Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke): superficial and deferential treatment of major sci-fi writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 4: Arthur C Clarke)” (2011)

Having never read any of Arthur C Clarke’s fiction, perhaps I’m not the best person to review this episode of the “Prophets of Science Fiction” TV series with respect to whether the author is fêted appropriately. Certainly the later years of Clarke’s life before his death in 2008 were under a cloud as an interview in which he admitted to having engaged in pedophilia was published shortly before his knighthood ceremony in 2005. Anti-pedophilia activists in Sri Lanka (where Clarke spent much of his life) were livid at their government’s apparently soft treatment of this British celebrity in their midst as the country’s anti-pedophilia laws passed in 1995 are strong and carry heavy penalties. Now that Clarke is dead (and presumably getting his just desserts from his maker), we have his literary and other output from which to draw his outlook on life and vision for the future which is the chief focus of this episode; the good thing is that Clarke’s optimism and enthusiasm about humanity’s future, based heavily on technology, space travel and space colonisation, together with his speculation on the evolution of human consciousness, are acknowledged as the main themes that inform the writer’s work. (For the record, Clark decried organised religion and was interested in the paranormal.)

For all his considerable output (over 30 novels and about 117 short stories / novellas), the program concentrates on just three of Clarke’s novels (“Childhood’s End”, “The Foundations of Paradise” and “Rendezvous with Rama”, the last co-written with Gentry Lee) and his screenplay “2001: A Space Odyssey”, demonstrating how each of these works gave rise to a scientific innovation or idea that has been realised or is in the process of realisation:respectively, these ideas are the further evolution of humans, especially human consciousness; a cable built with a super-material that goes to heaven (the genesis of the space elevator); an asteroid-warning system; and artificial intelligence. One significant innovation mentioned in the film is the geostationary communications satellite, conceived by Clarke while working as a radar specialist during the Second World War. These innovations barely scratch the surface of the ideas Clarke expressed in his fiction: among other futuristic ideas Clarke has been credited with are videophones, iPads and the personal laptop linked to other computers, through which the network of communication links that forms as a result will enable online banking and shopping.

In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Clarke conceives perhaps the most remarkable notion: that of a super-computer (HAL 9000 in the film) so sophisticated that it not only outstrips human intelligence and memory but acquires self-consciousness and knowledge, and becomes neurotic as well. Another breath-taking light-bulb notion, comparable and perhaps superior to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, is Clarke’s Three Laws of Prophecy: if a scientist well-known and respected in his/her field says something is possible, the thing will happen; if the same scientist says something is impossible, eventually it becomes possible; and one person’s technology will appear to someone of a less technological background as magic.

Through a mix of interviews with writers, film director Ridley Scott and various scientists including Michio Kaku, a voice-over narration, dramatic re-enactments and computer-based animation, the film paints a positive portrait of Clarke, blithely ignoring any dark side to his personality (only his brief marriage is mentioned in such a bland way that viewers not familiar with Clarke would never know that he had been gay) or scandals he might have been caught up in. On the whole, the film is enthusiastic about its subject and very reverential towards him but it might have been a much better documentary if viewers could have seen something of Clarke’s less attractive qualities. For all his intellectual brilliance and scientific knowledge, Clarke was still fallible and in some ways blind to aspects of his nature and human nature generally, and it would reassure people that he was like us and not a flesh-and-blood version of HAL 9000 without the neuroses.

Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 2: Philip K Dick): an introduction to a major 20th century science fiction writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 2: Philip K Dick)” (2011)

Philip K Dick is one of my favourite writers, though more for the 1950s novels he wrote about little people living lives of quiet desperation and failed dreams in a stultifying and conformist 1950s world of Senator McCarthy, racial segregation and Hollywood-manufactured fantasies about progress and the good life than for the science fiction novels he wrote. I fondly if vaguely remember one science fiction novel of his, “The Man in the High Castle”, for its alternative history of a United States defeated in World War II by Germany and Japan who proceeded to carve up the country in zones. In the novel, a man living in this alternative world discovers that, contrary to what he has always known and taken for granted, there’s the possibility that in another alternative world the United States defeated Germany and Japan in the same war and that this history is true. This plot, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” movie plot, derives from Dick’s concerns that run through nearly all his novels and which inspire the Hollywood movies based on them: concerns about darkness, disintegration or entropy, the nature of reality and humanity, technological change and its impact on human consciousness (especially its impact on memory and identity), and the relationship of individuals and humanity to the authoritarian state.

In this episode of the series “Prophets of Science Fiction”, Whitebloom uses a mix of interviews, dramatisations, archival film footage and excerpts of films based on Dick’s novels and short stories to explore scientific ideas and concepts that Dick foresaw and which have or are becoming close to realisation in our times. The pace moves at a steady clip and some of the concepts explored whiz by quickly; it may be necessary for some viewers to watch the episode again to understand what’s being explained. Ideas such as developing androids (robots resembling humans), technology that can implant artificial memories in our brains to override old memories, virtual reality, the use of surveillance technology to gather enormous amounts of information about people and construct profiles of them, technology that foresees and forestalls crime, the use of heuristic methods to write novels and other works of fiction, and the existence of parallel universes joined in a multiverse network … all these ideas and concepts foreseen by Dick are now becoming real, and not necessarily for the benefit of humankind and democracy.

For example, implanting artificial memories in our brains is becoming a real possibility with the intended idea being to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder in people affected by abuse or violence that occurs as part of their everyday work (as police officers, emergency workers or soldiers perhaps) but there is also the possibility that such memories can effectively wipe out a person’s entire memory and turn that person into someone else entirely different, thus “killing” the original person and “making” the person into an artificial one no different from an android. We may also wish to have artificial memories to avoid dealing with the messy problems of real life or, conversely, to help us cope with the messy problems of real life: education might no longer be necessary if all we need to know about something novel is to buy the memory and stick it into our heads. We might decide to be Napoleon Bonaparte for a day and instruct the memory to be wiped out of our heads after a certain time; on the other hand, we may wish to be Napoleon Bonaparte for several years to attain some other goal such as being a world leader long enough to reconstruct human societies to your psychopathic heart’s content.

There is some biographical information about Dick, usually of a sort relevant to the investigation of the ideas and notions that merit Dick being labelled a science fiction prophet. Narrator Jonathan Adams zips through the voice-over narration quickly and eloquently and the interviewees who include movie director Ridley Scott, physicist Michio Kaku and writer David Brin express their enthusiasm for many of Dick’s ideas, no matter how batty they might seem.

The discussion of what Dick foresaw is aimed at a general public so it doesn’t go into the topics very deeply. Many people interested in what Dick might have had to say about a police state that uses technology and technological methods to spy on people, create profiles of them, foresee what they do and say, and then hinder them from performing those actions and expressing those sayings, no matter whether they actually break the law or not, may be disappointed that the program simply mentions such technology and methods exist and goes no further.

Novels and short stories referenced in the film include “A Scanner Darkly”, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “We Can Remember It For You”, “The Man in the High Castle” which was Dick’s break-through science fiction novel, earning him a Hugo Award, “The Minority Report” and “The Adjustment Bureau”: all of these have been made into films by Hollywood.

The film is just informative enough that many people will be satisfied by it and seek no further; others will be enthused or maddened enough to want to check out more about Philip K Dick’s work and read it for themselves. As for what Dick might think of the film and the fame he now enjoys, he may well be in two minds about it: on the one hand, he would be very pleased that at last people take his work seriously; on the other hand, he might be alarmed that people are interested in his work precisely because so much of what he predicted has not only come to pass but is what he has always feared, yet people seem quite happy living in a panopticon society that gathers and stores information about us, information that might be put to sinister uses against us.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

The True Story of Black Hawk Down: too much detail and not enough overview of the Battle of Mogadishu as a historical event

David Keane, “The True Story of Black Hawk Down” (2003)

A very detailed documentary about the events that led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between US Special Forces and forces loyal to a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, during which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, hence the title of the film (and of the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” by Ridley Scott based on the Mark Bowden book of the same name). Eighteen US soldiers died, 73 others were injured and one pilot was captured while 1,000 to 10,000 Somalis may have been killed. The battle was pivotal in influencing US President Bill Clinton’s decision to pull all US troops out of Somalia a few months later.

Anchored with minimal voice-over narration from David Jeremiah, the film relies mainly on interviews with author Mark Bowden, whose efforts to chronicle what happened before and during the Battle of Mogadishu form the narrative of the documentary, various US Army Rangers and Somali civilians, and backed by archival footage and dramatisations of particular incidents, “The True Story …” is very strong on the details of events leading up to the battle and on what happened, blow by blow, during the battle from a mostly American point of view. The danger with this approach, focussing heavily on a day-by-day recount of events, is that viewers can quickly get lost in detail and lose sight of what the documentary is aiming for: an accurate narrative of the battle, the things that happened and why. There is some effort to capture the Somali point of view to provide a counterpoint to the American account of the battle but the US viewpoint dominates simply by the sheer amount of time allocated to interviews with several soldiers who participated in the mission; the Somali side is captured in snippets of interviews with a small number of civilians.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the interviewees and their feelings for their dead comrades, and certainly Mark Bowden is genuine about his mission and can see some of the Somali viewpoint, but overall I don’t find that the documentary adds much to viewers’ understanding of why Somalia in the early 1990s was such an unstable country and how the United States government failed to gain the support of the Somali people enough to challenge the power of the warlords and in particular that of the most prominent warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. There should have been some information about the overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had ruled the country for over 20 years with an iron fist, drawing on socialist principles to structure the economy, clamping down on clan rivalries and making some reforms, and how that led to political and economic chaos. On the other hand, the impact of the Battle of Mogadishu and the loss of American lives on US foreign policy and Somalia was great: the US withdrew all its military from Somalia not long after and international aid presence there soon collapsed with the result that the country remained chaotic and poor for many years. According to the film, the Clinton government became loath to commit US forces in other foreign conflicts and preferred to use aerial bombardment in military interventions whenever these occurred; this meant that in places like Serbia and Kosovo in the mid-1990s, warfare became even more bloody and dangerous as bombs not only spread death indiscriminately but also depleted uranium. The Clinton government avoided sending US troops to Rwanda when civil war followed by genocide broke out there in 1994; some 800,000 and possibly up to 1 million people died. This embarrassment to the US led to the development of the principles known collectively as Responsibility to Protect which assert that sovereignty is a responsibility and therefore states are responsible for protecting their citizens from mass murder and other atrocities, and if individual states fail in this, then the international community must assist the states or intervene, perhaps by force.

The film pays homage to the bravery of the US soldiers who participated in the battle and acknowledges, somewhat grudgingly, the determination of the Somali people in defending their country. It makes mention of the ugliness and brutality of war and how it changed the lives of the surviving soldiers. To be honest, and I know this will be insulting to the people involved, I found the conclusion rather banal: well of course war is horrible and people die horribly and in pain in war, and of course it dramatically changes participants’ lives and the lives of their loved ones. I would have liked to see, though, less humdrum detail about how some individuals got rescued – their experiences could have been turned into separate documentaries – and a better analysis of how the Battle of Mogadishu turned the tide of war against the US and how it influenced future US military conduct in overseas countries.

Kony 2012: is this film astroturfing for a US invasion of eastern Africa?

Jason Russell, “Kony 2012” (2012)

Having heard about nothing else but this 30-minute feature going viral across Youtube and various social networking sites, I determined to watch this film championed by mysterious US charity Invisible Children for myself. I found it a very slick and manipulative piece of propaganda aimed at young people and families with children. The film starts with director Jason Russell and his family, and zooms in on his young son from birth on to his preschool years before branching out to the lost children of Uganda, children like Jacob who have lost their families and have been forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army as soldiers (if they’re boys) or sex slaves (if they’re girls) under the sinister charismatic leadership of one Joseph Kony. Russell dwells for a little time on Jacob and his experiences before delving into a drive for support and donations to help other young people like Jacob, and suggesting ways in which people can bring the issue of child soldiers and finding Kony to be brought to justice to the attention of others.

Russell adopts a deliberate personal style to make very subjective appeals to people’s emotions. His use of his son as willing collaborator is creepy as well as exploitative, to say the least. The filming methods used are so slick as to raise my hackles: the editing and the images, even the sloganeering and strategies suggested to raise other people’s awareness, all look as if they’d been cooked up in an advertising agency that’s done work for past TV current affairs programs. The themes pushed by “Kony 2012” are so familiar as to be banal and devoid of genuine feeling: let’s change the world for the better, let’s be pro-active, let’s protect innocent and vulnerable children from exploitation (speak for yourselves!), let’s bond in solidarity with other aware young people and fight this monster Joseph Kony and triumph where older people can’t or won’t.

No historical context is given, which is extremely suspicious: the film never explains who Joseph Kony is, why he is such a bogeyman and who his Lord’s Resistance Army is fighting against. What is his background, how and why is he a rebel, what political / social / economic conditions existed in Uganda in the 1990s that enabled him to rise to his current position as Uganda’s Public Enemy No 1, and why should we get rid of him now when we could have got rid of him ages ago? Is the Ugandan government under President Yoweri Museveni so helpless that it must appeal to the outside world? Is Kony fighting the Ugandan government? Given that Museveni has just been “elected” to a 4th term and has been in power for 25 years with a blemished record in violating human rights, invading parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and holding elections that yield suspect results that support his continued rule, perhaps Kony is doing the right thing in resisting the Ugandan government!

The film’s suggested solutions are pathetic and laughable: let’s make Kony famous by plastering posters of him across cities around the world on 20 April 2012! Support celebrities like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Bono against Kony! Buy the Action Kit package! Wear the “Kony 2012” bracelets! Donate money to the cause! The Kony 2012 awareness campaign looks too much like an election campaign to ring true. And why should the public be asked to cough up money when famous Hollywood celebrities and other stars in politics and the commercial music industry have more than enough money among themselves to capture and bring Kony to justice and rehabilitate the child soldiers and sex slaves he has abused?

And now that all is said and done, one suspicion remains: the recent announcement of the discovery of at least 2.5 billion and maybe as many as 6 billion barrels of oil in Uganda couldn’t have anything to do with the release of the “Kony 2012” film? How cynical of me to think that a future invasion of Uganda by AFRICOM might need support from young people in the form of a “humanitarian” campaign!

In the meantime, hundreds of children in northern Uganda have fallen victim to a mysterious and fatal neurological disease known as Nodding disease spreading across the border from the newly independent Southern Sudan. It is arguable that this problem deserves more immediate attention and help than pursuing a shadowy warlord who may not even be in Uganda now or be alive still.

Postscript: Since I wrote this review (11 March 2012), I have come across information that Invisible Children has received money from the National Christian Foundation and the Christian Community Foundation, two organisations linked to Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Discovery Institute, the first two of which oppose abortion and rights for homosexual rights, and the last of which advocates the teaching of “intelligent design” (creationism by another name). These organisations have encouraged the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda to the extent that Ugandans charged with engaging in homosexual activities can be subjected to the death penalty. In addition, Jason Russell has spoken publicly at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school founded by former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell who supported South Africa’s apartheid regime in the past.

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.