a nation’s oil resources

Hernando Calvo Ospina, “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda / Venezuela, la Oscura Causa” (2017)

A very informative documentary, “Venezuela …” reveals the true nature of the war being waged against the South American country, currently one of the richest in accessible oil reserves in the world, by the United States and its allies: this war is a brutal one with roots going as far back as the early 20th century, when the then First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Empire, Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), made the decision to convert all British warships from running on coal to oil – enabling the ships to accelerate more rapidly and run faster on fewer boilers – and thus made oil the most valuable, most desired commodity on Earth. The US-led war on Venezuela has been constant: it has not always been a hot war in the form of coups against legitimately elected governments leading to repressive dictatorships but it has been a war waged on several fronts – politically, economically and psychologically.

Wisely Calvo and his film crew allow his interviewees, several of them experts in domestic and international politics, the economy and Venezuelan history, to present the way in which this war has proceeded and continues to proceed on these fronts. Journalist Patricia Villega in particular describes how the political opposition, aided and abetted by the US, not only refuses to accept the results of presidential and parliamentary elections when these do not go in its favour but also stages protests and demonstrations in which they denounce and demand the resignation or overthrow of the legitimate government and resort to violence and arson at the first resort. Parallels between these actions and those of “demonstrators” in countries such as Ukraine (in Kiev in early 2014), in Syria (in Dar’aa in 2011) and Iran (in Mashhad and some other provincial cities in January 2018) are so close as to be eerie and to suggest that such actions emanate from a playbook or set of guidelines the “opposition” is urged or told to follow by unseen instigators. The economic war not only includes US trade sanctions against Venezuela – meaning that no country can trade with Venezuela for fear of US retaliation against it – but also the hoarding of staple foods and medicines by food importers and pharmaceutical companies which drive up the prices of these items out of reach of ordinary citizens, the aim of which is to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with government policies leading to protests which the political opposition can hijack (as was done in Syria in 2011) for its own purposes.

The film begins with a quick survey of Venezuelan-US relations from the early 20th century on, making very clear that US interest in meddling in Venezuela’s politics centres around the country’s oil and other energy resources. This survey segues into Hugo Chavez’s early attempt to enter politics (in a rather abrupt and dramatic manner in the form of a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992) and his later presidency which then led (with his untimely death from cancer) to the current government of Nicolas Maduro. From there the film explores various aspects of the hybrid war the US wages on Venezuela: there is the economic war, expressed in trade sanctions and the hoarding actions of firms opposed to the governments of Presidents Chavez and Maduro, aimed at destabilising the economy and discrediting government policies; and there is also the propaganda war being carried out by local media companies, owned by private interests (some of which are allied to the political opposition), through TV, radio and print broadcasting. Foreign mainstream news media have also reported negatively on Chavez and Maduro’s styles of leadership, portraying them as authoritarian and repressive demagogues and damning their socialist policies and programs. From there, the role of Colombia as an ally of the US in destabilising Venezuela is briefly mentioned.

The film ends on a defiant note while treading a delicate line between trying to be optimistic and facing up to the likelihood that Venezuela will once again be steamrolled into submission by its more powerful and vicious neighbour to its north. That’s perhaps the most appropriate way to end its presentation, to rouse viewers to support Venezuela or at least believe that whatever happens to the country, its people will not give up hope of finally becoming free of all foreign interference.

Viewers who do not know much about Venezuela and who want to find more about why Chavez and Maduro have been demonised so much by the Western mainstream news media, and what they have been able to achieve in following a socialist path, need to do their own research as the film says very little about the Bolivarian revolutionary agenda and programs.