Dark Horse: a bleak and surreal comedy satire on dysfunctional middle class suburban families

Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” (2011)

A bleak comedy expressing despair over the human condition, “Dark Horse” revolves around life’s losers, those who for various reasons are unable to achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential and live up to their own (and others’) expectations, and end up alienated, frustrated and forgotten. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is in his mid-30s, living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and working for his father’s real estate company; his main joys in life are the obsessions of his teenage years, namely sci-fi toys he buys at the toy store in the shopping mall. He meets a young woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), at a wedding and becomes besotted with her. From this moment on, Abe pursues Miranda, and they come close to marrying, but Abe’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, combined with resentment at his parents and older brother’s treatment of him, threaten to derail the two’s future happiness.

The film is notable for its character study of a no-hoper pampered adult-child character with many unlikeable qualities and a feeling of self-entitlement, and of the dysfunctional family in which he grew up and which either indulges him or treats him dismissively. Jordan Gelber actually succeeds in making the unpleasant and self-centred Abe strangely sympathetic and touching. Blair’s character Miranda doesn’t appear all that convincing as an apathetic and depressed young woman, over-medicated and despairing that she will never achieve the literary career she had hoped for; her irrational behaviour in accepting Abe’s marriage proposal (and thus sending him onto a trajectory that means his days are fast running out) in spite of her inability to truly love him may bewilder viewers. Walken and Farrow offer solid if restrained support as the disappointed father and indulgent mother and Justin Bartha’s contribution as the successful older brother whose good fortune sends Abe into constant rages is equally matter-of-fact and all the more devastating. Probably the outstanding performance though comes from Donna Murphy as the real estate company secretary who of all the characters may genuinely care for Abe … though the film offers many alternative suggestions about the nature of her feelings towards him and becomes distinctly surreal and open-ended at its conclusion.

As a satire on American family life in a society where success and conformity to social mores count for more than individual eccentricity and striving for one’s hopes and dreams, the film never quite succeeds, perhaps because Abe, his parents and the people around them are too self-absorbed and self-pitying to realise that their lives are collapsing around them as a result of their considerable character flaws. The tragedy is that Abe never gets the opportunity to get to grips with his situation due to Miranda’s odd and selfish behaviour. The plot is very disjointed and becomes more fragmented as it continues, and one is not too sure from whose point of view the story is being told.

Compliance: sneering at naive workers exploited by a culture that treats them as robots and brutes

Craig Zobel, “Compliance” (2012)

Based on a series of incidents over a decade from the mid-1990s to 2004, in which a prank caller convinced the staff at various fast-food restaurants in rural areas of the US that he was a police officer and that they had to carry out various demeaning actions on fellow staff, this film demonstrates the extent to which people, especially working-class people without much education, are willing to obey authority and commit the most brutal acts. At the beginning of the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a stressed-out middle-aged manager of a small-town fast-food joint who’s just been harassed by her regional manager for wasting inventory. The busy Friday shift is about to start and already the restaurant is one staff member short. The staff members themselves are a mix of people, young and old, middle class and working class, and Sandra has her hands full ordering them about and attending to the constant demands of customers. The phone rings and Sandra picks it up: the caller (Pat Healy) claims to be police officer Daniels and he is investigating a complaint about one of Sandra’s underlings in the restaurant, an attractive young blonde woman called Becky (Dreama Walker), who is alleged to have stolen a customer’s money. At his order, Sandra drags Becky into a store-room, to be kept under surveillance until the police arrive to make a formal arrest.

What follows is a horrific study in psychological horror as Becky is subjected to a strip search by Sandra and another employee, followed by extreme sexual humiliation and violence. Throughout Becky’s ordeal, Sandra continues to comply with Daniels’ orders even as they become ever more bizarre and perverted. She brings in co-worker Kevin to watch Becky but he quits the room in disgust after being ordered by Daniels to force Becky to undress again. Sandra then calls and brings in her fiancé Van to watch Becky and Daniels orders him to abuse the girl by spanking her.

The film’s story faithfully follows the details of an actual incident that occurred at a McDonald’s franchise in Mount Washington, Kentucky state, right up to the point where the police really do become involved and start tracking down the prank caller and making arrests. The rest of the film then flits through the police investigation and scenes in which Becky considers her legal options and Sandra is interviewed by a journalist about her actions and why she obeyed the prank caller.

While the outward message of the film seems obvious – that people can and do obey authority far too trustingly, even when there are clues that someone claiming to be what he is not, is not at all genuine – the plot itself, by concentrating very closely on the details of the story, fails to make the connection between class and education level on the one hand, and the extent to which people blindly follow authority on the other hand. Sandra and Van are shown to be simple people with limited schooling and equally limited options, and the other people around them are also unsophisticated and no match for the devious middle class prankster preying on them. There is a sub-text suggesting that Sandra is jealous of Becky because she is young and pretty, and that perhaps the prank call gives Sandra an opportunity to subconsciously abuse the girl which might explain why the older woman falls for the scam so readily.

The film does not show the full context in which Sandra, Becky, the rest of the staff and Van feel harassed and compelled to obey the prank caller: the fast-food restaurant staff have an unsympathetic and remote management on their backs, and are driven by work quotas they have to fulfill and a work culture that treats them like robots. In such an environment there is no need to think critically, to exercise one’s imagination, and such attributes would be discouraged anyway. There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that Sandra and her staff have been notified of prank callers in their district by their regional management even when the police discover the person posing as “Daniels” could have been harassing another fast-food establishment prior to the incident in the film.

The film could have been an effective indictment on how working-class and rural people are preyed on and made the butt of cruel pranks by knowing middle-class sociopaths, and an examination of how capitalism exploits people’s loyalty to authority and their willingness to conform and obey orders. Instead it offers a cheap opportunity for audiences to sneer at naive working people exploited by government, corporations and an ideology that regards such workers as expendable work units whose job is to make money and profits. Ultimately as Sandra faces jail time, unemployment and a lonely future, having broken off her engagement to Van, the film can do nothing more than abandon her to her fate.

Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its status as a classic American film.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.

Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.

AntiRacist Hitler: a subversive cartoon satirising Western social policies and hypocrisy

Matt the White Rabbit, “AntiRacist Hitler” (2013)

A subversive animation short satirising open-borders immigration policies and multiculturalist agendas in Western countries, most of which also hypocritically support Israel’s own racist policies and genocide against Palestinians, this cartoon posits what would happen if Israel were forced to have similiar social policies imposed on it. The former German chancellor Adolf Hitler, having apparently been in hiding in Argentina for over half a century (which might explain his youthfulness and the unchanged moustache), returns to the West and announces before an amazed audience that he no longer believes in Aryan racial supremacy and now embraces multiculturalism and diversity. He vows to bring diversity to the whole wide world and selects Israel, bastion of Zionist exclusivity, as the place where to start. Miraculously elevating himself to head of the Israeli government (one assumes he had to send the entire fruitcake Knesset somewhere out of the way … maybe not remote railway terminuses in rural eastern and southern Poland), the new Hitler opens the country’s borders to all the displaced peoples of the world. Over time, the new arrivals remake Israel’s urban landscapes into their own, their languages replace Hebrew and they intermarry with Israel’s Jewish population until Israelis are no longer Jewish. The last remaining Jewish citizen in the country runs into Hitler’s office and exclaims that Israel is no longer Jewish, at which Hitler (barely looking up from eating lunch) murmurs that he had not foreseen such a scenario when he first opened the borders.

While the motivations behind the creation of “AntiRacist Hitler” could be racist and discriminatory towards non-white people, the way in which the new Hitler uses the “diversity” agenda and supporting social policies to eliminate Jews should at least give us all pause to consider how similar policies and programs have been used by Western governments in the past to undermine social democracy, workers’ rights and working conditions and to denigrate those protesting against the weakening of worker protections as fascist or racist. The outsourcing of manufacturing from Western shores to Third World countries offering cheap labour in conditions where workers’ rights are suppressed viciously can be seen as a parallel policy to open-borders immigration policies: ultimately everyone, local people, immigrants and overseas workers alike, stand to lose whatever rights they had and whatever social and industrial democratic progress they had previously made. Democracy overall has receded under the onslaught of the corporate state and the individuals and corporations supporting it.

Where the cartoon possibly falls short is in implying that Jews (or an elite made up of Jews) are actively encouraging multicultural “melting pot” or “salad bowl” societies in Western countries. Such a blanket assumption opens the door to racist infiltration into and eventual domination of individual countries’ historical narratives of how they initially encouraged immigration and what their original reasons for doing so were; in most cases, the reason was that governments determined sufficient manpower was lacking for their nations’ economic development and decided to import foreign workers to overcome worker shortages. In some countries such as Germany, these foreign guest workers were not expected to stay permanently and they and their families were supposed to return home when they had fulfilled their work contracts. To that end, the host countries failed to provide education for these workers in the host language, culture and history, and as a result these workers and their families ended up alienated and disadvantaged.

In other countries that imported foreigners to fill their factories, programs to assimilate these people and to teach them the languages of their host nations existed but since the 1970s when the neoliberal economic paradigm became supreme, such programs have been squeezed for funding. At the same time, the corporate world in these countries continually wants more foreign workers to come, regardless of the prevailing economic situation and whether there are enough jobs for both foreigners and locals. In many nations where manufacturing has now ceased to exist, the only way money can circulate is through financial bubbles including property bubbles … which means that people have to be persuaded to take out more mortgages … and if the present population is already saturated with excess debt, then immigrants and refugees are the next targets.

What would have made the cartoon’s message even more biting would be the fact that many of the poor flooding into the new Hitlerian Israel are people displaced by wars and invasions instigated by Israel through its lobbying activities in Western governments. The invasions of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011 onwards) by the US and its allies have the effect of removing political and economic challenges to Israel as the only or the most advanced / democratic country in the Middle East.

Ultimately the cartoon’s message is very simplistic and reduces a complex issue to a level where it and its creators might be accused of racism (unjustly perhaps) but its use of a known historical figure notorious for policies of genocide to demonstrate how superficially anti-racist social policies might in fact be racist, even fascist, is sobering and thought-provoking.

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal – earnest attempt to flesh out Thomas Jefferson / Sally Hemings affair

Charles Haid, “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal” (2000)

More notable for the performances of its lead actors Carmen Ejogo as Sally Hemings and Sam Neill as Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and one of the signatories to the US Declaration of Independence, this television mini-series attempts to put flesh on the bones of the relationship the famous leader had with his much younger slave mistress based on the scanty historical information that is available about their affair and on what is generally known of American society of their time (late 18th century / early 19th century). The film is essentially a romantic fictional drama, told in conventional chronological order mostly from Sally’s point of view, that ties together the bits and pieces that are known about the affair, why Sally stayed so long with Jefferson and how the affair reflects the contradictions between Jefferson the idealist and Jefferson the all-too human gentleman farmer / landowner / slave-master.

The film opens when Sally is a young teenager accompanying Jefferson’s two daughters Martha (Mare Winningham) and Polly to France in 1788. Jefferson was the US ambassador to France at the time. Jefferson is already a widower and viewers come to learn that Sally and Jefferson’s dead wife Martha were half-sisters and that Martha and Jefferson inherited Sally and her mother Betty Hemings (Diahann Carroll) along with the Monticello farm and the other slaves working there. While in France, Sally learns to speak French and to read in both English and French. Some time during her stay in France, she and Jefferson begin their affair. Over the next 38 years, Jefferson and Sally were to stay together and their relationship produced six children of whom four survived to adulthood; three of the four children successfully passed as white people and married into white society. The affair weathered public exposure and disapproval – the notion of slave-owners keeping slave women as mistresses wasn’t unusual but such affairs were usually kept discreet – and Jefferson’s post-presidential life during which he was burdened with debts and bankruptcy, and with regret that he did not campaign more strongly against slavery as president or free his slaves when he should have.

Viewers will not learn very much about Jefferson’s achievements in public office or what else he did that made him highly regarded during his life-time and which his daughter Martha was anxious to protect. The first half of the mini-series is rather awkward and unsure, and the fragmented time-line it follows is partly to blame. Only during the last stretch of the film in which the aged Jefferson decides to found a university but struggles with funding it while fighting off debtors at the same time, and Sally tries to maintain Monticello to a respectable standard, does it become compelling watching. The warm affection between Jefferson and Sally is obvious but there is always the ever-present worry that once Jefferson is dead, Sally will be denied her rightful inheritance (that is, her freedom) by Martha.

The film could have been much better and stronger in its focus and direction had the drama been framed differently. Since much of what we know about Sally and Jefferson comes from their descendants, the narrative could have been structured as a series of flashbacks based on Madison Hemings’ 1873 interview and his brother Eston’s memoir. Sally’s children could have been more significant characters and their lives after Jefferson’s death could have been described in a way so as to throw light on how freed slaves were able to integrate into mainstream white society and the problems and discrimination they faced. As it is, the film throws up half-baked episodes of Sally’s life that might or might not have occurred.

The affair might have been better treated as a documentary with fictional re-enactments of events in Sally and Jefferson’s life together. Not enough is known about Hemings that the film should have taken the liberty to portray her as a “strong black woman / mother” stereotype simply to feed a socially liberal audience’s expectations. Within the film’s own parameters, I feel not enough is made of Sally’s decision to return to Monticello in 1789 as a slave and not to stay in revolutionary France as a free woman, and the regrets she might have had over that decision.

I must say though that Neill and Ejogo are excellent in portraying Jefferson and Sally respectively over the near-40 years they spent together: Neill plays a conflicted and hypocritical Jefferson very well, and Ejogo carries off both a teenage and a mature Sally. Mare Winningham is another notable actor with her portrayal of Jefferson’s daughter Martha, though the conflict between her and Sally reduce her to a prim stereotype that does injustice to her attempts to preserve Monticello and keep her father’s debtors at bay. These three actors maintain the drama’s energy and spark and are very much all it has going for it.