Outsourced!: small-scaled film offers a resigned look at call-centre work outsourcing

Anna Cater and Safina Uberoi, “Outsourced!” (2006)

An interesting and pleasant personalised film revolving around eight call-centre workers in India and Australia, “Outsourced!” examines the effect of the offshoring of call-centre jobs from First World countries like Australia to developing countries like India on both Australians and Indians alike; in particular, the impact of call-centre work on Indian society and attitudes towards working women, gender relations, marriage and life-styles. The film tackles these topics by following four female call-centre workers in Gurgaon, a burgeoning hi-tech satellite city on the outskirts of New Delhi in northern India. To a much lesser extent, the film also looks at how the outsourcing of call-centre jobs and similar white collar jobs will affect the Australian workforce and Australian people’s attitudes towards Indians and other people in countries where Australian industry and the jobs associated with them are flying to.

Through interviews and a voice-over narrator, the film itself flies back and forth between its Indian interviewees and Australian interviewees, contrasting the very different attitudes of Indians and Australians towards call-centre work. In Australia, call-centre work carries lesser prestige than most other white-collar jobs and many workers are employed on a casual or temporary basis; no special qualifications are thought necessary to apply for a call-centre customer service job. In India on the other hand, working in a call centre is considered highly prestigious and many people with impressive university qualifications – one of the Gurgaon-based women featured is a medical professional – hanker and compete for such work though it is stressful and tiring and makes considerable demands on Indian workers. Indian employees spend a great deal of training time perfecting their accents in speaking English so they are not suspected by Australian callers of being foreigners. Many Indians also have to unlearn what they were taught about saving money and only buying what they need and/or if they can afford it: buying things on credit and taking out a mortgage on a house are not only unusual and unfamiliar activities for these workers but the very nature of these activities may strike them as unethical and morally suspect.

The effect of working in call-centres on Indian women is dramatic: a generation of young female call-centre workers is discovering financial freedom and independence, and this discovery is generating a demand for goods and services which in turn leads to a rise in retail jobs and businesses, construction of shopping malls and an accompanying rise in the value of commercial real estate as more land must be made available to build shops and other businesses. (Nothing is said about how such results might be having an adverse effect on slums and slum-dwellers, farms, wildlife reserves and areas where tribal peoples live.) Call-centre workers work in groups and teams, forcing young men and women of different ethnicities, religions and social levels to rub shoulders: Western work habits and values must be learned and adhered to, distinctions of caste are breaking down, traditional ideas about how unrelated men and women should interact are falling away, people no longer care what religion their boyfriends and girlfriends belong to, women are putting off marriage and starting families at a later age, and a new youth culture based on a fusion of Western youth culture and native Indian culture is developing in new night-clubs and other places frequented by the workers in their free time with cash to spare. Just to watch these young Indians, men and women, boldly negotiating a new path for themselves and their families, confronting old ways of thinking and behaving, defying family and cultural traditions, and contemplating and relishing personal ambitions and goals hitherto alien to their families and culture, can be very dizzying and uplifting; imagine then, what effect this generation of youngsters might have on Indian society in the future. (This is assuming that current trends in global offshoring of jobs to India will continue, and that assumption cannot be taken for granted.)  At the same time though, a new Indian youth culture might end up having a homogenising effect on Indian society and much about traditional Indian cultures that’s seen to be incompatible with Western and fusion Western / Indian culture may well be lost forever to our detriment.

Back in Australia, call-centre workers ruefully accept that they can’t stop jobs going off to developing countries. Some are happy that Indian people who’d otherwise live in poverty are able to earn money and live comfortably. Australian employers interviewed talk about how Australia must develop more highly skilled work for IT and other white-collar professionals but this depends on universities and TAFE colleges being able to educate and train people to the standard required. Obviously if the Australian government continues to cut funding to higher education and does nothing about the working conditions and job security of Australian university and TAFE teachers – about two-thirds of Australian university academics are employed as sub-contractors and have no job security or holiday and sick leave provisions – then the highly skilled hi-tech professionals required will become very scarce and this will be Australia’s loss. As for India, some people there are already concerned that countries like China and Sri Lanka will compete with India for call-centre work and some such jobs in India will flow to those countries; in the not too distant future, countries like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria will also join the competition with even cheaper English-speaking labour.

No statistics are offered in this program and the documentary doesn’t look at any trends likely to affect globalised call-centre work or whether it will even last well into the 21st century. Rapid changes in technology could all but make call-centre work redundant in the next 10 or 20 years. The film accepts that call-centre work in its present form, migrating to whichever country can offer the cheapest, most compliant labour and cutting a swathe through traditional society and ways of thinking and acting wherever it goes, is here to stay: no challenge or alternative ways of working are offered. For that bleak and unsatisfying outcome, I leave the film in some despair.

I Can Change Your Mind About Climate: predictable documentary drumming up controversy where none exists

Max Bourke, “I Can Change Your Mind About Climate” (2012)

It seemed like a good idea at the time: take two people with sharply opposed views on an issue – in this case, whether climate change is anthropogenic or not based on the known evidence, and whether people should act now to mitigate or prevent its worst effects – and get both of them to persuade the other to change his / her mind with support from people on their side whom they trust. Environmentalist activist Anna Rose Barry and Liberal Party politican Nick Minchin, a former Science Minister in John Howard’s government (1996 – 2007) in Australia, attempt to sway each other’s opinion and position on climate change with the help of ABC TV and lots of air travel and carbon dioxide emissions in the upper atmosphere at Australian taxpayers’ expense. Minchin meets Barry’s farmer uncle in Moree and a parade of earnest climate scientists and Barry meets a sceptical couple, a Washington DC political advisor, a scientist with a dodgy past and other assorted colourful types, all of whom present their case for believing or not believing in anthropogenic climate change, some of them quite forcefully and others in a way that tells viewers more about their political ideologies than about their beliefs on climate change.

After travelling tens of thousands of kilometres in the air and on ground, staying in comfortable hotels across the US and the UK, and taking a test on their stand on climate change that tells them as much about their general values and attitudes and what psychodemographic group they belong to, our protagonists at least come to a better understanding of where their opposite number is coming from in belief systems, values held and cherished, how they define climate change risk and what policies should be followed that will be supported by most people. At the film’s conclusion, Barry and Minchin find some “common ground” even though they agree to disagree on the causes of climate change but we viewers already knew the two weren’t going to change each other’s mind anyway.

Along the way Barry realises the documentary’s concept and format were never going to favour her position as the balance between her position and Minchin’s position is a false one favoured by the Western media in most reporting of supposedly controversial issues (supposedly because most “controversial” issues are made so by the media): while the evidence of anthropogenic climate change is in Barry’s favour, the program presents her position and camp of supporters as being equally valid and important as Minchin’s position and camp of supporters. The reality is that many of the people Minchin presents as trustworthy researchers turn out to have shady pasts or are so dogmatic and rigid in defending their opinions that something more than just climate change must be motivating them; in the case of the Perth-based blogger couple, they seem oddly insular and determined to shout down any idea that threatens their carefully constructed mental edifice.

Plenty of issues are acknowledged or faintly addressed along the way: the generation gap between Minchin (aged 50+ years) and Barry (in her 20s); the use or abuse of scientific models and data to support opinion; why people deny climate change, often strenuously; the influence of political and economic ideologies on forming personal opinions and how people view the world; the role of media in forming and directing opinion; disagreements about “feedback”; definitions of terms and assumptions about aspects of climate change discussion; and examining and questioning your own position, how fixed it may be and how that influences people to agree or disagree with you. Barry learns she and her fellow environmentalists have their work cut out communicating with and encouraging sceptics to enter into dialogue with them, rather than simply spout facts and argue and expect everyone to fall in line with their opinions.

The program was not a great eye-opener: most viewers would have expected neither Barry nor Minchin to budge at all from their respective positions. The program had been edited to an hour’s length, much of it at Barry’s expense: one US Navy researcher Barry took Minchin to see was completely cut out of the TV broadcast.

Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins and George Pell (ABC1, 9 April 2012): an unedifying and pointless debate

Q&A Adventures in Democracy – Richard Dawkins versus Cardinal George Pell (Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV (ABC1), 9 April 2012)

Managed to miss seeing this episode of the usually boring Q&A program that features every Monday night on ABC1 but someone kindly uploaded this to Youtube so I can watch this as many times as I can before I have to puke. A transcript of the episode can also be found at abc.net.au. By now we should all be familiar with the ploy used by TV channel programmers to structure so-called “debates”: pick an issue or a few related issues out of a hat, tease the subject into two polarised camps and then select proponents representing those camps and have them tear each other to bits in a restricted time slot while the debate host makes feeble attempts to calm them down. It’s remarkable then, knowing what we know, that the Q&A show producers insist on forcing a foreign guest like Dawkins into such “debates” on evolution, religion, the nature of the universe and how it began, and various other social and political issues with his extreme opposite, and surround them both with the opponent’s supporters: in this case, undergraduate students from Notre Dame University, a tertiary institution run by the Roman Catholic Church, just down the road from the ABC TV studios in the Ultimo area. (Not far from where Frank Gehry’s design for the new University of Technology, Sydney, building that resembles a scrunched-up paper bag will be built to overshadow the phallic brutalist building that currently dominates the UTS Broadway campus.) Even more remarkable is that Dawkins agreed to take on Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Number One Man in Australia: it seems he really sees his vocation as arguing with and smacking down every public religious crackpot leader he meets over topics relating to religious belief and doctrines. And few come more crackpot than our own dear Pell-star.

With Q&A host Tony Jones playing referee, Dawkins and Pell quickly got bogged down trying to answer questions from the audience and arguing with one another. Some questions were not easy to understand, as uestioners themselves were not always very clear on what they were trying to ask and ended up asking questions that probably had little to do with what they really wanted to say. (And some questions were flat-out provocative.) The best questions were usually short and straight to the point, and came from people who had sent them in by video or online. Generally though audience members did not distinguish themselves by their knowledge of issues other than those recently seen and highlighted in the mainstream mass TV and newspaper media and Yours Truly had the impression that Dawkins was not terribly stretched by the questions asked. He looked quite impatient and had the air of a man wanting to be somewhere else, away from the rent-a-mob crowd that surrounded him and Pell.

While Dawkins’s approach was to answer questions to the best of his ability (given that there was some hostility towards him and he must have felt it) and admit inadequacy on questions he was not qualified or experienced to answer, the smug Pell made a great show of his erudition (or emptiness rather), even going so far as to say which page in Charles Darwin’s biography contained the 19th century scientist’s admission that he was agnostic and telling Dawkins to “go and have a look”, as if the Q&A TV crew had Wikipedia open or all copies of Darwin’s writings on hand. Furthermore, whenever Pell made an outrageously incorrect statement, such as ancient Jewish people being “intellectual inferior” or that Neanderthal people were extinct and therefore could not possibly be cousins to Homo sapiens (as though cousins can never die!), he blustered through rebuttals and corrections from Jones and Dawkins to the extent that he made an utter fool of himself. Yours Truly had the strange thought that Pell might have been coached in advance in his responses and that he had been fed the relevant page number of Darwin’s biography by an off-screen minion. (The page number was apparently wrong and should have been the following page of the biography.)

At times the animosity between Dawkins and Pell was plain to see though the panellists were kept far apart enough and Jones did not need to resort to manhandling either of them, though he did have to shush the audience and tell its members to mind their manners.

As with Q&A programs generally, the episode featured a Twitter feed and responses flashed periodically at the bottom of the screen throughout. While some were witty and entertaining, the great bulk of them added no value to the program.

In all, this episode was most unedifying with no insights or understanding reached and each duelling panellist reduced to defending his corner and either looking embarrassed and wanting to escape (Dawkins) or proving to be stupid as well as smug (Pell). This should teach Dawkins a lesson in choosing his opponents and the appropriate framework in which to sally forth into battle against them: if debate there must be, it’s better for that debate to take place in a forum where both sides can be on equal ground, such as on a blog forum or in a newspaper or magazine, and time is not of the essence. Clearly the aim of the program was to rake in viewers and pump up the show’s ratings but the effect will only be short-lived and viewer numbers are likely to return to the low doldrums when the next episode of Q&A arrives the following week.

The episode can be downloaded here.

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game): film could be sub-titled “A Mug’s Game”

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game)” (2011)

Continuing briskly and trippingly from Episode 1 “A Genius Idea”, Sally Aitken leads viewers into the 20th century, with frequent jumps back into the 19th century, with her visual history of department stores and their influence on Western culture. Using as before a mix of interviews, fictional dramatisations and archival footage, Aitken casts a sometimes critical eye over various social and occasionally political issues and manages to fit in brief biographies of three major department store founders. The film style is light-hearted, flitting from one topic to another in a way not always logical or natural, but with just enough depth to stimulate coffee-table or next-day water-cooler discussion.

Whereas Episode 1 presented department stores as liberating for women in the 19th century, even as promoters of female political emancipation and participation, Episode 2 casts the same phenomenon as enforcing a new kind of bondage in a myriad ways both physical and psychological: topics touched on include the commodification of women’s bodies via the adoption of standard sizes and the elevation of physical beauty as a major crutch for female self-esteem through the advertising of cosmetics, perfumes and clothing. Department stores become amateur psychologists in developing and promoting desire and social conformity; they also start shaping cultural rituals and values. Through the example of a major US department store founder John Wanamaker, who originally intended to train as a religious Presbyterian preacher, department stores turn religious holidays into opportunities for drumming up retail business and profit, and even create new holidays such as Mother’s Day to encourage more spending. Retailers discover children as a market in themselves to be targeted and play on parents’ anxiety and guilt that they’re not doing enough for their precious bairns by promoting children’s goods as educational or beneficial.

In the process of encouraging and feeding desire, department stores give rise to new concepts and values: instant gratification of material wants, built-in obsolescence in products, the use of season-based fashions and trends, social competition in purchasing and flaunting goods, an obsession with individuality (and at the same time an obsession with being part of the middle class – a concept that might have been created by department stores themselves – and fitting into that class) and growth. The programme unfortunately doesn’t extend its investigation of department stores’ manipulation of cultural values into the consequences of that manipulation: the excessive waste of resources in making products that last only one or two years before they must be tossed aside for new products that self-styled fashion leaders declare by statement or example that people must have; equally, the exploitation of resources, any human labour involved in making new products; and the pollution that results from the manufacturing process or from outdated or superseded products dumped into landfills. It’s probably beyond the scope of the programme to investigate how the particular cultural values promoted by department stores intersect and agree neatly with the values of capitalist economic systems and debt-based / growth-oriented financial systems though there’s a very superficial look at how department stores have played a role in the social acceptance of consumer debt and how that might have led to the current global debt crisis.

A further issue the documentary looks at is department stores’ attitudes to worker rights: department stores have often been leaders in granting their usually large workforces benefits and good working conditions but the reason is not necessarily altruistic – the generosity is usually due to the store management’s desire to prevent workers from forming trade unions.

The emphasis in the film moves away from France to Australia, Britain and the US through brief biographies of major department store founders such as Sidney Myer who fled pogroms in Russia and came to Melbourne, reinventing himself as a patriotic Australian while establishing the Myer chain of stores across Australia; Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who earned a grand fortune through Selfridges in London but threw it all away on gambling and ended up dying in penury; and John Wanamaker, the pious Christian who turned Christmas and Easter and their respective rituals and symbols into money-making opportunities.

The film does not make any predictions as to the future of department stores or shopping as a cultural activity generally and I think this is a major flaw in the documentary. New forms of technology such as 3-D printing have the potential to allow people to create customised versions of products and send department stores, reliant on mass production and enforcing social conformity, into historical oblivion. There was an opportunity in this second episode for Aitken to look at the dark side of the department store as a cultural phenomenon and how it has shaped our thinking, judgement and morals, and that opportunity, although not missed, is not exploited to the full.

 

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea): how department stores both freed and enslaved women

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea)” (2011)

Ah, shopping – the bane of modern life or the portal to all our fantasies and aspirations? In this informative and entertaining documentary, writer and director Sally Aitken traces the history of a particular kind of department store from its early beginnings in the mid-1800s in France into the global retail and cultural phenomenon it is today, and how it has shaped Western society and attitudes. In the first episode “A Genius Idea”, Aitken investigates the effect glamorous department stores selling desire and fantasy in the nineteenth century had on the lives of women, especially middle class and working class women, and how these institutions not only gave women financial freedom in the forms of jobs and purchasing power but also the freedom to demand political and economic rights.

The story begins in France with Aristide Boucicart, originally from a poor family in Normandy, who arrives in Paris looking for a job and works his way up in retail with the aim of owning his own store selling a variety of goods. In 1838 he opened “Le Bon Marché” as a small shop; it grew to be a fixed-price department store by the 1850s. After 1855, Boucicart’s innovations in marketing became noticeable: he introduced the idea of customers browsing and touching products in the store, the use of price tags, stunning product displays, discount sales, a place to park bored male companions where they could read newspapers and (in 1856) shopping catalogues. Perhaps the most significant innovation was his targeting of women as the store’s core customers, an idea quite alien for French society at the time.

Traditionally women had been viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, science and academia, and society generally as weak, irrational and stupid, and therefore to be kept at home if possible. At the same time prostitution was rife with most working women apparently engaged in it (and with plenty of male clients to cater for). The general view of women was as either pure and chaste Madonna, content to stay at home, or as lascivious whores of loose morals. The social life of women, especially middle class women, was restricted. Boucicart’s ambitions to create a store that sold desires and catered to women’s fantasies for beautiful things (made available by technologies that permitted mass production), in surrounds of glamour and refinement, dealt a blow to traditional social attitudes. His flagship Paris store grows bigger and bigger: in 1867, the store moved to new digs designed by Louis Auguste Boileau; in the 1870s, the store moved into a multi-level building made possible with the latest building technologies using iron and plenty of glass, courtesy of engineering consultant Gustave Eiffel (yes, the father of the tower). Customers who patronised the store were awed by the sunlight that flooded through glass ceilings and the opulent furnishings and displays of goods they encountered.

In addition, Boucicart employed working class women from the provinces (they were cheap labour) and through him these women gained independence, financial freedom and the opportunity to observe and imitate the wealthy female customers they served. Many such workers who passed through Boucicart’s employ later returned home and opened their own businesses: in this indirect way, these women were the shock troops for the cultural unification of France and its domination by Paris.

Boucicart’s success inspired his rivals to set up equally glamorous stores in Paris and his particular concept spread to the US (where department stores had existed since the 1850s and provided Boucicart with much creative inspiration) and to Britain where Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American retailer, established that country’s first major LBM-styled department store Selfridges in 1909 (Britain having had department stores of a plainer style since 1734). At about the same time, a Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, established Myers Emporium in Melbourne peddling Boucicart’s concept, Australia having had department stores of some sort or another since 1825.

The film’s tone is light, entertaining and breezy and dramatised recreations of fictional French shoppers going berserk in Boucicart’s recreated store together with interviews of academics and 3-D computer animations of “Le Bon Marché” enliven the voice-over narration and fact-dropping in the unlikely event that it ever gets dry. Particular social and cultural topics are worked into the narrative: a fun fact is that department stores helped facilitate women’s freedom and improved their health by providing public toilets which in turn reduced the incidence of cystitis (a common complaint partly caused by holding one’s bladder too long due to the lack of privies in private). The provision of toilets outside the home meant that women could spend more time away from home (and the watchful eye of relatives, hubby and the in-laws) and in department stores which in turn gave rise to rumours that women were using department stores as dating agencies or places of secret rendezvous with lovers.

Also worked into the narrative is the role department stores played in democratising society: women of different social classes could mix in the one physical space, enabling lower class women to observe and emulate their upper class sisters, and encouraging an incipient sisterhood that would explode into a drive for political and economic rights and the right to vote. Suffragettes in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century used tea-rooms in department stores to hold meetings and rallies; the male owners of these stores were only too happy to allow such meetings to take place and even to let suffragettes sell pamphlets to shoppers outside stores – after all, their custom depended on making women happy. The campaigners deliberately emphasised a glamorous and elegant appearance as weapons to attract supporters for their cause although they were also aware that women workers in department stores earned low wages and their working conditions were often arduous and involved heavy physical work.

In all, the documentary is a delight to watch, visually appealing, if very fuzzy and vague on the details of who actually founded department stores and where they were first set up: depending on how department stores are defined, Britain, the United States and France can all claim to be the first countries to have these institutions. There is a lot of flitting among different countries and time-lines which can be a little confusing for young viewers. Time quickly raced by while I was watching this documentary, so engrossing and lively it is.

What the Future Sounded Like: modest little documentary on a pioneering electronic music company in Britain

Matthew Bate, “What the Future Sounded Like” (2006)

Here be a good little documentary about the synthesiser company Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, formed by British composers Peter Zinovieff and Tristram Cary (died 2008) and engineer David Cockerell in 1969, to create, build and sell synthesisers that could produce a wide range of musical tones and sounds yet sell at prices affordable by the public or professional musicians at least anyway. The film uses a mix of interviews with all three founders of EMS and various others including Dave Brock the guitarist of the British space-rock institution Hawkwind, old archived film reels, photographs, newspaper cuttings and some animation to build up an affectionate tribute to three early pioneers of electronic music composition and instrument production.

The documentary begins with the backgrounds of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff as composers and musicians working in electronic music in the 1950s; in those days, electronic music was regarded as very avant-garde and experimental in Britain and the genre in that country was hardly developed compared to its equivalent in France, Germany and the United States. Tristram Cary briefly refers to his career as a radar engineer during World War II as a launch-pad for developing his concepts of electronic music and talks about his early work in musique concrete (a French genre of music using field recordings and found sounds) and meeting like-minded composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen in his travels in Europe. Zinovieff, descended from Russian aristocrats who fled to London after the Russian Revolution in 1917, built his own home music studio with electronic music equipment and along the way met David Cockerell. Discovering Cary, the two then found EMS with Cary and started building their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3.

Due perhaps to its limited budget, the documentary only includes one famous musician as an interviewee and that’s Dave Brock; it is disappointing that other famous musicians who used the VCS3 don’t appear to give their opinions on the instrument. Video clips of Hawkwind and a very gaudy Roxy Music wih Brian Eno playing the VCS3 enliven the film. Other famous bands known to have bought and used the VCS3 include Pink Floyd, who used it on their album “Dark Side of the Moon”, and Kraftwerk.

Disappointingly the documentary doesn’t say why EMS failed to get much financial support from the British government – one suspects that Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell should have got an accountant / office manager to look after the paperwork instead of trying to do everything themselves – and how the company became bankrupt even though its studios and equipment were much patronised by many famous rock and electronic music artists of the time. After EMS broke up, Cary returned to composing music and later emigrated to Australia where he worked at the University of Adelaide until 1986. The EMS equipment was sold or warehoused and much of it fell into ruin. Some equipment has now been restored.

The music featured in the documentary includes Cary and Zinovieff’s own compositions which are the best part of the entire film: Cary’s music doesn’t seem all that remarkable and Zinovieff’s pieces are distinguishable mainly as early digital-computer pointillist tone poems.

The film could have made a point about how isolated musicians dabbling in extreme experimental forms often can be, to the extent that each and every one has to reinvent the musical wheel for himself/herself as it were and only later discovers that other people were doing the same thing at the same time (and everybody wishing, If only I had known these people earlier!), and the level of public resistance and wariness towards a new art form in the 1950s and 60s. The film also could have stressed the difficulties EMS had in getting money, promoting and selling their product, and the reactions they might have encountered from UK government arts bodies in applying for grants. It’s possible that Cary, Zinovieff and Cockerell didn’t have much business acumen among themselves and needed help and direction in marketing and selling their product. There is nothing that might suggest the impact EMS had on experimental electronic music generally or on further technical developments in music production and recording and how the company might have affected the direction of pop and rock on one hand, and of experimental electronic music on the other.

Overall this is a good introduction to the history of electronic music and the way in which it infiltrated gradually into the public consciousness and mainstream music in the 1970s but not much more can be said about the film.

Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011: investigation of alternative, intersecting views of reality from historical archives

Ms&Mr, “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011”, multi-channel video installation (2011)

Technically not a film but a multi-channel video art installation using old archived video recordings among other media on exhibition at the New South Wales Art Gallery (December 2011 – February 2012), this homage by the Australian art duo Ms&Mr (Richard and Stephanie nova Milne) to the American science fiction writer Phillip K Dick and his fifth wife Tessa uses old film footage of the couple as a launch-pad into investigating alternate narratives of history in which paranoia, spiritual faith and identity dominate. This work is an immersive experience: it has to be seen in a dark environment where the viewer is surrounded by four preferably very large screens onto which are projected four looped videotapes of the couple and Tessa’s jewellery. As the tapes run, an ambient looped soundtrack, also created by Ms&Mr, consisting of a rhythmic drone over which hovers a spaced-out noise ambience suggestive of giant hovering machines in a huge vacuum, cold and creepy, runs continuously and concurrently with sound recordings of Dick and Tessa making a speech or talking generally.

The films are really something to see, meshing old film footage of Dick dating as far back as 1977 when he attended a science fiction convention at Metz, France, and gave a speech about his belief that the fictional worlds he wrote of in his novels and short stories existed for real and that what we take to be real and true might actually be false, with film footage of Tessa taken by Ms&Mr in California in 2011. In one film, Tessa intrudes on the science fiction convention and sits down with Dick; in another, more remarkable film loop, the two circle each other and the camera circles them as well. Dick’s face appears to dissolve into fragmented mini-images of himself in a silhouette of his head; the camera continues to revolve around him and the images revolve and shift as well. The couple appear to float in a bright orange space like astronauts in a strange alien psychedelic universe. The voice soundtrack does not synchronise with Dick and Tessa’s moving lips or facial expressions and this lack of concurrency adds to the disorienting nature of the entire work.

The work cuts against time and memory; old archival film footage, shown in continuous repetition, loses its outdated feel and seems recent in spite of having not been tampered with at all apart from having to repeat; and seeing Dick and Tessa as a 50-something woman together looks the most natural thing in the world.

The experience of “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011” itself is oppressive and sinister: the floating voices, the cold music and the huge screens around a dark room combine into a prison of colour, images and sound. Memories that should be warm and friendly take on a malevolent tone and even the film of still life (Tessa’s jewellery) looks otherworldly and creepy. The room, separate from the rest of the gallery by walls. might be a portal between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the viewer confronts the real possibility that what s/he thinks is real isn’t real at all and that the world as imagined by Dick in his novels and short stories is the real world.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.

 

 

 

Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.