Action thriller and soapie drama format in “Underground: the Julian Assange Story” wastes actors and themes

Robert Connolly, “Underground: the Julian Assange Story” (2012)

Fictionalised dramatisation of an episode in the early life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a teenage computer hacker activist, this film plays as a coming-of-age soapie drama / action thriller with a brisk, no-nonsense style. Several events that were spread out over a number of years in Assange’s pre-Wikileaks life are crammed into what vaguely amounts to a 2-year period  to squeeze out the maximum teenage broken-hearts romance sappiness and the thrill of the cat-versus-mouse game in which it’s not clear which is the cat and which is the mouse. Family drama involving a deranged cult member is thrown in to add extra spice. The result is a very commercial and manipulative made-for-TV thriller ride  with forced suspense weak on characterisation and wasteful of the talents of a fine acting cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia as fictional police detective Ken Roberts and Rachel Griffiths as doting mum Christine Assange. The film has a muddled message about good versus evil and truth versus lies, cover-ups and secrecy but because it is aimed at the general public who are presumed to be not too intelligent when it comes to considering the moral implications of whether it’s better for the powers that be to admit truth and accept responsibility for heinous actions, the message is treated superficially and appears confused or obfuscated, depending on one’s point of view.

The young Julian Assange (Alex Williams) has more on his plate than an 18-year-old boy should have: being on the run with Mum and younger half-brother for several years already with the half-brother’s father Leif, a member of a religious cult led by a female yoga teacher, who wants custody of the younger boy in hot pursuit; and having to support his girlfriend Electra (Laura Wheelwright) who is pregnant with his child. Assange has formed a group called the International Subversives with two others and the trio spend hours together and individually hacking into computer databases looking up and reading information and printing it out for the purposes of political activism. In the meantime, Christine Assange runs her touring puppet theatre company and also particpates in political activism, pausing now and again to berate young Julian for apparently disrespecting her methods of protest while holed up in his room hunched over his flickering screen and typing furiously.

Meanwhile a group of Australian Federal Police officers, led by Roberts, have set up Operation Weather to investigate various computer hacking activities and breaches of sensitive databases, and quickly hone in on the International Subversives, following the members’ exploits and occasionally being upstaged by Assange under the username Mendax. The brief moments in which Roberts tries to come to grips with computer concepts and terminology, and corresponds with Mendax are quite funny, and there is potential for real comedy here: Roberts and the other officers might have realised they were dealing with young men and Roberts might have tried to offer some fatherly advice to Assange / Mendax about dabbling in areas where he might be in over his head. The narrative dives back and forth between the two plot strands of Assange’s messy domestic life and the chase as the activists manage to stay one step ahead of the AFP, yet the AFP learns from its mistakes and gradually encircles the trio, cutting off all avenues of escape.

The whole story would have worked better as a 2-part mini-series with a cliffhanger inserted at the end of Part 1, so as to allow for some character development that would highlight the script’s themes and encourage audience identification with the significant characters of Roberts, Assange, his mother and Elektra. LaPaglia infuses Roberts with enough depth and gravitas to give the impression that on some level he sympathises with Assange when the teenager tells him in their climactic meeting that he’s found evidence that the US has deliberately bombed a shelter and killed 450+ women and children during its attacks on Iraq in 1991. At this point the script is somewhat of a let-down with some terrible lines the actors must blurt out and there is no room for Roberts and Assange to have a more meaningful if very brief conversation or argument over whether the truth, however confronting, distressing or demoralising, should be revealed to the public over and above the need for national security. Griffiths is reduced to a supportive mother stereotype with some godawful lines praising her son to the skies before LaPaglia’s detective. Williams as Assange holds his own in every scene he appears in and as this means the majority of the film, his performance is quite impressive for a film debut.

The constant dashing between the narrative strands keeps the film and its subject and themes at a fairly superficial level, and the music soundtrack, suited for an action thriller, doesn’t fit key scenes well and sounds twee.

Essentially the drama serves better as an introductory guide to Assange and how his early life might have influenced the direction he later took. Ominously, the titles at the end of the film state that the Wikileaks’ uncovering of US military atrocities in Iraq after the US-led coalition invasion of that country in 2003 bears an uncanny similarity to the atrocities the teenager found in 1991. This suggests that the US government and military did not learn anything from the activities of the young hackers and moreover do not learn anything from past errors and outrages they commit in the name of the United States.

Sex, Lies and Julian Assange: TV program exposes lies and corrupt behaviour

Andrew Fowler and Wayne Hurley, “Sex, Lies and Julian Assange” (Four Corners / Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 23 July 2012)

Australian current affairs program Four Corners broadcast a special episode “Sex, Lies and Julian Assange” which investigates the chronology of Wikileaks head Julian Assange’s activities in Sweden 2010 when he visited the country to address a conference and investigate basing Wikileaks’ operations in a secure computer facility there. The episode can be viewed at this link. Reporter Andrew Fowler narrates his detailed inquiry into Assange’s whereabouts and associations with Sofia Wilen and Anna Ardin and how these led to the Swedish authorities issuing a warrant for his arrest on charges of rape and sexual molestation and his forced flight to the United Kingdom. Using reports and interviews with various Assange supporters and his lawyers, Fowler uncovers evidence that the rape and molestation allegations against Assange have no substance and are intended to blacken his name and turn the public around the world against him. Fowler also investigates the link between the Swedish government’s pursuit of Assange and the US government’s determination to indict Assange on charges of espionage for Wikileaks’ release of thousands of US diplomatic cables exposing American war crimes in the Middle East.

Fowler describes a blow-by-blow account of what Assange got up to in Sweden and shows that Ardin and Wilen’s groupie- like activities with and around Assange suggest he may have been set up by two honey-pots working on behalf of an unnamed agency or that the two women were under pressure to help concoct a case against him. The reporter goes on to describe the farcical series of events following the issue of the arrest warrant in which a senior prosecutor dismissed the rape allegations and Assange asked for his police interview not to be leaked to the press; in spite of assurances from the police interviewer, the interview did end up being leaked. Assange went to the UK in September 2010 and the following month saw Wikileaks’ exposure of thousands of Iraq War logs detailing US atrocities committed by US soldiers and Iraqi police between 2004 and 2009. Sweden subsequently issued an Interpol Red Notice warrant to arrest Assange and the US government began a full-scale investigation into Wikileaks and a financial blockade of the organisation.

A highlight of the program is its exhibition of a copy of the subpoena issued by a US Grand Jury showing the numbers 10 and 3793, the latter explained by Assange’s US lawyer Michael Ratner as demonstrating that Assange is to be charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. The charge is intended to link Assange’s name with that of Bradley Manning, the US soldier  currently in prison for having passed material to Wikileaks. Significant also is Four Corners’ exposure of Sweden’s record in co-operating with the US, in particular its rendition of two asylum seekers to the CIA who flew the men to Egypt where they were tortured.

However nothing was said about the Swedish government’s record of secretly selling weapons or other military equipment to countries like Saudi Arabia which have rather dodgy human rights records. Nor did Four Corners refer to a bilateral treaty Sweden and the US signed in 1984, supplementary to one signed in 1961, in which Article II (point 1), interpreted broadly, allows the US to bypass standard extradition tests and procedures in requesting Sweden to extradite someone: this is the document that Assange is really afraid of.  If the Swedish government has shown already that it will disregard its own laws in dealing with foreign countries that happen to have global influence or huge buckets of money, how will it treat someone like Julian Assange when the US, militarily and economically superior to Sweden, asks for or demands his extradition?

The creepiest part of the program is its spotlight on the harassment Julian Assange’s lawyers and supporters including one person Assange interviewed in his “The World Tomorrow” series have been receiving from US government agencies. What does it say about the US government’s obsession with Assange that it would send out agents to pursue people associated with Assange and entrap them into informing on him, pressure them to give up information on him or threaten them in some way? What does such treatment tell us about the police state the US has become?

The general thrust of the program is as “hard-hitting” and “direct” as would be expected of most commercially oriented current affairs programs aimed at the general public but it didn’t reveal anything or give any analysis of Assange’s plight that other news and current affairs sources have not already reached. Revelations about the Australian government’s support of the US and abandonment of Assange are well known from other news media and Four Corners simply repeated them. 

Generally the program is a good summary of Assange’s plight and the events that have ensnared him and forced him to seek asylum with the Ecuadorian embassy in London. For people befuddled by the fog of disinformation emanating from British and Swedish media about the rape accusations against him, this clear-headed documentary is a welcome antidote.

 

 

The Proposition: film essay and character study of British imperialism and colonialism, and the brutalisation that results

John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” (2005)

A gritty and visually stunning film essay on the combined effect of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Victorian mores, colonialism and a harsh, unforgiving environment on the individuals residing within, “The Proposition” is singer / writer Nick Cave’s meditation on the Western movie genre in an Australian colonial context.

Police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), recently assigned from England to take charge of a lonely desert town somewhere in the Queensland colony, has just captured two brothers of a rebellious Irish family the Burns after a crazed shoot-out that leaves nearly everyone either dead or deranged. Knowing that both brothers have an older brother on the lam wanted for heinous crimes of rape and murder, and desiring to civilise his little patch of Australian territory with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), Stanley presents one brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) with a stark choice: go after big brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him within 9 days before Christmas Day or the police will hang baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), a bit of a simpleton, on that day. Charlie accepts the proposition and goes out to apprehend Arthur but not before he nearly loses his life and is saved by Arthur and his gang: an unexpected twist that severely tests Charlie’s loyalty to both his brothers, his moral principles and his desire and determination to lead a life free from the history of past British-versus-Irish conflict and violence and how this has brutalised his family through the generations.

While Charlie hunts Arthur, Stanley has problems of his own to contend with: he tries to use reason to get rid of a greater evil (Arthur) and give Charlie and Mikey a chance of redeeming themselves but opposition from his own police troopers, police superintendent Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his own wife Martha (Emily Watson) – who demands justice for her dead friends killed by the Burns brothers – and the townspeople force him to flog Mikey. Interestingly the flogging turns the townspeople against Stanley, causes Watson to faint and encourages insubordination among Stanley’s troopers.

In the meantime police sergeant Lawrence and his men, sent out by Stanley to find some Aborigines who have killed a white man, slaughter a group of natives and in turn are killed by Arthur and his side-kick Samuel, but not before Lawrence tells Arthur of Stanley’s proposition to Charlie. The Burns gang later breaks Mikey out of jail but, weakened by the flogging, the boy dies and Arthur swears vengeance on the Stanleys.

The actual plot with its proposition centre-piece and the unforeseen karmic consequences that result is an interesting intellectual exercise on paper and for those who understand Nick Cave’s inner universe; for the general public, it’s perhaps a little abstract and doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s a conventional climax of violence but the true climax is quiet and shattering as Charlie and Arthur share one last moment of family togetherness – in the sense that members of a family mafia can experience it – before Charlie faces existential emptiness in a vast and bleak though beautiful landscape that reflects his pain and his past bad luck, born of history, back at him. The movie is best appreciated as a character study bringing together the British imperial project and its presumptuous attitude to tame and subjugate a land and its people, the effect of that project on its subject peoples, and the effect of isolation and coping with a harsh desert environment on that project and the people as well.

What makes the character study effective is both the acting and the ambiguity of the characters themselves and what they represent: Hillcoat assembled an international cast of fine actors, some of whom inevitably are under-utilised. Pearce and Winstone are the stand-outs as protagonist and antagonist who agree to a Faustian deal that will tear them apart physically and psychologically. Pearce plays his character straight and only hints at the internal anguish Charlie is suffering: perhaps he was not the best actor to play this role and Wenham, playing a minor character, might have done a better job. Winstone is the much better actor in his role: representing Enlightenment reason in a limited and flawed way, believing perhaps that people are not born bad but can be encouraged to rise from badness to goodness, he attempts to give Charlie and Mikey a chance in a way that he hopes will advance his career as well as redeem the two; but local prejudice and resentment against him and his wife as naive English snobs, his own self-serving ambitions as a leader and his wife’s own inability to come to terms with her nature and upbringing conspire against him. I probably make Stanley sound too good: he is tender to Martha and tries to protect her but one has to ask why he brought Martha out to Australia in the first place.

John Hurt as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb intent on killing the Burns brothers has a very small role but fills it to the full with deranged malice; Emily Watson plays Martha Stanley intelligently and with substance: the character though represents an aspect of English civility trying to bring order and refinement to an alien environment but doomed to fail because it doesn’t understand its own roots of violence and repression, let alone the unforgiving demands of a new country and the skills required to survive there; so in effect Watson’s effort amounts to very little. The Aboriginal characters are portrayed with some sympathy given that the script is focussed on the white characters; it is interesting that the Burns brothers, murderous renegades thought they are, treat their Aboriginal friend humanely and even use white people’s distrust of black people to their advantage to break Mikey out of jail. The most interesting character is Arthur, a poet and philosopher as well as murderous psychopath, thanks to Huston’s steady and under-played performance: one sees that in another land, another century, Arthur could have been an intelligent, sensitive and capable leader of men. In a brutal country which understands only the language of invasion, violence, subjugation and discrimination based on class, ethnicity and race, Arthur becomes the freest of all men, obeying 0nly his own morality and musing on his place within the Australian landscape and the universe, and in that he is the most dangerous.

The Australian landscape is a significant character in the film and gives it a distinctive ambience and flavour: it is a harsh and unyielding landscape yet a beautiful one that invites people like Arthur to contemplate its mystery and beauty and their relationship to its treasures. In a way perhaps the true protagonist and antagonist in this film are – ahem, Nick Cave couldn’t resist a little joke here! – Arthur and Martha: one understands true beauty, the other is in thrall to an artificial beauty and refinement. They might have made a nice couple but they carry too much cultural baggage and their meeting in the film is very, very brief.

 

 

Sharia Money (Episode 2: The Price of Paradise): easy-to-follow documentary on Islamic banking and finance

“Sharia Money (Episode 2: the Price of Paradise)” (2011)

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and people’s realisation that the global finance industry, dominated by Wall Street, New York City, in the United States and the City of London in the United Kingdom, was a law unto itself (and lawless at that), new interest in alternative forms of banking and finance is spreading across the world. One such alternative form of banking and finance is Islamic banking and finance. This program, the second in a two-part series, looks at Islamic banking as practised by individuals, small traders and businesses and larger companies in three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It’s scaled to a pragmatic level easy for the general public to follow and though the documentary is dominated by voice-over narration, there are interviews with several people from different walks of life who explain what Islamic banking means to them, why they believe in it or not, what it has done for them and how they believe it benefits them and their families.

Coming across as an extended news or current affairs / travelogue program, the documentary is easy to follow with much attractive  scenery: the skylines of Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore feature throughout and the camera takes viewers on little trips through cities and towns with bustling markets, streets crowded with commuters in both Western and Islamic dress and sleek skyscrapers with their plush, neutral-toned furnishings and glass barriers. The program explains what Islamic banking concepts are and money is regarded as a means of exchange bringing together suppliers and consumers of goods and services, and not as an end in itself as a repository of wealth. Speculation in money and the charging of interest are frowned upon: the ultimate aims of Islamic banking are ensuring the equality of actors engaged in a financial transaction and achieving social justice for less fortunate and more vulnerable members of society.

The program goes to some length explaining how shari’a-governed banks and Western banks grapple with the concept of Islamic banking and how it forces them to rethink and change the products and services they offer to customers. The growing demand for shari’a financial products has generated a huge demand for Islamic scholars and researchers who can advise on and check shari’a-compliant products, and has led to universities in the Southeast Asian region offering courses teaching Islamic banking. An example of a large foreign coporation, Nomura Securities, joining a Malaysian financial corporation in a venture to sell aeroplanes using Islamic financing is shown in the program.

Calm in tone, even-handed and sympathetic to the idea of Islamic banking and finance, the program does not say if there are aspects of Islamic banking that can’t compete with Western banking. Since Islamic banking abhors speculation for its own sake, naturally it would be weak on the kinds of financial products developed in the West since 1990, in particular financial derivatives (a type of financial contract in which two parties stipulate the conditions such as dates, notional amounts and values of the underlying variables, hence the name) and semi-prime mortgages carrying large interest rates. On the other hand, Islamic banking favours loans made at fixed rates and partnerships and joint ventures in which the lender and borrower are equals in the financial transactions involved. This would suggest that lenders and borrowers communicate their needs and requirements well to each other and that lenders show a keen and active interest in the business of the borrower and ensuring that it succeeds.

No figures or statistics are given so viewers have little idea of how sophisticated Islamic banking can be and of the large amounts of money that circulate through Islamic banks. One interviewee gives his opinion that Islamic banking is most suitable for small traders and businesses. The impression viewers may get is that however good and ethical Islamic banking might be, the system cannot cater for the supposedly more advanced banking and finance needs of Western corporations. It should be understood though that the so-called “sophistication” and “complexity” of Western-style banking and finance are what got the West into deep economic shit in the first place and that a system of banking which is easy to understand, which treats lenders and borrowers alike as equal partners and which does not countenance exploitation of borrowers and other weak and vulnerable agents should be one the West should follow.

I get the impression that the program, being an SBS TV program, is trying to be all things to all people, not specifically advocating one banking and finance system over another but suggesting the two can co-exist together, in spite of the possibility that one system definitely does look better than the other. That’s called “balance” in the world of contemporary Western news media.

 

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.