Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.

A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

The American Dream (by The Provocateur Network): informative if biased documentary on money and American banking

Tad Lumpkin and Harold Uhl / The Provocateur Network “The American Dream” (2010?)

This is a well-made animated documentary that tries to explain how the American people have been misinformed and exploited by agencies of the US government to support the current financial system and the banking industry’s control of it. Everyday man Pile rejoices in having bought a beautiful McMansion house only for his bank manager to foreclose on it because Pile can barely afford the hefty monthly mortgage payments. Desperate to get his house and dog back, Pile is visited by an old childhood friend Hartman who takes him on a voyage through time and space to show Pile how money and banks originated in response to human needs for the exchange of goods and services, and how debt became part of early financial systems. They find out how Pile’s bank gets its money from the Federal Reserve Bank through the Federal government which then taxes the public through income taxes to pay back the Federal Reserve with interest. Hartman then shows how through the ages banks and financiers profited from lending money to governments to pay for expensive wars. They stop off in Revolutionary America to see how Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued over the merits of having a central bank (Jefferson was against, Hamilton was for). Viewers also discover when and how the US Federal Reserve Bank was established in 1913 after several previous attempts to establish a central bank failed. Owned and operated by private interests, the Federal Reserve took over the power to print money from the US government. Interestingly the film pauses for a moment in 1963 when then US President John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 11,110 to regain US government control of creating money instead of giving that power away; six months later, Kennedy was dead in Dallas and his successor Lyndon B Johnson put the order aside. Since then, successive US governments have ignored Executive Order 11,110 and have continued to borrow money from the Federal Reserve and to pay that money back with interest with US taxpayer monies.

In explaining the basics of the US financial system and how it rips off the American public at a level that most people, even school-children can understand, “… Dream” glosses over many details in an effort to keep things simple and on track to its ultimate message which is that Americans must reclaim their money and the power to print it back from the banks that operate the Federal Reserve. The “elite” that controls the Federal Reserve is portrayed as “the Red Shield” (the Rothschilds); according to Wikipedia, the Federal Reserve’s structure and leadership are complex and involve a Board of Governors chosen by the US government and many member banks throughout the country so the organisation ends up being a mix of private and public owners. A notable flaw in the film is one where the US Mint produces dollars (it actually produces coin). If viewers are interested in finding out more about the history of banking in the United States since 1776, and in particular about how the banking and finance industry came to have such a stranglehold on the nation’s economic direction, they should go to the film’s website www.americandreamfilm.com which has details about some of the real-life characters Pile and Hartman see in the film and which also suggests what people can do to protest against the conduct of banks and how to rein in their rapacity.

The style of cartooning is based on that of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “South Park” with less crudely drawn bug-eyed characters moving more freely than Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman. The film’s pace is fast and very focussed which can be a bit inconvenient for some viewers with no prior knowledge of banking and finance trying to digest the information thrown at them. Fractional reserve banking is covered in a big rush without much explanation. The plot builds up to a suitably dramatic climax where Hartman leads an army of everyday folks like Pile against the banks and Hank Paulson tries to inveigle him into changing sides.

Yes it’s quite a biased film but “… Dream” at least attempts to explain to a general audience how the current financial system in the United States is structured and how debt and inflation are incorporated into it. Several myths and misconceptions about how banks operate and how money is created are met head-on and demolished. My main complaint is that the film falls into a good-versus-bad plot stereotype with no suggestion of what alternatives exist to replace the present debt-based fiat money system. The film does not differentiate between commercial banks (the banks that lend for business purposes and provide savings, cheque, credit and fixed-term deposit accounts) and investment banks; a little information about these types of banks and how they were kept separate by the Glass-Steagall Act from 1933 to 1999 would have been helpful so that viewers can see that having banks is still beneficial and that regulating banks’ activities for the benefit of the real economy (that is, an economy focussed on producing and supplying goods and related services) is necessary.

For US audiences, the film is worth watching as many times as is needed to understand the concepts spelled out and families with children will find it helpful in gaining a basic understanding of how debt operates and how banks try to rope in more people into borrowing on credit. The film will be of limited benefit to overseas audiences but its explanation of the role that debt and inflation play in financial systems is still relevant. Funnily, I found out about this film on the same day I read on CommonDreams.org that Citibank in New York tried to get several customers arrested by police for daring to close their bank acounts!

A Ninja Pays Half my Rent: fun and hilarious student film about finding the perfect partner … and being the perfect partner

Stephen K Tsuchida, “A Ninja Pays Half my Rent” (2002)

Hilarious student short about finding the perfect room-mate (which could be extended to include the perfect tenant, the perfect boarder, the perfect spouse, whatever), this has punchy gags timed and edited well and the silliness is cleverly turned into fun and not a little sympathy for its hapless and hopeless main character. Barry (Timm Sharp) has to find a new room-mate after his pal (Anthony Liebetrau) tragically dies at breakfast: the poor sod pokes his grapefruit and a stream of juice hits his eye and penetrates and burns his brain through the optic nerve. A ninja (Shin Koyamada) answers Barry’s ad and the usual problems of getting used to each other’s dirty habits, schedules and other eccentricities, and working out who puts out the rubbish on rubbish nights and who will buy the milk and groceries follow. The two guys amicably settle into a routine but it’s not long before Barry is tangled up in a personal feud that can only end tragically.

The story is ingeniously constructed in a way that the full details of Barry’s recruiting process happen off-screen and only the more amusing aspects of Barry and the ninja living together are highlighted: everything we see occurred in the distant past and Barry is relating the events to his jogging partner (Steve Yager). The plot only goes into the present tense close to the end when Barry gets home and starts talking about lunch. The beauty of the flashback approach to Barry’s narration is that viewers see what Barry never notices: a conflict between his ninja flatmate and the ninja’s enemy (Tsuchida himself). Close-ups of the actors and of Sharp in particular demonstrate character and parody the ninja lifestyle stereotype.

The pace is generally quick though it drags a little through one skit in which Barry asks for the syrup while the ninja is deep in contemplation over his pancakes. This particular skit shows excellent editing, clever alternation of close-ups and framing of the dining-room scene, and panning in the shot where Barry repeats his request and suddenly finds the syrup right beside him though the ninja has not appeared to move but is instead communing with the pancake. Another memorable skit, and one that introduces a new tension and direction into the short, is where the ninja flatmate takes up his duel while Barry is engrossed in watching a nature documentary. The shot where Barry continues to watch TV, oblivious to the activity on the back couch behind him, is sure to become a classic for film students and audiences alike for its careful set-up and the perfect framing.

The climax is quick, tragic and comic as well: Barry finds himself in demand as the perfect flatmate among the (unseen) ninja community in his town (he’s not very bright and never notices anything much unless it’s an issue of personal hygiene) and it looks like he won’t want for future room-mates. It seems that to find the perfect room-mate, you have to be a perfect room-mate too.

Everything works well thanks to Tsuchida’s almost ninja-like approach to filming his baby: the clean and precise editing; the neat settings with their sharp lines; close-ups of Sharp’s face that capture every shade of expression; the contrast between Sharp’s likeable if clueless Barry and Koyamada’s wary and vigilant ninja, which the short plays up for comic effect; and the minimal script which quietly and artfully builds on its skits, along with the soft tinkling piano soundtrack that plays throughout the film, have something of the Zen Buddhist philosophy that initially informed the practice of ninjutsu in Japan.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

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.