Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel): breathless rush admits no disbelief about inspiration for Bible story

Elliott Kew “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel)” (2017)

The Bible story of the construction of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in presuming itself the equal of God was once well-known to generations of children in Western society and still resonates among people in Western countries even today. This “Treasures Decoded” episode breathlessly takes viewers into Iraq, to the archaeological site of an enormous temple building known as Etemenanki built during the sixth century BCE by the King Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Babylonian Empire. To that end, he apparently conquered the Jewish states of Israel and Judah, and carted off those states’ best and brightest craftspeople and workers to work on the building.

The episode goes into some detail as to what Nebuchadnezzar II’s grand construction was made of, what it would have had to look like given that it must have been 90 metres tall and made of mud bricks, and the stresses it might have suffered due to its height and construction materials. It should be no surprise that such a tall mud-brick construction had to be a pyramid-like ziggurat with steps going up its sides in addition to the long staircase the Tower of Babel was reputed to have had. Contrary to the Biblical story, this particular construction lasted a very long time, in fact  well into the fourth century BCE, though by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire (which replaced the Babylonian Empire in 550 BCE) the temple was in a very sorry state. Alexander had the temple pulled down, planning to rebuild it. Unfortunately he did not reign for very long, dying of malaria and over-exertion in his early 30s, and the temple was never rebuilt. The mud bricks used in its construction were instead recycled into other buildings and all that remains of the temple building is its foundation and some mud bricks.

The brisk, almost frantic pace of the episode leaves no space for viewers to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar II’s grandiose project was anything other than the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. I did have the impression that much of the evidence presented in the episode was too good and too slick to be accurate. Consulting Wikipedia and some other sources, I discovered that Etemenanki had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II and a previous ruler before him.

While learning about Etemenanki and why it was constructed the way it was, was interesting enough, I would have thought its place in Babylonian society, its role and function in projecting Babylonian power, and the awe it inspired in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Jewish captives would have been even more intriguing to know. The episode relied a bit too much on comparing the building with the Tower of Babel story, and not enough on its own compelling features and the possible megalomania that inspired it. So many documentaries these days make increasing references to stories in the Bible as touchstones for investigating archaeological sites that are impressive in their own right, and I fear this trend may have the effect of overwriting real Middle Eastern history with a fictional narrative working against the interests of the real people who live in the real Middle East.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden): exploring the mystery behind the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture

Tom Cebula, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 8: Garden of Eden)” (2017)

Many if not most people in Western society know of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how they contrived to be cast out of the Garden of Eden for eating of the fruit of knowledge and as punishment were forced to toil and grow their own food for the rest of their lives together. Eve in turn was forced to suffer childbirth in pain for her part in persuading Adam to eat the fruit. While most treat the story as purely a creation story and an allegory into how sin came into the world, for others the Garden of Eden must be a real place somewhere in the Middle East. Intriguingly an archaeological site consisting of megaliths and other stone structures discovered in 1963 and known as Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for “Potbelly Hill”) seems to answer to the description of Garden of Eden in its specific location, being between the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southeastern Turkey. This 50-minute episode examines the development of Göbekli Tepe as a holy site for groups of hunter-gatherers over a period of 2,000 years between 9,500 – 7,000 BCE and the part the site may have played or represented in the transition from hunting and gathering to early agriculture in the Middle East.

To its credit, the episode dwells little on the Bible story and presents Göbekli Tepe and its history as far more complicated, mysterious and intriguing than the Bible story itself. The fact that the structures built there were constructed by hunter-gatherer groups confounds archaeologists since before the site’s discovery, ancient hunter-gatherer societies had not been thought to have the capabilities or the need to build such structures: such groups were considered too nomadic and did not have the social structures required to marshal enough people away from finding food and to build the megaliths and temples. The carvings of animals suggest the site may have been a sanctuary of some sort but for the time being, academics do not know what the carvings might have meant for the people who built them and visited them.

The connection with the story of Adam and Eve, apart from the physical location, is that Göbekli Tepe may have been built at a time when Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were in the process of abandoning their nomadic ways of life and taking up more sedentary residence in permanent or semi-permanent housing and villages, and cultivating wild grasses that became the basis for modern cereals like wheat. The narrator and the experts interviewed for the episode point out that the shift from hunting and gathering to farming had deleterious effects on people’s health. What must have happened in that part of the world – and indeed, other parts where people also gave up full-time hunting and gathering and became farmers – is not mentioned, much less speculated upon, and for many viewers that’s probably the weakest part of what is otherwise a highly informative episode on Göbekli Tepe.

With the transition to full-time farming complete some time after 7,000 BCE, the significance of the site apparently faded and Göbekli Tepe was abandoned by the descendants of the original megalith builders and worshippers. The site ended up being backfilled and that in itself is also a mystery to be added to the other mysteries that still perplex modern archaeology about this site.

 

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.

High-Rise: an attempt to criticise Western and British society results in a collection of boring soap opera sub-plots

Ben Wheatley, “High-Rise” (2015)

British author J G Ballard’s novels and short stories are famous for their perceptive originality on the condition of 20th-century humankind and its relationship with modern civilisation, aspects of which are a veneer for vicious social control and repression of the imagination and therefore of the human potential for transformative change. Unfortunately Ballard’s writing does not translate to the screen all that well: his heroes, being everyday empty vessel men falling into synchrony with their techno-environments, are passive and bland, and lack individuality and motivation. Characters are vehicles through which Ballard explores and criticises modern life and trends in technology and culture. Plots are not too well defined and readers can predict in advance that their protagonists will follow in the wake of whatever is the narrative’s focus to its very extreme.

The film “High-Rise” follows its Ballardian premise fairly closely – it’s even set in 1975, about the same time the novel was published – and as a result the narrative is a string of related sub-plots in which characters adapt to life within a residential tower supposedly designed to meet all their needs and fantasies. Protagonist Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his unit seeking anonymity but discovers his neighbours are so interested in him (for various reasons) that he can’t help but be pulled into their incessant partying that travels from one apartment to the next. Through single mum Charlotte (Sienna Miller), Laing gains access to the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives at the penthouse level and takes him into his confidence. At the same time Laing becomes friendly with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who lives on one of the lower levels with his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their children.

The viewer becomes aware of the social hierarchy that develops with the highest levels of the building being inhabited by elite residents and working class people living at the lowest levels. Wilder becomes obsessed with making a documentary about the building and its residents after an accident in which a man, Munrow, falls to his death from the tower goes uninvestigated by police. Wilder believes that Royal is responsible for the social injustices that arise within the building and prepares to confront him.

While Laing is being initiated into elite society – at the end of which initiation, we do not know what will happen to him because his initiation never gets that far – and Wilder pursues his obsession, the building’s infrastructure starts to fail and exposes the social tensions among the various floors. Violence breaks out, people roam from one party to the next, vandalism and destruction become commonplace and garbage goes uncollected. People no longer leave the building to go to work and gradually cut off their connections from the outside world. Feeling guilty over Munrow’s suicide death, Laing loses his grip on reality.

The film would have worked better had it been set in the present and the building’s degradation attributed to the use of substandard materials and labour to reduce its costs to please its architect and shareholders. In this way, the building becomes a metaphor for neoliberal economics and its failure to deliver a decent standard of living to those unfortunate enough to live in societies where the neoliberal capitalist ideology holds sway. The failing services in the building also become a metaphor for the erosion of the social welfare net. The tensions and violence that develop among the residents become understandable and anticipated. Had the film relied less on its source material and the director brought in a social anthropologist to help write the script, the plot would have become more hilarious and interesting as gang warfare develops among different floors, people steal food or trade children or sex for it, and tribes with their own rituals (including ritual sacrifice) and religions develop. Royal could revel in his role as a George Soros figure, using opposed groups against one another in a divide-and-rule strategy to maintain his elite status and power. Laing would find his niche as Royal’s eyes and ears, wandering through the building and reporting back on the intrigues and power shifts on the different floors, and eventually become his successor.

As it is, “High-Rise” is a monotonous plod through various soap operas within a massive brutalist (if very comfortably and stylishly furnished) prison asylum with an open-ended conclusion. The film aims to criticise British culture and society, and to do that as cutting satire, but fails dismally in this respect. Good actors are wasted and the sometimes beautiful and imaginative cinematography seems awkward and out of place in a supposed dystopian comedy.

This is one example of a film that should not have followed its source material too faithfully; it should have been a development from the novel and a companion piece that comments on its themes and ideas..

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

A significant political interview of amazing revelations in “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger”

John Pilger, “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger” (RT.com, October 2016)

One famous Australian journalist talking to another famous Australian journalist should be a major media event covered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) but unsurprisingly neither of these networks was interested in promoting, let alone broadcasting, excerpts of John Pilger’s astonishing interview of Assange in which nearly every reply Assange gives to Pilger is a jaw-dropping revelation of the depths of the corruption of one of the two major candidates in the 2016 US Presidential elections – I’m referring of course to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate – as revealed in Wikileaks’ releases of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email server and leaked to Assange’s organisation. The really amazing thing about this interview is that both Assange and Pilger manage to keep their nerve talking about Clinton’s connections to Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others through her and her husband Bill’s humanitarian charity Clinton Foundation and those nations’ funding of ISIS; her obsessive pursuit of regime change in Libya that resulted in Muammar Ghaddafi’s death and mutilation; and the US political establishment’s attempts to derail the other US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, among other matters discussed.

Those who can’t or won’t bring themselves to believe that Hillary Clinton is steeped in corruption and has broken numerous US laws, from laws on government record-keeping to laws on the conduct of private charities, the law on perjury and laws regarding conflicts of interest during her time as US Secretary of State (2009 – 2013), are advised to refer to various blogs and websites (not all of which are politically partisan) detailing her many blunders and crimes: 21st Century Wire is one good website as are also Club Orlov and Off-Guardian.org among others.

The excerpts from Pilger and Assange’s conversation are gathered up into two main subject groups: the Podesta emails detailing the scope of Hillary Clinton’s numerous conflicts of interest, and Assange’s own predicament, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, awaiting possible extradition by the UK to Sweden on trumped-up charges of rape.

Without a doubt, this interview must be one of the most significant political interviews of 2016 and it is a great pity and tragedy that it isn’t more widely known and broadcast in Australia at least, if not in the United States. The interview and its transcript can be viewed at this link.

A trite plot and character stereotyping can’t lift “Paris 2054: Renaissance” from bland SF thriller genre

Christian Volckman, “Paris 2054: Renaissance” (2006)

A glossy animated style of minimal black-and-white presentation, emphasising detail, mood and atmosphere in a future Paris governed by corporations through panopticon-style surveillance made possible by hologram and other future cyber-technologies, ultimately proves inadequate to save this film from tired character stereotyping, a dull formulaic plot and shallow treatment of its films. All that we take away from the film is that the elites, whether political or corporate, or bad and that whatever they lust for and pursue is for their own self-interest and profit while the hoi polloi must continue to resign themselves to serve them. The film ultimately can offer no more than an attitude of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”(“the more things change, the more they stay the same”) with an accompanying implication that humans are incapable of change, overcoming their self-interests and desires, and creating a better society.

The thriller plot follows the fortunes of police detective Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig in the English-language version) as he searches for young kidnapped scientist Ilona Kasuiev (Romola Garai), held somewhere in an oppressive tech-noir Paris. He relies on Kasuiev’s associates who include her sister Bislane (Catherine McCormack), with whom he has been acquainted on a more personal level in the past, and her employer Avalon Corporation, to find possible reasons for her kidnapping. As he delves further into his investigation, he discovers that Kasuiev was involved in a secret corporate project to recover the methods and results of an experiment on children suffering from progeria – a genetic condition in which sufferers experience premature ageing – which might hold the ultimate genetic key to staving off ageing and death, and achieving immortality. At the same time that Karas finds revelations about Kasuiev’s work, sinister agents are following him and learning what he learns. He becomes romantically involved with Bislane as well.

Triteness oozes from nearly every pore in the plot and its characters. The romance between Karas and Bislane is never convincing and seems to have been thrown in simply to inject some James Bond frisson and the notion that Karas is somehow more than just grim crime-busting operative into a shallow plot and a one-dimensional main character. Likewise an unnecessary car chase is added into the story; the illogicality of such a car chase in a story and setting where surveillance is so pervasive that the chase could have been ended by the police before it began (a helicopter or a drone could have shot the runaway car from the air or forced it to stop by hacking into its electronics) needs to be overlooked for the cheap thrill the ruse adds. It’s as if director Volckman and his script-writers couldn’t trust the premise of a panopticon police-state Paris enough to allow the story to develop naturally and suggest its own narrative that could intrigue their audience and make viewers aware of their guilty pleasure as complicit with those overseeing the city and its life; and instead forced the sci-fi vision into a lame thriller plot in the belief that the public will prefer the familiar and the generic over the innovative, the unusual and the experimental. What an insult to the public’s intelligence!

The plot, shorn of its unnecessary convolutions, and the animation would have worked well enough together for a shorter film and the twist ending, when it comes, would have made much more of an impact. As it is, the film becomes something of a torture to sit through as it limps to its resolution and perceptive viewers might guess that both hero and kidnap victim receive very unpleasant shocks when they meet. Somewhere along the way, the film’s message – that life with all its highs and lows only has meaning when ended by death – ends up being submerged by too many clichés.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

Whistle: a bland and modest sci-fi thriller that saves its killer punch for the last

Duncan Jones, “Whistle” (2002)

“Moon” director Duncan Jones’ first feature is a 29-minute short that initially looks bland and banal, and moves slowly in its first half, but which packs a punch in its last couple of minutes. The plot turns on the stereotype of the hitman with a conscience who tries to help the family or friend of his last victim. (The classic example of a film based on this stereotype is John Woo’s “The Killer”.) In Jones’ version, Brian (Dominic Mafham) has just moved his family to a bucolic neighbourhood in Switzerland, and though he and young son Michael (Charlie Hicks) enjoy the scenery and the fresh bracing mountain air, his wife (Sarah Winman) isn’t all that impressed with the weather and the dairy cows with their tinkly bells, and lets everyone within earshot know. The film spends a considerable amount of time detailing Brian and Michael’s close relationship, whether cycling together into town or agreeing to go up to a mountain glacier with a group of other people. Father and son’s relationship contrasts very strongly to their rather more distant relationships with the significant woman in their lives. (Since Jones wrote the script, one wonders if the family dysfunctionality might be based on his own experiences with his parents.)

But Brian also has to work and from time to time he receives orders from his employer’s agent to take out undesirable people with the drone machine mounted on the balcony of his new home. Each time he receives an assignment, Brian seems to have a premonition of how well or badly the job will go, and becomes very tetchy, even depressed, so the agent also has to phone the missus to make sure Brian does as he is told to do. One day he is lining his sights on a man known as Estrada in London, and lets fly a drone with his finger on the remote … but as the missile flies unerringly towards the target, Estrada reaches out to his own young son, and Brian cannot undo what he has just unleashed …

Guilt-stricken after the successful strike, Brian evades his wife to travel to London to meet the victim’s wife but after the cabbie has picked him up from Heathrow or Gatwick and taken him to the area where the Estradas live, Brian is in for an even more unpleasant shock when he meets a stranger …

The clear  pictures of beautiful postcard scenery in Switzerland where the family lives turn are a clever device to lull us into a false sense of security about Brian, his wife and their child, that disguises the sordid reality of the work that sustains them all and enables them to live comfortably in a way others would envy. The scenes where Brian tracks his victims and releases the missile which then efficiently delivers its payload provide the clinical and sharp technological edge and cold sci-fi thriller aspect. Apart from this, the acting is very much so-so and the characters remain flat and one-dimensional. The wife comes across as something of the villain of the piece, a thoroughly amoral bitch as well as Brian’s cold-blooded minder for the employer whose nature remains unknown. The music soundtrack is very good, even outstanding in parts (especially near the beginning).

There is a message about taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences they cause, which underlies the devastating impact of the climax when Brian attempts to contact Mrs Estrada and comes face to face with the person he least expected to see. At this point the film ends on a cliffhanger note and we are not sure if Brian will come away from this encounter well … or even if he comes away from it at all. His family is potentially in danger as a result of his rash actions. I’d have liked the film to have lasted a bit longer and not to have cut out so abruptly but that might have diminished the shock of the realisation of who Brian’s victim really was.

Apart from the underlying message which adds gravitas to an otherwise undistinguished film, “Whistle” is a modest little first effort made on a tight budget that might not suit most audiences but is worth checking out by fans of Duncan Jones’ work.