Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City: a snapshot of a city in shock and uncertainty

Graham Phillips, “Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City” (July 2018)

In late July, British journalist / film-maker Graham Phillips spent time in Salisbury in southern England to speak to local people on their opinions of the ongoing police investigation into the purported poisoning of the Russian-born British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal by Novichok nerve agent at a park in the middle of the city. As of this time of writing (early August 2018), the whereabouts of the Skripals remain unknown after their release from Salisbury District Hospital in May. Since then a couple, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, have also been poisoned, apparently by Novichok which Rowley found in a well-packaged perfume bottle left at a park in Amesbury, a small city not far from both Salisbury and the Porton Down military defence laboratory, a place notorious for various experiments involving the use of VX nerve gas during the 1950s. Sturgess died in hospital and her body was cremated just recently. Despite constant assertions by the British government and news media that Novichok was the toxin involved in both poisoning events and that Russia has to be responsible for sending or allowing this toxin to be used in Salisbury and Amesbury, the British authorities have not offered any evidence or established a clear chain of custody linking the poisonings to either the Russian government or Russian crime gangs.

In this video and also in this one on his Salisbury trip, Phillips travels by train from London to the city (noting the sizable train fare of 35 pounds) and walks through the streets to the local branch of Zizzi’s Restaurant, a restaurant franchise network with outlets throughout the UK and in some cities overseas. Zizzi’s in Salisbury is one of a number of places Sergei and Julia Skripal visited in the city in the crucial hours of Sunday 4 March 2018 before they were found unconscious and convulsing on a park bench in the shopping mall. The two are known to have ordered seafood risotto meals at Zizzi’s and to have fussed noisily when the dishes were late in coming out to their table.

Phillips sees that Zizzi’s is still closed with hoardings placed in front and guarded by two security guards. He hovers close by and starts talking to pedestrians. Most people refuse to talk about what they know (or don’t know) about the Skripals and only two gentlemen aged 50+ years offer what they know of the couple and the poisoning. Interestingly both doubt the official British government and news media versions of what happened, perhaps because in the weeks following the incident, the story of how the Skripals were poisoned and how the Novichok reached Britain kept changing from one day to the next. Fanciful tales about the Novichok being inserted through the air-conditioning system of the Skripal family car to a friend of Julia’s bringing a packet of buckwheat cereal contaminated with the stuff from Moscow on a late plane, to Julia herself carrying a perfume bottle of Novichok given her by her prospective mother-in-law flew, and finally to the toxin being applied in a gel-like form to the doorknob of the Skripal family home by a secret hit squad from Russia flew about. In the meantime, a police detective also fell victim to Novichok, was hospitalised, treated and released (to an unknown location); the Skripal house was sealed off (later to be bought by the UK government); and the Skripal family pets either starved to death or were so malnourished from starvation that when eventually found were put to sleep. The animals were later incinerated (along with the Zizzi’s Restaurant table that the Skripals dined upon and the famous park bench) at Porton Down without any autopsying done. Indeed, with the recent cremation of Sturgess, the British government seems anxious to get rid of what should be considered forensic evidence for a possible inquest or trial on what happened to the Skripals, Sturgess and her partner.

Looking for more obliging interviewees, Phillips wanders around Salisbury and comes across the park where the Skripals collapsed. Originally cordoned off by police after the Skripals had been taken to hospital, the park is now surrounded by huge advertising hoardings urging Salisbury residents and tourists to keep calm and keep visiting and shopping. A woman feeding pigeons informs him that the park bench has been removed but Phillips does not follow up asking her or anyone else what happened to it. Phillips walks back to the shopping centre and passes The Mill pub where the Skripals had drinks after lunch on the fateful day.

In all, with the amount of time Phillips has spent pounding the pavement trying to find people willing to offer their views on the poisoning incident or on the UK news media coverage of the same, he gets very few responses, and those mostly from people of an age who might figure they’ve now got nothing to lose by talking. The level of knowledge the respondents have about the incident is vague, given that they live in the city or its surrounds, and the general attitude seems to be one of indifference and apathy.

With the camera bouncing up and down constantly and whizzing about, viewers can feel a bit queasy; this video has not been edited for length. As we follow Phillips about, gaining a close view of his surroundings, we see a city trying desperately to regain a sense of normalcy and not coping very well with its newfound notoriety: several shops have shut down, awaiting new owners and businesses with an air of desolation; there are not many tourists in the city for the time of year (July 2018); people keep their heads down, their faces shuttered; and in some parts of the city, a certain melancholy is present. While the urban landscape is neat and clean, and the park is well kept, a sense of unease seems to be present.

He might not have found the answers he was looking for but in this video Phillips has captured a snapshot of a city teetering on the verge of psychological depression. Unless the British authorities offer definitive evidence and answers as to what poisoned the Skripals, who poisoned them and the motive behind the poisoning, and above all admit to where the Skripals have been removed, Salisbury will continue to suffer in silence.

A devious history of chemical and biological weapons on “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” that stops short of serious criticism

Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)

In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.

As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.

While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.

A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.

 

The Bookshop: one-dimensional characters and a pedestrian plot in a kitsch provincial English setting

Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” (2017)

Directed by a Catalan-Spanish director, this film exudes provincial English kitsch in its setting, its stereotyped and sometimes frosty characters, and its plot which often jumps ahead of itself and features some unexpected twists and turns. The film appears to be quite faithful to the source novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) fulfills a long-held dream to open her own bookshop in the seaside village of Hardborough in Suffolk. The bookshop is located in a historic building known as The Old House (after which the bookshop is named) which had previously been idle for several years due to apparent problems with damp and a supposed ghost infestation. After overcoming various obstacles – one of which is local wealthy socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who desires to open an arts centre in The Old House – Green finally starts her business. Employing 13-year-old schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) in the weekday afternoons and Saturdays, Green makes quite a splash among the villagers, especially as she stocks eyebrow raisers like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the recently released “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Reclusive Edward Brundish (Bill Nighy), living at the top of a hill, becomes Green’s best customer and friend who starts inviting her for afternoon tea on a regular basis.

After some months, a rival bookshop opens in a former fish-and-chips shop and school inspectors pull Christine away Green’s employ for being under-age. From this point on, Green’s business starts to suffer, especially after Green takes on local louche layabout Milo North (James Lance) as assistant. The film hints that North may be colluding with Mrs Gamart to evict Green and seize The Old House building. Meanwhile Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a politician, sponsors a bill that enables local councils to buy historical buildings that have not been inhabited for more than five years. The bill passes and the council that governs Hardborough buys out Green and she is forced to leave the village.

While the acting is very good if restrained, few characters have much to do and the plot is very pedestrian. Characters are one-dimensional and viewers are hard put to decide why Green should have chosen a place like Hardborough to set up her shop as there is little distinctive about the postcard-pretty village or its inhabitants. An opportunity for Coixet to show how parochial or hostile the villagers might have been towards Green initially, then perhaps slowly to defend her against Mrs Gamart’s machinations as they realise that Green’s bookshop is the only business that makes their village stand out from all the other seaside villages in Suffolk, that could have given the film and its characters more spine, is missed. A later twist in which Green discovers that the later admiration from the villagers for her courage and stubborn resistance and then support, then collapses when Mrs Gamart persuades some, maybe most, of the villagers to betray her, could have been the film’s climax after which (spoiler alert) Green finally admits defeat and leaves Hardborough.

After nearly a year of running her bookshop, Green appears not to understand Hardborough and its people no more than she first did when she came to the place, and while viewers get plenty of clues throughout the film that, for all her kindness, honesty and braveness, Green is ignorant of events occurring around her, still audiences will wonder how such a capable woman couldn’t have seen what was going on and tried to sound out people for news of Mrs Gamart’s machinations.

Ultimately what the film suggests is that courage, early success and the support of a few well-meaning people of integrity like Brundish are not enough against the combination of money, higher social standing, political connections and the indifference of a community, many of whose members may be jealous of Green. That a village might need a bookshop unfortunately is not the same as wanting a bookshop if its inhabitants are suspicious of reading and what it may represent: new ideas, change, a threat to their settled and predictable lives, the possibility that their world may be invaded and eventually absorbed into a bigger, more impersonal universe.

The English class system and the social hierarchy and attitudes it breeds in upper and lower classes alike could have had a bollocking here but Coixet chooses to ignore and avoid this particular proverbial elephant in the room. As a result the film feels small and not a little stale – in short, it feels much like the village it subtly criticises.

 

A narrow, personal focus in “The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” does little justice to two ill-fated personalities of Russian history

“The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” (2017)

A lavish two-part series revolving around the letters that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra, this documentary explores the theme of how two individuals’ love for each other is so consuming that they end up isolating themselves from everyday affairs and in so doing, condemn themselves and their children to untimely (and brutally violent) deaths and the Russian empire to instability and chaos. While this series can be highly informative about the Romanov couple and the people associated with them (notably the self-proclaimed holy man and mystic Grigory Rasputin), it is weak in placing them in the wider political context of the last decades of Imperial Russia, and in the relationship of the position of tsar and the Russian imperial family in the empire’s politics and society. Anyone wanting to know more about how the last tsar and tsarina were so unsuited for the roles they inherited and should have been prepared for, and how Russian society changed so much in the late 19th century that it left imperial political institutions behind in the dust – leaving Nicholas II and Alexandra even more superfluous – will be left wanting by this series, in some ways as much divorced from the wider political historical context of Imperial Russia as the hapless last Romanov emperor and his family were.

Narrator historian Suzannah Lipscomb, cutting an unforgettably glamorous figure with flowing wavy blonde locks and fur-collared scarlet jacket, does a capable job investigating the private lives of the tsar and tsarina from the time they meet in 1884 all the way to their awful deaths in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Lipscomb is aided by other historians who emphasise the characters of both Nicholas II and Alexandra as instrumental to their relationship, which seems at times to have been quite shallow in its constant and almost suffocating infatuation, even given the fact that at the time people writing personal letters to each other could be melodramatic in expression, and in particular their beliefs and weaknesses which made them unpopular with most sections of Russian society. Nicholas II seems to have been easily dominated by Alexandra, a strong, forceful but credulous woman; he clearly was not born to be a leader, much less a leader of one of the world’s largest empires and one undergoing vast social changes that were bound to generate unrest and desire for political, economic and social reforms among the people and in turn place great political pressures on the Imperial government and on Nicholas II himself, in particular on his choice of ministers and other advisors. In this, the tsar made disastrous choices in relying on his wife and the most senior ministers such as Plehve and Pobedonostsev who met public demands for political reform with repression and violence.

The documentary’s narrative style is restrained in contrast to the romantic melodrama of the Tsar and his wife’s letters, several of which are read out by off-screen voice actors. The characters of Nicholas II and Alexandra alone suffice to convey the autocratic and introverted character of the Russian monarchy and its remoteness from most of contemporary Russian society at the time. Surprisingly there is very little information about how the couple brought up their children, apart from the understandably close and often obsessive attention Alexandra gave to Alexei, the only son and a haemophiliac to boot. Reading Internet sources enables one to discover that Nicholas II and Alexandra were devoted parents, in many ways even model and quite progressive parents, to their five children but one shouldn’t have had to trawl Google outside the documentary to find this information, given its subject matter and range.

Where the documentary really falls down though is in not considering how the backgrounds and education of the doomed Romanov couple contributed to their characters and the flaws in them, and how all these factors might have led to their unpopularity with the Russian people and their consequent withdrawal and isolation from society to focus obsessively on their relationship and their children. Alexandra’s reliance on Rasputin says much about the couple’s lack of education, their naivety and inability to cope with the pressures and expectations imposed on them by the institution of monarchy and the competing forces of modernisation in Russian society. In some ways, Nicholas II and Alexandra are not to be faulted for having been brought up by their respective families to have a conservative view of monarchy and its role in society, and of their particular roles as Tsar and Tsarina, divinely appointed to ensure stability and to lead and guide the Russian people, gently at times but firmly – very firmly, to the extent of using punishment and violence – away from modern attitudes and demands for democracy and reform. Had the documentary laid more emphasis on the conflicting social and political demands made on the last Romanov emperor and his wife, viewers might come away with a more sympathetic opinion of them.

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

Lady Macbeth: a disturbing character study told in a minimalist, understated style

William Oldroyd, “Lady Macbeth” (2016)

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, this character study investigates how an apparently demure young woman becomes a psychopath in a context where differences of class and race, rigid social expectations of women, and repressed emotions and desires intersect. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold by her family into a loveless and barren marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man far older than herself. She and Alexander go to live at his father Boris’s country estate in Scotland where the old crotchety fellow forces Katherine to wait up for her husband at all hours regardless of her own needs and forbids her from leaving the house. Boris (Christopher Fairbank) condemns Katherine for being childless even though her husband is so sexually repressed that all he can do is masturbate while looking at the back of her naked body. Katherine is forced to spend her days being bored and sleeping long days which leaves her tired.

Unexpectedly an accident occurs on the estate, forcing Boris and Alexander to leave the house (never fully seen from the outside) which means for the first time Katherine is in charge. She discovers the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) being beaten by the farmhands and is attracted to the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Before long, Katherine and Sebastian have begun an affair and Katherine’s new-found lust and longing for Sebastian leads her onto a dark and disturbing path of lies and murder: first, Boris is despatched with poison and then Alexander is bludgeoned to death. Later, a woman and a child claiming to be Alexander’s legitimate heirs – the child supposedly being a result of an affair the woman had with Alexander – arrive and settle in the house. The child’s presence unsettles Sebastian and he forces Katherine to choose between him and the boy. Katherine’s decision and subsequent actions, and Sebastian’s remorse at the role he plays bring the pair into conflict with each other and with the wider society, with tragic consequences for both.

Nearly all the action takes place in the country estate house, the bare furnishings of which emphasise the bleak and oppressive isolation that surrounds Katherine, Sebastian and Anna. Boris and Alexander may go early on but their baleful influence survives in Katherine’s misuse of her freedom and power as one murder leads to another and another. The lies and subterfuges pile up as well until an innocent person is taken away along with a murderer, both presumably to be hanged by police. Katherine finally obtains absolute freedom and power but at the cost of cutting herself from human society forever; how she will survive on her own is anyone’s guess.

For all her youth, Pugh delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance as the put-upon victim who becomes cruel and ruthless in order to free herself from the control of the men who rule her. The message one might take away from Katherine’s actions is a depressing one: to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where violence is always simmering under a placid surface, one needs to be equally selfish, brutal and amoral. Viewers are confronted with the choice of either cheering Pugh on as she upends a hierarchy based on oppressing women and the peasant classes, or condemning her for her crimes and blatant lies that will send an innocent woman to her death. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Pugh and their performances are average to good though Ackie deserves mention as the unfortunate maid who loses her voice after Boris and Alexander are killed.

Oldroyd’s direction emphasises ambience, mood and plot with many scenes lacking dialogue: the result is an almost Gothic film of people forced to make choices and confront the consequences of these choices in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Despite its short length, the film does seem rather long perhaps due to the plot’s predictable nature and the film’s minimalist style which extends to the plot itself in its second half. At this point also the plot changes significantly from the novel’s original plot (in which Katherine was convicted and imprisoned) to stress Katherine’s growing freedom and power, even as she is increasingly ostracised by the wider community. The cinematography is very good with scenes framed as though they are paintings.

The film is interesting as a study of how people are forced to cope under pressure from unenviable forces of bullying and isolation, but may not bear up under even a few repeat views.

Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett: an impassioned and informative talk on the Syrian war and Western news media distortions of that war

“Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett” (London, 31 January 2018)

Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett was invited to speak at an anti-war protest meeting in London about her experiences in Syria in investigating and documenting events of the Syrian war, interviewing people there about their experiences and what they had witnessed, and demonstrating through her own first-hand experiences and the experiences of Syrians the extent of the disinformation and propaganda propagated by Western news media outlets. This meeting was part of a tour she undertook across Britain and Ireland focusing on media propaganda and lies about the war, and the deliberate falsification of reports on the war’s duration according to a framework and agenda portraying the war as a civil war between the Syrian government and domestic rebel opposition. The ultimate aim of such media propaganda and falsehoods is to foment public support across the globe for Western invasion and intervention in Syria including the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by a government or foreign occupation. In turn, Western occupation of Syria aims to steal the country’s natural resources, in particular its energy resources, and to use Syrian territory as a base for terrorists to penetrate and destabilise other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

A large part of Bartlett’s talk consisted of first-hand anecdotes of her experiences in Syria and the stories of the people she met in various cities and towns in Syria, including Aleppo and Homs: cities and towns that had been held or partly held by jihadists and bombed by them as well. She described her experiences of applying for and obtaining a visa to visit Syria and how freely she was able to move around the country (though usually with an escort for her safety) and interview individuals and groups of people. Contrary to Western news media perceptions, Bartlett has never been funded by the Russian government but is entirely self-supporting. Bartlett did not say a great deal about the type of society that exists in Syria or existed in the country before 2011 when the war broke out, apart from mentioning that people of different Islamic denominations did marry and that there was much less religious sectarianism in Syria than the Western mainstream news media made out. Free healthcare and education existed, as in Libya before 2011, and there was enthusiasm for political change. However the thirst for political revolution was absent across the country.

Bartlett described how the war initially began with small protests in Dar’aa in the south of the country that escalated into violence with the arrival of jihadists in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.

A theme constantly running through Bartlett’s talk is Western news media distortion of events in Syria and of the stories Syrian people themselves tell of their experiences. Massacres committed by jihadis were attributed to the Syrian government. Where the Syrian Arab Army was driving out jihadis from Aleppo or other parts of Syria, the SAA’s actions were described as brutal war crimes against civilians. Where jihadis were deliberately withholding food aid from civilians in eastern Aleppo, causing them to become malnourished and starving, Western news media instead claimed that the Syrian government was starving the people. In addition, Western news media concentrated on the fate of people in areas held by jihadis and portrayed them as being harassed and bombed constantly by Syrian and Russian fighter jets, to the exclusion of people in government-held areas harassed by jihadi actions. The fictional humanitarian aid group the White Helmets – whose members are drawn from various jihadi groups – is portrayed by Western media as heroes risking their lives to pull children out of bombed buildings. Bartlett concluded this part of her talk by praising the Syrian people’s resilience and steadfast determination in resisting the jihadis.

The last 15 minutes of Bartlett’s talk focused on Bartlett’s week-long visit to North Korea and that country’s quest for security to the extent of being secretive and paranoid, particularly during the periods (which occur twice every year) when the US and South Korea conduct war exercises in which they practise invading North Korea.

Bartlett’s talk was not very structured though she stuck to the topics, on which she had plenty of anecdotes and facts at hand. Over fifty minutes her monologue was interesting and riveting, and at no time during her talk did I ever get bored. While she was happy to take questions during her talk, only one or two people actually interrupted her, and only to confirm what she was saying or to get more clarification.

While Bartlett is highly informative, her talk included very few visual aids and viewers who want a timeline of events in Syria’s war against Western-aided jihadis and extremists need to go elsewhere in alternative news media to get the information that puts Bartlett’s talk into a proper global historical and geopolitical context, in which Syria is one of a number of countries targeted by the West for regime change and exploitation.

The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome  by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.

 

The Phantom Thread: best viewed as a comedy romance that turns into a tedious and repetitive ordeal

Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Phantom Thread” (2017)

If viewed as a comedy romance about a successful narcissist couturier who aspires to be part of the upper class, along with his sister (who is outwardly submissive but just as ambitious and domineering in managing his business), and who falls in lust with a working-class waitress who ends up extracting as much as she can out of him and the sister for herself, in the confining social culture that is mid-1950s London high society, this film is quite clever satire. There is an insinuation that for all its preening, its careful attention to detail and outward appearance, the social layer which dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) believes he’s part of is as empty of human feeling and warmth, and as self-obsessed as he is. For all that though, the film itself falls into the same trap of worshipping nuance and the result is an overly long work that wastes its actors’ talent in a thin and hollow plot that ends up repeating itself.

Woodcock (jeez, what a name!) is a fussy and snooty middle-aged dressmaker of fixed habits and routines who, as usual, is overwhelmed by overwork (not unexpected, given his need for obsessive control over his creations) and must take a short holiday in the countryside for some nooky. He meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), at a cafe and decides to seduce her. He sweeps her up in a round of wining and dining and compulsively takes her dress measurements. Before long, she becomes his latest plaything. Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a mother-replacement figure who just as obsessively manages his business and household, is initially miffed at Alma’s manners and tries to lecture the younger woman on how to conduct herself. Alma, though genuinely in love with the much older man, has ambitions of becoming his equal in love and business, and resorts to taking extreme measures, at the risk of killing Woodcock and getting into trouble for murder, to force Woodcock to see and appreciate her as a person with her own mind.

While the cinematography is beautiful and crisp, the piano music soundtrack (perhaps the best feature of the film) is flowing and transports viewers into a very different time and place, and the acting is very good, all these elements cannot make up for a thinly stretched plot about three people, at least two of whom are control freaks and potentially sociopathic, and the other using subterfuge and possibly fatal means to exert her own form of control, stuck in a dysfunctional relationship out of which there appears no means of escape. All three are dependent on one another in some way and all three distort and are distorted by the power and control they exercise. Alma becomes as much of a bitch as Woodcock is a brute but whether she is a cunning woman by nature or becomes so because of the weird circumstances she has been thrust into is not clear.

The result is a film which at first begins brightly and flows quickly into developing Woodcock and Alma’s relationship and explores Woodcock’s psychology through his work and the daily breakfast-table spats; but which eventually becomes tedious and gruelling through sheer repetition and a loss of focus. Woodcock’s character becomes physically as well as mentally haggard as Alma gradually exploits her control over him and starts to control his body and health through serving him poisonous mushrooms in his meals, just as he has tried to control her body by dressing her in expensive and flattering gowns. There is no hint of character development though Woodcock himself eventually realises what Alma is doing to him.

While the film is set in mid-fifties London, there is (deliberately so) no hint that the outside world makes much impression on the Woodcock household, and the characters seem so removed from reality that Alma appears not to realise that the doctor she confides in could report her to police. The doctor himself seems so stunned by her story – the whole film is built around the framework of Alma confessing her misdeeds to the doctor – that viewers can guess he will not turn the young woman in to authorities. It seems that the rich really do live on another planet after all, making their own rules to suit themselves and indulging in empty material enjoyments, at the cost of their own mental and emotional health.