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

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

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

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

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

Asparagus: colourful surreal exploration of female sexuality

Suzan Pitt, “Asparagus” (1979)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

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

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

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

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


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

Shane Carruth, “Primer” (2004)

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

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

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

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

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


Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: excellent and well-presented documentary on the role of news media in abetting oppression

Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff, “Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land” (2003)

This is a highly informative documentary on the role that the US media plays in encouraging support for the Israeli government and its oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) and how this support influences US foreign policy in the Middle East. Through interviews with various academics, critics, journalists, religious leaders, peace activists and others, the program examines the methods that the Israeli government and its allies use to hide the truth about the harassment of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces and to portray Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land as necessary and urgent self-defence. In particular, the role of American journalists and the American media organisations that employ them in disguising the truth is examined.

The film’s style is simple and straightforward, built as it is around a wealth of newsreel reports punctuated by excerpts of interviews with guest commentators who include academics Noam Chomsky and Robert Jensen, British journalist Robert Fisk, peace activist Hanan Ashrawi and Tikkun Magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner among others. There’s a certain polish to the film’s presentation, especially in its use of animation and tables, though it is not at all sickly slick and the narration is very sparing, limited to relaying important information to viewers, and serves to introduce interviewees who expound at further length on the topics covered. The film reveals, among other things, that the US-Israeli relationship is of mutual benefit at the Palestinians’ expense: the US relies on Israel to use most of the aid it receives from the US into buying American weaponry and other military technology and to test these on unwilling Palestinian guinea pigs, and to play the local sheriff in the Middle East to protect US political and economic interests in that region.

The film’s structure centres around a list of strategies that the governments of Israel and the United States, their agencies and the US news media use to deceive the American public into supporting Israel. Particularly pernicious as a strategy is the US media’s deliberate ignorance of individuals, groups and organisations, often Israeli and/or Jewish as well as Palestinian and/or Muslim, working to relieve the Palestinian people’s suffering or calling attention to the abuses inflicted on them. This ignorance would suggest that the media in the United States (and also in many other countries including Australia) either willingly co-operates in constructing a pro-Israeli narrative about the intransigence and barbaric behaviour of Palestinian people especially if they are Muslim; or has been browbeaten, even threatened, into such co-operation by pro-Israeli lobby groups and institutions. In the US, the main lobby organisation is AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and in Australia its equivalent is AIJAC (Australia Israel Jewish Affaris Council) which is known to have intimidated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service into reporting news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways favourable to Israeli interests.

The other strategies discussed include the reporting of Palestinian violence in a context-less vacuum (so it appears to happen spontaneously without cause and gives the impression that Palestinians by nature are savage and Israel must always be on the alert); defining what is newsworthy (so Israeli victims of violence get more attention; this drives home the notion of Jews as eternal victims of persecution); Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territory being made invisible; the idea of the United States as an impartial and neutral referee; and the idea that any offers of peace to the Palestinians are always rejected by them (because the context in which such offers are made and the fine print within are never revealed in reports). Other ways in which Western audiences are co-opted into supporting Israel go unmentioned but deserve attention: in particular, Israel’s use of the Shoah (Nazi-Jewish Holocaust) to beat European governments into coughing up money, none of which actually goes towards Shoah survivors who might be living in penury in Israel.

“Peace, Propaganda …” is a well-presented documentary, quite detailed in parts, and easy to follow. I recommend the film as a primer for those not familiar with the methods and strategies the Israeli government and its supporters uses to intimidate and silence politicians and media organisations around the world who have misgivings about the way Israel treats Palestinians and about the fascist, racist path that country is following in order to pursue such a policy. Media students would do well to watch the film which calls into question the nature of the relationships between the news media and governments, and which also highlights the need for the news media to tell the truth over the pressure to appear “unbiased” or “balanced” in its reporting. Ah, “fair and balanced” reporting: that doubtless is another strategy the apologists for the Israel government like to use …


The Age of Transitions: film makes a plea for greater awareness of insidious forces threatening freedom and democracy

Aaron Franz, “The Age of Transitions” (2008)

Interesting documentaries about power and control of human societies seem to be falling into my lap like there are no tomorrows to watch them all and Aaron Franz’s “The Age of Transitions”, which looks at past trends in the ideology of science, how they will shape future scientific, cultural and technological developments and what these mean for human freedom, is a very intriguing one. The film’s title is borrowed from a coinage made by US politician Newt Gingrich at a conference for futuristic developments aimed at enhancing human capabilities, mental and physical. Franz predicts that these innovations will serve a political agenda aimed at reducing the bulk of humanity (the so-called 99%) into a slave-state hive society to serve an elite (the so-called 1%): the innovations include transhumanism (the creation of post-humans), virtual escape, socio-tech and forms of mind control.

The film starts by explaining the goals of transhumanism (prolonging life, enhancing the brain and intelligence with technology) and reveals the origins of transhumanism in eugenics as conceived by British scientist Francis Galton in the 19th century; the ideology was adopted by British political and cultural elites since it jibed with Britain’s imperial colonialist project and the remaking and packaging of the British monarchy as a semi-divine institution. Eugenicist belief travelled to the United States in the late 1800s where it found ready fertile soil recovering from the trauma of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed. Sterilising prisoners and other “degenerates” was one consequence of eugenics; unusually perhaps, birth control and family planning were milder results (the proponent of birth control in the US, Margaret Sanger, was a eugenicist). Social Darwinism, the bastard child of eugenics and Darwinist evolution itself, eventually acquired a dirty name thanks to Nazi Germany’s enthusiastic adoption of racial hygiene theories which were put into practice during the Second World War. Renamed transhumanism, the ideology now has as its aim the improvement of humanity done in a way that eliminates “undesirable” characteristics and retains and refines “ideal” characteristics with modern Chinese society, based on a large bureaucracy, a network of Communist party loyalists and a huge, mostly compliant worker-bee proletariat, seen as a model for a future society.

The film’s second half-hour flows into virtual reality, socio-tech (the capability to predict the behaviours of individuals and groups to interdict undesirable thinking and behaviours and eliminate them before they occur) and forms of mind control such as television. Socio-tech and the use of television to mould thinking, deflate people’s self-esteem and encourage cut-throat competition so as to divide and rule the populace and enable the elites to remain top dogs receive particular attention. The film concludes by challenging viewers to be aware of the hidden trends in scientific and technological advances and to resist them; in the end credits, a list of references Franz consulted in the film’s making is provided to encourage and enable viewers to do their own research.

Presentation is straightforward with a mix of newsreels, stills, various forms of animation, diagrams and models, recordings of lectures and talks, and title cards to emphasise key points: the subject matter can be quite dense and involved and viewers are presumed to be curious and intelligent but not to have very much knowledge or experience of the concepts and ideas discussed. The narration is delivered in a slightly sardonic style and viewers may be thrown off by the narrator and wonder whether or not he actually supports the technologies discussed. If there is a criticism to be made about the program, it is that personalities like Nick Bostrom and Michio Kaku among others featured on the program are quoted in such a way that they appear to support the transhumanism project when in fact they themselves may be ambivalent about its aims or aspects of it.

The really interesting and sinister aspect of “The Age …” is the use of reality TV shows, game shows and similar shows – competitive cooking shows like “Masterchef Australia” and “My Kitchen Rules” come to mind – to encourage personal insecurity, low self-esteem and a competitive frame of mind that posits outdoing and beating everyone else as a worthy goal and condones manipulation, conniving behaviour and cheating. This has the ultimate goal of dividing people and setting them against one another in a classic “divide-and-rule” strategy that entrenches support for a hierarchy based on competition and enables the true elites to remain top dog. German-American philosopher Leo Strauss surely would approve of such a societal structure based on such outrageous and manipulative lies were he still alive. Still, even here the documentary doesn’t go far enough: we could talk for days on end on how Hollywood encourages hyper-individualism and competition and acts as a recruiter for the US armed forces, for favouring the military option over diplomacy and other alternatives, and for casting problems of living and getting on with people in ways that celebrate conflict and violence. Nothing about the pernicious influence of Hollywood on people’s thinking and private fantasies appears in the documentary.

Franz makes no apologies about being biased against the transhumanism project, seeing in it the ultimate attempt to make over humanity in ways that reduce people to the level of insects to serve a small elite. In its own way, the film is a passionate plea for greater awareness of the insidious agenda current in the world today to reduce democracy and freedom.


Human Resources: documentary on mind control is mind-exploding

Scott Noble, “Human Resources” (2010)

What can I say? This two-hour documentary on the history of government and elite attempts to control human behaviour and direct human culture and society is sheer mindfuck: it covers a whole gamut of approaches, methods and techniques to control people’s thoughts, moods and actions from the late nineteenth century to the present day. No stone is apparently left unturned and unexamined by director Scott Noble as he trawls through psychology, eugenics, race relations, corporate philanthropy, scientific worker management, the structure of education and schooling, Nazi medical experiments and CIA mind control experiments that produced a torture manual. Interviews with various political, social and cultural commentators including Harvard academic Rebecca Lemov, activists Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and former schoolteacher turned education critic John Taylor Gatto mix with hard-edged female voice-over narration, a slew of archived newsreel material and excerpts from Hollywood and other movies going as far back as 1917 to give an overwhelming and often disturbing presentation on the nature of political-economic-cultural power.

The Adam Curtis school of documentary film-making sure has much to answer for: the music soundtrack is eclectic, boasting artists like Phillip Glass, Do Make Say Think, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Mira Calix, Amon Tobin and Bob Dylan, and unfortunately can be too intrusive and distracting, especially during John Taylor Gatto’s interview; but apart from the whimsical music choices, the film overall has a lo-fi appraoch with very few fancy special effects. It could have been better structured: the film weaves from one topic to another and by the time the relevant “chapter heading” in the guise of a quotation appears on a red background, the film is already quite deep into the issue under scrutiny. Possibly “Human Resources” could have been divided into a three-part mini-series in the style of Curtis’s tetralogy “The Century of the Self” which deals with a similar if more restricted theme; Noble could have included more jettisoned material (he had 10 hours’ worth) into a trilogy.

The film starts off with an investigation of behaviourism and its development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: even then, psychologists were seizing its concepts and philosophies to justify their agendas and political views and those of their sponsors in business, government and academia. From behaviourism the film goes into an exploration of eugenics and the social and political conditions prevailing in the United States that enabled the eugenics movement to flourish (though there is no mention of early links between birth control and family planning advocates on the one hand and the eugenics movement on the other) and then into how corporations tried to combat labour movements and unions with philanthropy and the adoption of scientific management or Taylorism (after Frederick Taylor, its founder). The attention given to Taylorism and how it dovetailed with Fordism, the organisation of work in factories and offices and the psychological effects of task fragmentation and deskilled work is considerable and chilling; needless to say, both Communists and fascists and other folks in-between found Taylorism attractive and tried to co-opt it into their workplaces. From the workplace to the school – ya gotta start oppressing ’em young! – and interviewee John Taylor Gatto (descended from Frederick Taylor) waxes strongly on the aim of Western education and its structures to control and mould children into passive, unquestioning and indifferent sheep, and the effect of grades, the use of testing and exams, and competition on children’s mental and emotional development.

The film emphasises that competition is far from natural – it takes care to mention that Charles Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest” but only discussed natural selection – and there is mention of cross-cultural studies showing that co-operation rather than competition encourages creativity and originality whereas competition has the opposite effect. Frustration / aggression theory is invoked to explain why bullying, scapegoating and violence against outsiders or out-groups occurs and the idea of mental illness as being culture-specific is mentioned. Significantly governments and politicians are fingered as the most important mass murderers and serial killers in recent history and the film goes out of its way to examine the US government’s eagerness to employ Nazi German scientists, many if not most of whom were engaged in heinous medical experiments during the Second World War, in many post-war science and medical programmes. A depressing list of secret US government experiments in which unwitting civilians, sometimes whole cities, were exposed to uranium, radiation, bacteria, various chemicals and even yellow fever follows. (There is no mention of the government’s obtaining of documentation of Japanese medical / science experiments, equally and sometimes more horrific than those of the Germans, done in Manchuria and other parts of China, and apparently in Singapore and the Philippines as well during the same period. The documents are stored in a secret facility in Utah state.)

The rest of the documentary focusses on various mind control experiments sponsored by the CIA from the 1950s under Projects Artichoke, Bluebird, MKUltra, MKSearch and other related projects: adults and children alike were forcibly put on LSD, mescaline and other drugs, forced into prolonged sleep or subjected to electro-shock treatments. All these mind control experiments ultimately failed but helped to produce the CIA’s infamous torture manuals that were used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq among other places. The film concludes with the ultimate mind control instrument: the television set and how the attrributes of moving images can ensnare viewers into passivity and suggestibility.

Inevitably with such an ambitious scope there will be weak spots and some of the film’s assumptions about frustration / aggression theory and behaviourism may be open to challenge. The film does not cover all it could and does not offer alternatives like W Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management concept to Taylorist ways of organising work and the workplace, or forms of education other than the conventional Western kind with its emphasis on kids studying subjects in a fragmented way that emphasises testing and beating the other kids. No attention is given to public relations, marketing and advertising as forms of social control and the film also ignores Hollywood and other popular films and TV shows as potential propaganda tools: the narratives of most movies and TV shoes which emphasise conflict, winners and losers, and one hero individual against a mass enemy should have taken a beating. Pop music and other youth-oriented cultures and sub-cultures which stress individualism and peddle notions of freedom in the sense of being free from restraint and social conventions and doing whatever you like regardless of consequences also escape the hatchet job. The film does not cover gaming and whether gaming could encourage a passive mentality amenable to control and suggestion even though for some years now people at videogame-like consoles in the US send drone aircraft into faraway places around the world to kill selected target humans: there is a statistic doing the rounds on the Internet that for every two terrorists killed by drone aircraft, 98 innocent civilians are taken down as well. That’s some accurate kill rate.

The two things that really smacked me over the head were the revelation that the theory of evolution as Darwin had originally conceived it says nothing about competition being part of the process of natural selection – the idea originated with Darwin’s contemporary, the biologist / philosopher Herbert Spencer – and the news that economist Adam Smith had predicted that the organisation of work into a fragmented series of repetitive and boring tasks would destroy people psychologically and turn them into soulless beings.

Although an investigation of Western economies is outside the scope of the film, I consider that the kind of economic system we have and its assumptions connect too well with the social and psychological forms of control “Human Resources” discusses. Debt-based financial systems have the pernicious effect of encouraging competition among businesses and consumers which then spreads to other areas of society, irrespective of whether it’s needed or useful; scrambling for money to pay debts may force individuals to stay in unwanted jobs in which fragmented work tasks destroy their initiative and make them passive, and businesses to engage in intense forms of competition such as perpetual redesigning and marketing of products, aggressive and unethical marketing, pursuing cheapness, mediocrity and quantity at the expense of durability and quality, and stifling innovation and creativity. The result is that a short-term point of view is preferred over a long-term viewpoint and the economy lurches from one crisis to another. Competition biases economies towards a growth orientation which results in wastage of resources, pollution, environmental rape, economic colonialism which has to be justified somehow (hence, the need for propaganda about the racial, religious or other inferiorities of people like Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims generally and First Nations people of various countries to demean them as true owners of land and other resources so that foreigners can strip them of their wealth) and the accompanying military adventurism which generates even more environmental destruction, pollution and resource wastage, to say nothing of the lives and cultures destroyed.

When all modes of social, psychological and economic control are taken together, the conclusion that “Human Resources” comes to is that they reveal the nature of power as wielded by generations of elites as something psychopathic and wilful and that those who work for it willingly, even eagerly, will end up as much victims as the rest of us already under its jackboot. The film may require several viewings for its message to be absorbed.