Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: celebration of a religious ritual that imprisons as much as it liberates

Kenneth Anger, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954)

A lush creation by famous underground avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, this film of a celebratory religious ritual mixes several of Anger’s favourite themes and obsessions while remaining mysterious enough that it can be interpreted on a number of levels depending on the viewer’s background and opinions. I can see here a fascination with the occult and its symbols and trappings, many of which look like deliberate parodies and send-ups of Christian ritual and symbolism, into which Anger has inserted his own interest in the work and philosophy of English mystic Aleister Crowley. There is also a sense of people creating their own selective mix of mythology and ritual. Coming from another angle again, I can see criticism of formal religion, a suggestion that ritualistic religious ceremony can be corrupted and rotting from within, as much a prison from which there’s no escape except death, as it is a source of comfort and affirmation for its followers. In the midst of ecstatic communion, laughter and joy, there is also violence and an offer of a sacrifice to dark gods. The sacrifice could be interpreted as liberation as well, a release into a new clean world without sin and corruption. If we interpret the symbolism of “Inauguration …” very broadly, the film also becomes a critique of Western culture and people’s subjective notions of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

The actual film itself is set to the music of “Glagolitic Mass”, a composition for solo voices, choir, organ and orchestra by Czech composer Leos Janacek, and could be seen as a very long music video. There’s no dialogue at all, no background or other ambient sound. The film builds up steadily with static diorama-like scenes up to the moment where various participants consume an intoxicating drink and then the visuals explode into layered scenes of bursting, flaming colour and strange superimposed juxtapositions and combinations of repeating images, Hindu-god figures with green skin (a symbol of death), Egyptian gods and maenads (female acolytes of the Greek god Dionysius, lord of ecstasy) tearing apart a young man. The film’s close, near-fetishistic attention to objects, the actors’ elaborate costuming and studied appearance, and the staged, mannerly look of scene set-ups recall the equally camp kitsch film classics made by the Armenian film-maker Parajanov in the 1960s and 1980s.

This is obviously not a film for everyone: much of it up to the 20th minute is slow and appears quite remote, not at all concerned about drawing viewers into its ritual and secrets. Characters are preoccupied with consuming rosary beads, a snake and a jewel. Religious rituals have never been about entertaining or informing viewers of their purpose after all; you’re always assumed to have undergone some training or education in the religion’s basic practices and knowledge and to receive further knowledge you have to be selected by the religion’s standard bearers whose expectations of you and your conformity to its precepts may be severe. Eventually the film does immerse viewers into its realm but you need to interpret its goings-on for yourselves: there’s no attempt to explain what’s happening for the benefit of first-time participants in the ritual. Is the death scene of the young blond man a send-up of Christian Holy Communion ritual as well as a literal interpretation of Dionysian ritual? Is it a reference to the destruction of a particular worldview or civilisation? Is there the possibility of rebirth, that the death is but a necessary initiation step he must take into another (and better) plane of existence?

People with no interest or appreciation for arcane religious ritual, veiled symbolism and the eclectic mixing of deities, figures and stories from different religious and folkloric traditions will be bored by the film and perhaps should pass it over but they will miss its layered symbolism and message of initiation, celebration, ecstasy, death and the hope of new life.

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Melodrama, spy thriller hi-jinks and conservation activism a strong mix in “The Cove”

Louie Psihoyos, “The Cove” (2009)

This documentary by American photographer and film-maker Louie Psihoyos combines spy thriller genre elements with an agenda to educate the public about the need to preserve the marine environment by concentrating on one issue and following some related side-issues. The issue that “The Cove” revolves around is the annual slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales at a marine cove in Taiji, a small town in southern Honshu island in Japan. Initially the film concentrates on a lone figure, Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who became famous in the 1960s for training the dolphins that shared the role of the hero dolphin in the popular TV series “Flipper” that was exported around the world and boosted the growth of marine parks that featured bottlenose dolphins as a main attraction. O’Barry later comes to see that his work as a dolphin trainer is having harmful effects on the animals and from then on dedicates his life to returning captive dolphins to their ocean habitat and raising public awareness of problems both captive and wild dolphins face from human activities. The film’s focus extends from O’Barry’s advocacy campaign to Japan’s annual harvesting of dolphins in Taiji where the animals are either caught for export to marine parks or slaughtered for food. This brings up a related issue of the dangers that eating dolphin and whale meat can pose for humans as the meat usually contains high levels of toxic chemicals, in particular mercury and cadmium.

Much of the film is structured around Psihoyos’s attempts to film the actual round-up and slaughter of the animals in the scenic little bay at Taiji by the Taiji fishing fleet. The local people including the police are hostile to the presence of Westerners and try to intimidate them or provoke them to violence. Psihoyos and O’Barry recruit a team of special effects workers, scientists and freedivers to develop tactics and technology that include fake rocks with cameras inside to make a secret film of the Taiji fisherfolk’s activities. The team must place their cameras in and around the bay at night as the round-up and killing usually take place at dawn and the activists film what they do using infra-red photography. A camera is also placed on a helicopter to take aerial shots. This emphasis together with the filming methods used gives the documentary an axis of drama generating tension and excitement and sustaining attention around which diversions into less melodramatic aspects of the dolphin hunt can be made.

Accuracy in some of the information given is suspect and there’s a possibility that the information might have been massaged to arouse strong audience reactions: the film makes no mention of the fact that pilot whales are also killed in the Taiji round-up for food. An animated map shows where live captured dolphins are exported from Taiji to other parts of the world including North America, yet since 1993, dolphinariums in the United States have not imported dolphins captured in drive-hunts. One might assume that if captive dolphins suffer chronic stress – and it must be said that conditions and hygiene in marine parks and other places where they live may vary a great deal throughout the world -they would not be breeding and raising babies yet as of 1996 over 40% of dolphins kept in US dolphinariums were captive-born. Perhaps O’Barry’s zeal as a born-again dolphin advocate has infected Psihoyos and others he comes in contact with and this makes “The Cove” look biased in parts and open to charges of bashing Japan and its culture.

Overall the film is tight and structured with many scenes of great beauty and excitement interspersed with information that generally can be verified through other sources. Unfortunately the film-makers appear not to have researched the history of whaling and dolphin hunts in Japan and in Taiji in particular and this ignorance colours their attitude towards the Taiji locals. O’Barry is perturbed at seeing monuments and study centres dedicated to whales in Taiji but cetaceans are in fact part of the town’s history and culture and this in itself plays a big part in the local people’s hostility and resentment towards the film-makers. Both sides behave combatively which prevents them from looking at ways in which Taiji could still benefit economically from the whales and dolphins that visit the area: sightseeing tours to watch whale and dolphin migrations, using festivals dedicated to whales and dolphins to attract tourists and preserve local traditions, and setting up a marine sanctuary that can be monitored by outside animal welfare organisations are some alternatives. There may be other industries worth developing in Taiji so that its economy is not so dependent on exploiting sea mammals and over time the drive hunt could be reduced and abolished altogether.

Certainly there are other side-issues Psihoyos could have considered in his documentary though they stretch the boundaries of the main subject: why does the Japanese government continue to throw money at whaling and forcing the Japanese public to eat cetacean meat when the industry is in economic dire straits? why does the government pretend there are no health risks involved in consuming cetacean meat? could it be that there are close connections between politicians individually and the government as a whole on the one hand and whaling interests on the other? is the Japanese media under government or other external pressures not to mention whaling and drive hunts to their public? Perhaps, like Japan’s nuclear energy industry, the Taiji dolphin-hunt refers to an aspect of Japanese nationalism that feels insulted and humiliated by post-1945 US occupation and the cultural influences that the occupation brought to Japan, and which tries to reassert itself and its vision of Japanese cultural, racial and technological superiority. Whaling is seen as a tradition worth pursuing because it’s a native “tradition” which, not coincidentally, serves the same purpose of ridding the oceans of animals that “compete” with Japan’s fishing industry over decreasing global stocks of fish.

As with many American documentaries these days the film makes a plea to viewers to take action against the dolphin hunt but doesn’t offer specific suggestions or a list of organisations including Psihoyos’s own Oceanic Preservation Society to support. There is no mention of groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who also have a guerrilla-like activist approach to fighting the global whaling industry and O’Barry comes across as a proverbial lone voice in the wilderness in decrying the Taiji dolphin harvests. After the drama of trying to get film footage of the hunt without being caught and jailed, the film-makers’ ultimate message to viewers is a deflated let-down and some people might go away feeling manipulated.

Eraserhead: fascinating and hilarious dark horror film about social and religious pressures on struggling families

David Lynch, “Eraserhead” (1977)

Five years in the making from 1971 to 1976, “Eraserhead” was David Lynch’s full-length directing debut feature. Based on his experiences in Philadelphia in the late 1960’s, its themes revolve around fears and anxieties of being a parent and the death of innocence that parenthood implies; the film also focusses on an individual’s alienation in industrial society and the decay and stagnation that can exist in families in such a context. There is reference to mental illness which often can be a result or a symptom of alienation.  With such themes it’s no wonder that “Eraserhead” is such a dark film and yet there’s a lot of absurdist humour which may derive from surrealist art influences.

The plot is straightforward: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer by trade and on “vacation”, is hustled into a shotgun marriage by girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents when she gives birth to a premature mutant baby. The new family take up residence in Henry’s apartment but the baby’s constant whining drives Mary home to her parents (some viewers may follow suit) and Henry is left to care for the infant. Alone in his cramped surroundings which include a double bed, an old radiator, piles of dirt and dead worm-infested plants, Henry drifts into fantasies about a girl with hamster cheeks (Laurel Near) living in his radiator and the beautiful girl (Judith Anna Roberts) who lives next door. His fantasies send him into a dark dream about his head being chopped off and ending up as raw material for a pencil-making factory. After waking up, Henry still finds himself stuck in his room with the baby.

All very mundane but that’s beside the point – what makes the mundane so mesmerising to watch is the dream-like quality of the narrative and the nature of its context. Henry lives in a town that’s seen better and more prosperous days; factories still exist and machines within still grind on but they are on the slow road to decay and deterioration. They produce less and less and their output probably isn’t needed – they work just for the sake of working. In like manner, Mary’s family still holds to the nuclear-family ideal: her mother demands to know if Henry and Mary have slept together. Other members of the family either pine for the “good ol’ days” or have lost track of time. Henry still dresses for work and makes attempts to leave his apartment sometimes but the baby’s needs subvert any notions of returning to work and Henry gets no calls from his employer about being late or taking time off so viewers can assume his “vacation” is permanent. Henry’s fear of not being wanted may be mirrored in his dream of the pencil factory: all his knowledge, skill and memories, everything that makes him what he is and no-one else, are swept away in the pencil shavings that the factory owner swipes off his table and which billow away into nothingness.

There is a wider story too of the struggle between forces of good and darkness, represented by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) working his levers and the Radiator Girl who beguiles Henry and tempts him to join her. The Man in the Planet may well be responsible for the strange events that befall Henry: perhaps he is testing Henry in some way. Is there a message about religion as well? Certainly Henry and Mary try to do the “right thing” by getting married and trying to bring up a sick baby. They fail but get no support from Mary’s relatives or society generally. The  baby’s severe deformities – it has no skin or skeleton to cover and protect its internal organs under the bandages – remind Henry of its sinful conception and his responsibilities as a father. Social pressures and rigid expectations, the lack of help and Henry’s own social and physical isolation combine to test his sanity and behaviour towards the baby.

The first half of the film rolls by at leisure to introduce viewers into Henry’s insular world and its inhabitants, and how they think and behave. After Mary abandons Henry and the baby and Henry’s dream sequence begins, the action does bog down: the scene where Henry and the beautiful girl kiss and have sex is drawn-out and isn’t necessary to the plot. (Things that happen in dreams rarely are necessary to the plot but the rest of Henry’s fantasies are important as illustrations of the movie’s themes.) For a first-time feature film the technical effects are good – the animated sperm worms which represent temptation to sin and Henry’s guilt are fascinating to watch – and well-mastered, particularly in the scene where Henry Junior froths up and his head goes swollen, really swollen, and the electricity in the apartment starts freaking out. The scene alternates among shots of a giant head popping up in odd places around Henry’s apartment and shots of electrical sparking and burns. At this point in the film good and evil are fighting each other – the Man in the Planet suffers burns while furiously working his levers – and the baby, itself the scene of the battle, swallows up the screen and everything is killed off. A scorched, lifeless planetoid floats in space and Henry finds himself in another realm altogether.

The film’s expressionist sets, dreary at times but also quaint, are part of its charm along with the music-hall appearance of the radiator’s internal workings. The Man in the Planet and his working environment suggest the kind of work railway station workers did before computers made moving rail tracks on sleepers through and around stations easier. This in itself hints that traditional religious beliefs which force Henry and others like him into hasty marriages to preserve social respectability are also stagnant and in decay. The soundtrack, a mixture of industrial-factory ambience and old-fashioned pipe-organ melodies, is eccentric but fits the style of the movie.

A personal and self-indulgent project “Eraserhead” may be but it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch despite its supposed darkness. At the same time, traditional religion, social expectations, a changed and degraded economic environment and how these affect families may strike a serious chord with viewers who themselves may be experiencing similar pressures.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.

Little Shop of Horrors: dark horror and farce in trashy 1960 cheapie

Roger Corman, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Here’s a cute comedy horror piece made on the cheap in just two days in 1960 that speaks to anyone and everyone afraid of demanding pets and children with ravenous appetites, rejection in love, overbearing hypochondriac mothers and dentists who go out of their way to inflict maximum pain on your gums! The film’s production values may have dated badly but its tale is as plaintive today as it was then. Nerdy and none-too-bright Seymour (Jonathan Haze) works in a florist shop in a poor section of Los Angeles or some other town in southern California. The shop is owned and run by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who bosses Seymour about. There is another employee, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), for whom Seymour carries a torch, so one day when Mushnick threatens to sack the young fellow for messing up a client’s floral arrangement, Seymour, afraid of losing Audrey, lets slip that he’s been caring for a tiny, frail hybrid plant that he bred. Mushnick allows him to bring the plant to work the next day. The poor little thing isn’t thriving despite the loving care Seymour has lavished on it.

By accident, Seymour discovers the pet plant partakes rather too much of its combined butterwort / Venus fly-trap inheritance and after several days feeding on salty protein liquid the wicked weed’s tremendous growth to gargantuan proportions with the appetite for, uh, more fertiliser to match forces the now borderline-anaemic Seymour to go farther afield and commit manslaughter. Two police detectives, so hard-boiled that when one of them suffers a family tragedy, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “Them’s the breaks”, turn up at Mushnick’s shop to enquire about the disappearances of a railway employee and Mushnick’s dentist. Mushnick himself is suspicious of the hybrid’s amazing growth and is aware of its secret (and even finds it useful for getting rid of a robber) but because the herbaceous horror is bringing his shop attention, business and money, he hesitates to tell the police what he knows and believes. In the meantime Seymour and Audrey start going steady but the plant’s demands – the freak can speak and can hypnotise people – soon drive the couple apart. When the monster finally comes into bloom and reveals to a crowd what Seymour has been feeding it, the put-upon young fellow, who had hoped to profit from the plant financially and win Audrey’s hand in marriage but now finds himself wanted and pursued for multiple murders, resolves to kill the flowering Frankenstein.

The acting and film-editing are nothing special – the editing’s just enough to eliminate obvious gore while still suggesting that various people help keep the plant well-fed – and the plot has many holes. If the plant can force Seymour to hunt for victims by mesmerising him, why can’t it stop him from killing it? Lashings of humour, in particular from Mushnick who exchanges droll repartee with the plant and from Seymour’s mother, and an array of hilarious characters that include a regular customer (Dick Miller) who eats flowers and a dental patient (Jack Nicholson in his debut acting role) who finds pleasure in pain and walks off with capped teeth (that’s capped as in knee-capped) enliven the basic narrative of the little plant that becomes a flesh-eating monster. Although Nicholson has only 5 minutes in the movie, his creepy-campy performance steals the show from nearly everyone else except the plant and maybe Mushnick’s Yiddish humour. The romance sub-plot provides further comedy and suspense which could have been milked a lot more for laughs and thrills: imagine if the plant had got jealous of Audrey and tried to lure her with hypnotism to its maw!

Somewhere in this schlocky horror picture show there’s a stab at how greed can get the better of what you know is right and how a person can be driven to derangement by accidental murder, love found and lost, and the bizarre results of home-based DIY genetic engineering that’s best left to Monsanto and its ilk. (Maybe not even that.) For a trashy cheapie made over half a century ago there’s a lot of energy in it and the dark horror aspects of family life, eating and symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are treated for laughs. How else to explain the enduring fascination this black comedy tale holds for people to the extent that it was remade as a stage musical in 1982 (on which the 1986 film musical and the 1990’s children’s cartoon series are based) and was slated for remake as a pure feature film in 2009? The dreaded dicotyledon continues to exercise its mesmeric abilities across the spatio-temporal divide long after its final bloom droops.

Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.

Gasland: intelligent and unassuming documentary on fracking

Josh Fox, “Gasland” (2010)

Written, filmed, narrated and directed by Josh Fox, this documentary is a personal journey investigating the nature and environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing process (fracking) used by natural gas companies to drill for gas in parts of the United States. The project arose when Fox received a letter from one such company offering to lease his family’s property in a rural part of Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for natural gas. Curious about what the offer involved, Fox researched natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale area that underlies his neighbourhood and much of the northeastern US as far as Ohio. He met families who’d already signed such leases and, after drilling had started, could set their tap water on fire, were suffering from health problems and believed their water supplies were contaminated with methane and other toxins. This discovery led him to drive to Colorado, Wyoming and Texas where projects drilling for natural gas have been operating for several years and to meet farmers, ranchers and other rural folk who also had health problems arising from contaminated water and were worried about the environmental problems the drilling was causing.

Interspersed in the home-movie documentary are interviews with scientists, politicians and gas industry representatives who give their sides to the issue. Along with the personal stories of the communities affected by the drilling, this makes for a low-key, even-handed if repetitive presentation. Near the end of the documentary, Fox records a discussion by a US Congressional subcommittee into legislation to amend an act, originally introduced by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2005, that gave exemptions to gas and other energy companies from acts regulating water quality and protecting the enrvironment, and allowed them to prospect and drill for resources with impunity.

The documentary’s emphasis is on the stories of people and communities affected by fracking and how it devastates their livelihood and the countryside around them. One cattle rancher’s story in particular I found very touching as he spoke of his property having been in his and his wife’s families for a long time and of his concern about the effects of the fracking – there were over 20 drilling wells on the land – on the cows and their calves, and on the land gemerally. The stories tend to be very similar which makes the film repetitive but they all strongly suggest that certain phenomena have occurred in connection with the fracking which should be followed and documented by a proper and independent scientific study. I have the impression that “Gasland” is intended to serve as a witness for the people interviewed and to the events occurring as a possible result of fracking, and the film could be used to launch such an investigation.

Fox adopts a low-key approach to interviewing his subjects and making the documentary so it has the feel of news reporting as it might have been done once upon a time before information became infotainment. His voice-over narration might be too fast for some viewers to follow, especially when he talks about the fracking process and what inputs it requires (lots of water and nearly 600 different chemcials injected into rock to bring the gas to the surface), but dry humour and modesty are present. The quality of the filming isn’t great – much of it was filmed by Fox himself using handheld cameras so it’s jumpy in parts and often looks very washed out and slightly blurred – but there is a homely feel as well, helped by the inclusion of Fox strumming a banjo and a sparing country music soundtrack. He fits in shots of the countryside as well: beautiful mountain landscapes under snow, broad grassy plains across Wyoming and lush green forests in Pennsylvania; and the whole time you’re watching the scenery pass by as Fox drives along you’ll be thinking of the destruction and pollution that are sure to occur in these pristine areas if energy companies are allowed to drill there: very clever film-making indeed.

Maybe “Gasland” isn’t as slick and slapstick as some of Michael Moore’s documentaries but its unassuming approach with its first-person viewpoint and emphasis on the personal connection Fox has with the fracking issue brings the subject and its opposed sides to the fore and forces viewers to take a stand. Fox doesn’t offer any solutions; he simply says it’s up to individual viewers to decide what to do after the end credits roll onto the screen. Some people might see this as a weakness, that Fox doesn’t advocate a particular stand or suggest ways in which viewers might help the people interviewed or mobilise against gas companies should they come knocking at the front door with papers full of tiny print to sign, as they did to Fox. There may well be inaccuracies and bending of the truth in the some of the stories presented and various US state politicians and natural gas companies have already emphasised many of them in a defensive way. For all its faults – and we have to remember it was made on a small budget – “Gasland” is an intelligent film that treats its subject, interviewees and audiences with respect and encourages viewers to find out more about fracking and its consequences for people, communities and the environment.

Inside Job: hard-hitting documentary about 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis

Charles Ferguson, “Inside Job” (2010)

 For many people, this incisive documentary on the immediate origins of the 2007 – 08 Global Financial Crisis will prove a real eye-opener into the workings of the various large American investment banks, insurance and other finance corporations all collectively known as “Wall Street” and of the failure of the US government and its agencies to monitor and regulate the industry’s activities. The consequences of the failure of successive US governments from the 1980’s onwards to control Wall Street’s rapacity and excesses are becoming all too apparent as “Inside Job” makes clear: collapsed banks and insurance companies; economic instability resulting in over-caution on lenders’ part, forcing businesses to downsize operations and lay off workers; huge public debts which force government cut-backs in spending on education, medical and social welfare services; increased debt burdens on households; people’s savings and superannuation and pension funds wiped out, among other results. Director Charles Ferguson who also wrote the script and produced the documentary tracks down and interviews a number of bank executives, public officials and economists about aspects of the GFC, and many of the interviewees who appear in “Inside Job” reveal themselves as corrupt or corrupted participants in and beneficiaries of Wall Street’s greed, arrogance and lack of ethics.

The film traces the roots of the GFC to the early 1980’s when the Reagan government began deregulating the banking and finance industry and watered down a number of government acts and regulations that came into force after the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. Even after the collapse of savings and loan associations in late 1980’s which should have been a warning that something was not right in the finance industry, deregulation continued well into the next decade and after the Cold War ended in 1991, a number of physicists and mathematicians entered the finance industry with ideas on playing the stock market like a giant casino, and many creative and convoluted ways of converting mortgage and other types of loans into more lucratvie financial instruments, backed by other weird, wonderful and wacky financial products whose origins were so diverse and complex even for finance industry workers to trace, came into being. Eventually a crisis of trust and confidence developed and spread like a wildfire, undermining large corporations like Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman Brothers which ended up being taken over by large banking corporations, and the US government under President George W Bush was forced to bail out Wall Street for US$700 billion.

The film’s major strength is its examination of the incestuous links among US government officials and agencies charged with supervising and regulating Wall Street activities, the financial corporations themselves and university academics who basically performed a cheerleading function for the often unethical if not illegal activities of the banks. The interviews with two university academics at Columbia and Harvard Universities are very entertaining in this respect, with the questions hitting a very exposed raw nerve for one economist who challenges the film-maker to make the most of a suddenly shortened interviewing time of three minutes. Other entertaining interviewees include an expensive callgirl and a psychiatrist / therapist both of whose Wall Street clienteles must have overlapped considerably.

Unfortunately the film falls flat with a watery conclusion that Wall Street must be subject again to regulation to avoid repeat crises and leaves it at that. Having exposed the collusion that went on between Wall Street and the White House, Ferguson’s retreat into a call for re-regulation is a huge letdown and disappointment for this particular viewer. A future of re-regulation followed by deregulation followed again by re-regulation can never be a viable solution as long as an “old boys’ network” continues to operate between governments and the financial sector. As long as people forget or refuse to learn the lessons of previous financial crises and continue to believe in political and economic ideologies that prize self-interest, the quick accumulation of wealth at any cost and extreme dog-eat-dog competition (which feeds on fear and encourages a herd mentality and irrational behaviour), the global financial system will remain essentially unstable and prone to crises. The effect of regulation will only soften the more extreme effects of such a system but can’t prevent crises from happening. We need to re-examine our assumptions about our current financial systems, what place they should have in a real economy based on producing goods and services to suit all people, and in particular we need to question the role that money, debt and banks play. Already there are commentators like Ellen Brown (www.ellenbrown.com) and websites like Social Credit (www.bleedingindebt.com) who question the worth of a financial system in which money can be created and start to circulate only if someone asks for a loan and incurs a debt. There need to be better ways to stimulate production of goods and services other than creating debt that attracts interest that accumulates and produces more interest. Islamic financing which prohibits usury and systems based on social credit and ingenious forms of bartering are some alternatives that could be considered.

Apart from a weak ending, “Inside Job” is a thorough hatchet-job on the architects and builders of an elaborate edifice that took years to build but fell apart very quickly with effects on the economy, society and culture in the United States that may still be working (and wrecking) their way through. We may not have seen the full outcomes of the GFC and it may be that its worst effects will be felt by the very poor and most disadvantaged people in American society.