Coriolanus: an examination of a simple man and his place in a duplicitous and corrupt society

Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” (2011)

When I was 28 years of age, a mysterious Shakespeare-reading frenzy seized me and before I knew what I was doing, I had raced through The Big Four Tragedies, a number of Roman plays, a fair few histories and three twilight-career comedies. Of the four Roman plays I read, “Coriolanus” impressed me the most for its terse, severe language and imagery, and its larger-than-life hero whose fault is to be simple and honest to himself in a society that demands he be a duplicitous and morally corrupt career politician. Caius Martius Coriolanus starts off as a soldier, pure in spirit, wishing only to defend his country in war against the Volscian enemy and rising rapidly to the highest position and honour in his native Rome. Now Rome wants to make him a consul but to do this, Coriolanus must defer to the masses and win their approval. A natural elitist who despises the Great Unwashed because they are soft, lazy and capricious where he is hard, diligent and true to his narrow morality, Coriolanus is manipulated by two wily tribunes Brutus and Sicinius into losing his temper publicly and letting fly what he really thinks of the public. The tribunes brand Coriolanus a traitor, Rome agrees and Coriolanus is forced to go into exile.

He teams up with his Volscian enemy, led by Tullius Aufidius, and before long these barbarians are at the gates of Rome with Coriolanus leading the invasion charge. Rome sends two emissaries to beg and bargain with Coriolanus but he is unmoved. Finally his mum Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, the maid Valeria and Coriolanus junior make a personal appeal to our man; Volumnia delivers such an emotional speech that Coriolanus relents and calls off the invasion. Rome and the Volscians make peace but Coriolanus ends up tarnished as a double traitor to the countries he has served and there is only one avenue left for him … death.

In Ralph Fiennes’s film, the action moves from ancient Rome to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s break-up. Rome is presented as an unidentified Western state, vaguely British with a multicultural population; the Volscians resemble South Slavs in Dalmatia. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying Coriolanus’s hard-man personality and the child-like inner man whose honesty betrays him. A major theme of “Coriolanus” is the homoerotic bromance that exists between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler): one fully expects Aufidius to plant a big wet smacker on Coriolanus’s lips with his own in three significant scenes. Enemy soldiers equally matched who have met several times have more in common with each other than with their own families and people, it seems. Unfortunately once Coriolanus throws his lot in with the Volscians, the relationship between him and Aufidius becomes unbalanced, Coriolanus becomes a star within the Volscian army, and Aufidius understandably feels jealous at the attention his soulmate gets. For they are soulmates of a kind familiar to those who know Shakespeare well: the man of soul (Coriolanus), perfect in most ways except for one flaw that becomes his downfall, up against the man of practicality (Aufidius) who lacks that inner sensitivity and who survives at the expense of his mirror twin but is overshadowed and tarnished by the twin’s death.

The support cast varies from good to great: Butler’s Aufidius and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia pass muster while Vanessa Redgrave nearly steals the show as the harpy mother Volumnia. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother is another significant theme: Volumnia seems more in love with war and blood-letting than the son. Is it possible that Coriolanus was driven to be a soldier to please his mother? If Coriolanus had not had Volumnia as his mum, would he have chosen another career instead and become a more balanced, mature man? Is he the replacement for the husband Volumnia once had? Why does Volumnia live through her son and dominate him so much? What might their relationship say about military men and their mothers? Many apparently patriarchal and macho societies throughout the world are distinguished by deep relationships between sons and their mothers: Japan, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are such societies. It is known that ancient Spartan men were extremely close to their mothers who supposedly told their sons that if they went to war, they should either come back totally victorious or return dead on their shields; so Sparta is another candidate society albeit a past one. Fortunately Redgrave plays Volumnia in a way that demonstrates the woman’s deranged nature without making her look camp.

I have some misgivings about the film’s time and place for “Coriolanus”: the period of Yugoslavia’s break-up and the war that raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia generated so much misinformation, propaganda and lies about what really happened there that film-makers who want to make films in that setting are treading in a dangerous mine-field of assumptions and expectations that can easily blow apart. As seems to be the practice with modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, emphasis is placed on the news media channel Fidelis TV (ha!) as a character in itself, relaying urgent news (and spreading propaganda) about Coriolanus and his doings, and helping to damn Coriolanus in the eyes and ears of Romans. The two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are shown co-operating with two young revolutionary leaders which raises the issue of how much radical youth movements are actually manipulated by cynical politicians; with knowledge that the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy has been abetting so-called “progressive” or “liberal” groups in countries as varied as Serbia in the 1990s, Ukraine, Gruziya (Georgia), Iran during the 2009 Presidential elections, Egypt and Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012, I consider this issue a very pertinent one indeed.

Not all of Shakespeare’s original play made it into the film and I rather think the film does itself a disservice by omitting Aufidius’s final speech when he realises that he has lost his soul brother. Overall the film does a very good job recreating the martial spirit and ambience of the original play and treating some if not all its themes: the class divide, crowd psychology and how people can be manipulated, the issue of public reputation versus the private reality, gender roles and expectations, and the place of an individual in a changing society whose expectations of him / her shift permanently and for which s/he may be ill-equipped to meet.


The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines): the rise of consumerism, passivity and other anti-democratic forces

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines)” (2002)

Finally after much nagging by a friend in London, I got around to watching Adam Curtis’s documentary series “The Century of the Self”, or its first episode at least. For Curtis, this is a relatively straightforward account of the career of American public relations man Edward Bernays and how he used his German psychoanalyst uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas and theories on human consciousness and unconsciousness to manipulate the public and its desires in business, economics and politics. Bernays’s career is firmly grounded in the context of post-WW1 society and political, environmental and cultural developments therein; a major issue in the documentary is the way in which governments in the United States and Germany, and American corporations in the 1930s used Bernays’s ideas and techniques to control the public and its desires and needs for their own ends.

Less whimsical than many of his other documentaries, and with a more urgent narrative style from AC himself, the film details Bernays’s belief that people are essentially irrational and subject to desires they do not understand or can control and it is up to others like himself to take over that control. Many ideas and concepts that are now established in marketing practice were innovations of Bernays’s: product placement in films, press releases, appeals to individuality, the use of third parties such as “independent experts” to promote products, celebrity endorsements and identifying leaders or perceived leaders in groups and networks as people who can convince others to follow their example in buying products. Through Bernays, corporations shifted from promoting the utility of products to emphasising their desirability and studying buyers’ vulnerabilities as a means to convince people they need the products. Rational citizens are transformed into passive consumers who can be told what they want and manipulated into believing they need something when they don’t.

Freud’s ideas about human psychology percolate into government and corporations in other ways in the 1920s – 1930s: if people are basically irrational and ruled by desire, it follows therefore that democracy will be ineffective as it relies on people being rational. From this point on, governments and corporations start to hire psychologists to pinpoint how crowds work with a view to shaping public opinion and thus behaviour. Incredibly, in the 1930s after the advent of the Great Depression leads to the rise of fascist and other similar anti-democratic forces in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the German government under Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and then Reichsfuhrer starts using Bernays’s work to take over business corporations and to control the German people’s feelings and desires and channel them into acts of nationalism and patriotism. Such acts also include scapegoating undesirable groups in society such as homosexuals and Jewish people. At the same time President Franklin D Roosevelt, believing in humans as essentially decent and rational thinkers, introduces his New Deal policies which invest heavily in new industrial and infrastructure development projects and rely on George Gallup’s opinion and popularity polls as a gauge of public approval of such projects. American business corporations, alarmed at FDR’s success with the public, begin a counter-attack, again employing Bernays, to convince the public that democracy and capitalism are synonymous and one can’t work without the other.

In the meantime Freud grows pessimistic about human nature as the Nazis increasingly control people’s lives in so many areas – work, school, health, use of media, policing – and frantic about his and his family’s future in a Germany becoming more hostile to Jewish people. Through a friend with connections to the British government, Freud and his family flee to London in 1938 where not long afterwards Freud dies from cancer.

The film flows smoothly and efficiently with little annoying and distracting kitsch music and it’s only really at the end when an excerpt from Raymond Scott’s trilogy of “Soothing Sounds for Babies” starts tinkling in the film’s coda that I realise I hadn’t heard anything else other than AC’s voice and those of his interviewees. Oh, there is music but definitely very unobtrusive music at that. Old archival film, splices of popular movies including “The Wizard of Oz” and shots of people interviewed make for quite an engaging film.

At the centre of this film and, I suspect, the other films in “The Century of the Self” series is a tussle between those ideologies and beliefs that posit that people are at the mercy of inner drives and emotions they can’t understand and control, and which must be controlled and directed closely by the State or corporations on the one hand, and on the other belief systems that hold that people are decent, rational and are able to exercise self-control and discipline, and can be trusted to govern themselves fairly without interference from others. The State as represented by FDR is an entity that believes in people’s rationality and ultimately in democracy; the State as represented by Adolf Hitler and American business corporations believe that people are unable to exercise rational behaviour and must be treated as passive empty vessels to be filled with corporate fascist beliefs. In FDR’s state, positive freedom becomes possible; in Adolf Hitler’s state, no freedom is possible; in the state governed by Bernays’s ideas, corporations sell the illusion of negative freedom.


Caution, propaganda at work in “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?”

Annabel Gillings, “Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?” (2011)

Eminently likeable scientist-presenter Jim al-Khalili goes on a trip to Fukushima – the infamous site where three nuclear reactors suffered explosions and the release of radiation after being hit by earthquake tremors and tsunami waves in March 2011 – to get a first-hand look at what happened there and how bad the disaster was, to find out how local people are coping with its aftermath and to consider the likely long-term consequences it has for Japan’s future energy policy, in this BBC documentary. Acting as a reassuring presence for viewers, al-Khalili presents the case that nuclear power is much safer than people think and that the long-term effect on public health from the Fukushima incident, based on what is so far known from the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion on people in Ukraine, is likely to be more harmless than harmful. He briefly considers the possibility of thorium instead of uranium as the fuel for nuclear reactors, referring to 1950s pioneer Alan Weinberg in this area, and concludes that the Fukushima accident should not stop governments from considering nuclear energy as an alternative source of energy to fossil fuels in an age in which climate change and Peak Oil are very pressing problems.

Yours truly had the feeling that this documentary was carefully constructed so as not to step on sensitive toes and that information favourable to the nuclear energy industry was selected for the program. The fact that al-Khalili, who admits up-front that he is a professor in nuclear physics, was chosen as narrator and to visit Japan and Ukraine as an investigative reporter to give the documentary an immediate current affairs look is suspicious; after all, he has a stake in wanting research and production of nuclear energy to continue. (He says he is a husband and a father as well in case our heart-strings need pulling.) He draws the viewer’s attention to the upheaval of residents in the areas surrounding the Fukushima plant and the ongoing trauma and stress they still suffer as though it were the evacuation itself and the separation of the residents from their homes and livelihoods that caused their distress, and not the Japanese government’s botched rescue and evacuation efforts and its incompetence in cleaning up the site and keeping people fully informed as to what it’s doing to solve the mess and ensure it never happens again.

Al-Khalili suggests that the design of the reactors contributed to the disaster; the reactors are the oldest and apparently the least modified of their kind, having been commissioned in the early 1970s. All other similar models of the Fukushima plant vintage in other countries have been decommissioned or updated. One would like to ask, why didn’t the Fukushima reactors get the same treatment as these others? If the Japanese government values nuclear energy that much, why did it allow Fukushima to go to pot? Perish the thought that the government values business and profit over safety and people’s well-being!

Al-Khalili’s remark that no-one died as a result of radiation exposure at Fukushima, compared to the 20,000 deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami, is breathtakingly naive given that the majority of radiation-linked deaths usually occur decades after the affected persons were exposed to the cause. No-one knows what the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident’s effect ultimately will be on the general public as there are many young people whose mothers there were exposed to radiation while pregnant with these youngsters and any radiation-linked diseases they are likely to get won’t develop until they are in their fifties and sixties; how will Fukushima be any different from Chernobyl? The film’s concentration also on thyroid cancers in children seems suspicious; might it be that thyroid cancers actually make up a small proportion of health problems caused by exposure to radiation? There is also the phenomenon known as the Piatkus effect in which low doses of radiation, especially if continuous and cumulative, can cause more cancers and other health problems than high doses of radiation do and this issue is ignored completely.

The section in the documentary where a young man is persuaded to film his moments in his abandoned home in the nuclear exclusion zone smacks of manipulation and cheap sensationalism. Al-Khalili’s apparent sympathy for residents of Fukushima and surrounding areas, forced to evacuate their homes and still living in uncertain limbo at the time the documentary was filmed is worked into an argument that ungrounded fears for their health, not the possibility of radiation-linked health effects, are responsible for prolonging the people’s misery and anxiety about their future health. Nothing is said about the Japanese government’s handling of the evacuation and of how badly it may have treated locals. The effect of al-Khalili’s suggestion that misguided humanitarianism is the cause of the evacuated residents’ anguish is to pit well-meaning do-gooders against the unfortunate refugees while absolving the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the firm responsible for operating and managing the Fukushima reactors, of responsibility for compensating the affected people so they can find new homes and jobs.

No consideration is given to investigating alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy – Japan does have hot springs which suggest that that potential exists – and the BBC documentary suggests Japan has no other choices of energy extraction. There is no consideration as to whether Japan has been living beyond its means or if its society even needs as much electricity as it has used in the past. Natural gas supplies could replace the use of electricity in some areas of industry, agriculture and household use. Buildings could be re-fitted and building standards changed to encourage energy conservation and efficiency. It can also be argued that heating water to create steam for electricity generation is a poor excuse for using nuclear power; geothermal or solar thermal energy could be used to heat water instead, or wind, solar (in the form of photovoltaic panels) or tidal power could be used to create electricity directly.

In all, this is not a very informative documentary. The focus is made so narrow that the film suspiciously comes across as propaganda for the nuclear energy industry. I am sorry that al-Khalili agreed or let himself be used to shill for nuclear energy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: potentially great movie struggling under weak sub-text and sketchy plot

Tomas Alfredsson, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011)

I’m too young to know the 1979 BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness but general critical consensus is that this movie adaptation compares well with that series. Alfredsson’s version shines mainly for its cast and its atmosphere of melancholy, tiredness and muted cynicism. Where it falters is in the mundane plot, of which much had to be pared away to the extent that the punch-line between protagonist George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and the villain of the piece seems hastily written in as an after-thought, and its heavy-handed treatment. The sub-text about loyalty and duty seems weak and underdone.

Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) get the sack from MI6 over a botched spy rendezvous in Hungary that nearly kills agent Prideaux (Mark Strong) and leaves him so shaken he leaves the service to live as a hermit in a ratchety caravan. This incident puts a quartet of senior agents in charge of MI6: these men have earned their stripes by obtaining secret Soviet papers under Operation Witchcraft and sharing these with the CIA who pass to the men supposedly bogus American intelligence to give to the Russians. Not long after, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate a claim by agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) that there is a high-placed traitor or mole in MI6 working for the Soviets. Tarr later turns up at Smiley’s house and proceeds to tell him everything he knows including the revelation that the mole is being handled by a top Soviet spymaster called Karla whom Smiley once met.

Smiley instructs an aide, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to steal a logbook relevant to their case and both men discover two vital pages are missing from it. Smiley then visits Prideaux and learns he had originally gone to Hungary to find the name of the MI6 mole under the pretence of doing something else for Control. After more snooping around, Smiley discovers the senior agents at the helm of MI6 have been passing valuable papers substituted by the mole for what they believe is worthless rubbish to Russian spy Polyakov (Konstantin Khabensky) under Operation Witchcraft; the Russians in their turn are passing garbage of their own to the British and the Americans. Eventually Smiley sets up a meeting at a safe house to capture the mole (Colin Firth) who is one of the four senior agents.

The plot is not difficult to follow but it is very slow and once viewers work it out (and some may be able to predict in advance who the mole is), the film settles into a sedate rut in which facial expressions and even the amount of moisture filling up in someone’s eyes close up are to be interpreted as giving away someone’s thoughts and feelings about something. (There is something Pythonesquely farcical about two enemy sides swapping rubbish for rubbish and both pretending the garbage they send is valuable stuff while falling for the garbage they receive: this points up how useless intelligence agencies were back in the days when the film was set and how even more useless such agencies are now in the age of the Internet.) Oldman is good as Smiley but his character becomes too authoritative too quickly and doesn’t have enough of the rat-like quality that I suspect the character should have (I haven’t yet read the book). His meetings with Tarr seem unreal, perhaps because Hardy portrays Tarr as a very earthy, working-class agent at the coal-face of spying while Oldman’s Smiley is remote and Olympian. The rest of the cast is good though individual actors like Firth don’t have much to do. There is some over-acting by individuals like Hurt but as they don’t appear in nearly every scene to the extent that Oldman does, this is a minor point.

Although the cinematography is good and often very beautiful, especially in scenes of grey sky and rain, and the film’s ambience is of drab, relentless grey mood, the pace isn’t always consistent: at times the film moves slowly, then all of a sudden, and especially towards the end, the movie starts racing through a sequence of efficient camera shots showing people being captured, arrested or killed, often from bird’s-eye points of view or similar slanted viewpoints. Would that there were more of these sequences in the film, especially for Tarr’s recounting of his affair with Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Alfredsson is a good director but his earnest approach burdens the film with more weight than it needs. The climax when it occurs is very fleeting and viewers may feel cheated that it’s not given the importance a climax should have although I’m of the view that if Smiley had suspected in advance who the mole was, then the climax doesn’t need much emphasis at all.

A message about loyalty and duty to ideals as opposed to Queen and Country is weakly developed: Firth’s character Haydon, when cornered, tells Smiley that he finds Western society “ugly” but doesn’t elaborate on what this means. There is an earlier scene in the film in which MI6 staff celebrate Christmas and a Santa figure begins singing an old Russian Communist tune; the entire staff joins in and Smiley runs out of the knees-up. What’s the meaning of this scene and how might it relate to Haydon’s later statement about Western society? Presumably viewers must intuit how British spies often found the Soviet socialist system a more attractive political / economic system than their own (and Smiley himself alludes to this idea while talking about Karla to Guillam). Perhaps the Soviet spies also wistfully glorified the capitalist system among themselves. It was often the case that British spies were estranged enough from their country’s values, politics, history and culture that they willingly agreed to be double agents but the film doesn’t attempt to explore this possibility as a plausible rationale for Haydon’s treachery and that of others, and so viewers are left to puzzle over why Haydon and other people might want to spy for the Russians when the penalty for betrayal might be extremely punitive. And of course if many British spies did feel alienated from their country’s culture, we must ask: why so many and what caused them to feel this way?

Not a bad film, indeed for its style and cast, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” gets more hits than misses but it could have been faster with fewer lingering shots of whiskey being poured into glasses and with as many of the significant characters as possible having a back-story relevant to the plot, even if it has to be sketchy. More emphasis could have been placed on Smiley’s marriage to Anne and its break-up as this was important to the plot. There was a great movie struggling to get out but it missed its chance by a hair’s breadth.



Ghostwatch: very funny hoax documentary that blurs reality and fiction, and raises issues about authenticity

Lesley Manning, “Ghostwatch” (1992)

Subject of a post on Adam Curtis’s BBC blog, this BBC hoax drama is quite a laugh to watch. Hard to believe that many adults were convinced this show was for real when it first broadcast in the UK in 1992; it’s understandable that children and teenagers would be taken in as the film looks fairly realistic overall and young people would not pick up the stagey quality of the production, evident in early small-crowd scenes around a house which have the look of something deliberately set up.

The show is in the form of a reality TV show of the same name as the hoax itself and features real-life TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene as respectively host of and reporter for the TV show. Greene leads a team of BBC reporters investigating suspect poltergeist activity at a London house – the investigation is shown live. Through the team’s investigations and interviews with the woman and her two daughters living in the house and with neighbours, viewers discover that the spirit menacing the family belongs to a disturbed man who himself is spooked by another spirit of a woman who once took in babies for wet-nursing and killed them.

The presentation and narrative are cleverly done in spite of the limited budget – the show includes a team of people receiving phone calls from viewers reporting sightings of the poltergeist in film clips of the children’s bedroom. Parkinson maintains a sceptical stand with regard to the paranormal occurrences while paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) plays the credulous paranormal researcher in the manner of The X-Files characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. Filming techniques using jerky hand-held cameras give the film an immediate newsreel feel. Current technology of the period including a thermographic camera and secret cameras, and motion and temperature sensors are emphasised throughout the film, making it look even morre realistic and impressive. (Which in itself says something about people’s faith in cutting-edge technology.) The sets look real if camp with Halloween slapstick decorations like a tarantula on one wall and ghost magnets on the kitchen cabinets. An American psychologist is consulted for his opinion on the ghost activity. At a critical point in the film, one of the children is exposed as generating some of the poltergeist activity which adds an interesting slant and a new tension to the film. The poltergeist decides to bring proceedings to a predictably hokey end by advancing all the way to the BBC studio where the reality TV show is being filmed and broadcast live.

The film touches on interesting issues such as puberty and neuroses affecting young teenage girls, children as innocent (or maybe not-so-innocent) channels for the supernatural, the struggle between belief and scepticism and the consequences of both, the effect of publicity and obsessive national attention on the girls who start playing up to the BBC cameras, and the deliberate blurring of reality and fantasy as the cheeky spirit finds a conduit through the BBC’s technology and travels to the very studio where Parkinson and the doctor are sitting; too late the good doctor realises that the entire show itself has been hijacked by the poltergeist who proceeds to trash the studio. This in itself brings up questions about the role of technology as a portal between the real world and the fantasy world which in earlier times was played by shamans, religious rituals or ouija boards played by Victorian-era party-goers high on mild ether: now folks can sit back passively and allow modern electronics gadgets to bring the spirit world to them. (The only problem is the gadgets and the spirits connive to hassle the owners in their own sweet time, not that of the humans!)

I thought the film lost its nerve by descending into conventional horror-film theatrics: lights blow out overhead in the “Ghostwatch” studio, a piece of filming equipment turns Dalek-feral and Parkinson doesn’t know what to do even after most of the cast has fled the studio. His dazed and mumbling presence which becomes pathetically infantile holds the final scenes together. On another level though I can see the conclusion is appropriate: believers in poltergeists and the worldview they represented are “raptured” into the spirit world (where they don’t find any comfort) – it’s interesting that Dr Pascoe is nowhere to be seen in the studio after the poltergeist whirlwind hits it – and sceptics like Parkinson are left on the material plane trying to make sense of the sudden chaos that’s hit them and just as quickly left them in a material void. The spirit invasion leaves believers in the rational teetering on the edge of insanity.

Acting was quite credible although the girls might have overplayed their parts (inevitable, since they would have had a lot of fun and encouragement from the BBC crew). Some scenes in the film look like tongue-in-cheek references to famous movies like The Exoricist (one girl lying catatonic on her bed with scratch marks over her body) and possibly Fatal Attraction (scene where Greene fishes out a drowned toy bunny from the kitchen sink). Parkinson and Bevan are credible as the voices of scepticism and incredulous belief generally and the growing tension between them and their attitudes and belief systems. Sarah Greene and Chris Charles as the on-site reporters hold up their end fairly well though Charles mugs a lot for the camera, perhaps because if he didn’t he’d be laughing the whole way through and that would have blown “Ghostwatch” for the fiction it is. The camera crew, reminiscent of the film-makers following the serial killer in the hilarious Belgian mockumentary “Man Bites Dog”, stoically follow Greene all the way to their (presumably grisly) demise. Hope the guys haven’t left behind any pregnant girlfriends called Marie-Paule to grieve over their loss.

Overall this BBC production is a gentle and funny satirical mockumentary on the modern narrative construct of the paranormal (haunted suburban house / children and prepubescent girls in particular as conduits for supernatural activity / the conflict between belief and non-belief) and perhaps this in itself gives the program considerable power, more than its makers had anticipated or the program itself deserves. The overwhelming response that “Ghostwatch” received, reminiscent of the panic that followed Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, delivered as a series of news bulletins and itself a throwback to Ronald Knox’s BBC radio news hoax “Broadcasting from the Barricades” in 1926 which also generated panic, suggests as much. Seems that people and the BBC especially have short memories about causing mass hysteria by presenting programs that have the look, feel and structures of “genuine” news, and this in itself raises questions about how much people might rely on the format of news rather than the news itself to judge if a particular news report is authentic.



It Felt like a Kiss: coming across as a self-indulgent and unremarkable trip into 1960s US pop culture nostalgia

Adam Curtis, “It Felt Like A Kiss” (2009)

A quirky visual montage of old newsreels and Hollywood films that documents a culturally transitional age in American history – the 1960s – during which the United States reigned supreme as the most economically, culturally and militarily dominant power in the world yet also a time when the roots of the country’s decline and perhaps eventual undoing and destruction were being planted: this is Adam Curtis’s “It Felt like a Kiss”. Instead of his usual soothing if slightly shocked narration, the music and captions have taken over: the captions hint at significant events yet to happen and the music, which in the main is 1960s girl-group bubblegum pop and related muzak, is sometimes an ironic commentary on the images and subject matter that suggests itself in the passages of selected montaged images and their neighbours before and after them. The film was originally part of a multi-media presentation with original music provided by Damon Albarn and the Kronos Quartet at its inception as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009.

I have to admit that although some of the songs were familiar – I was born in the 1960s so some music should be familiar! – I felt they were more a turn-off than a soundtrack to draw me in. There were personalities and excerpts of TV shows and films that I vaguely knew or remembered and of course I recognised Doris Day and Rock Hudson, if not the film they appeared together in. How people born after 1970 can relate to some if not most of the material and the songs in the film is beyond me, unless their parents obsessively reminded them of what they lived through before the offspring were born. If I recognise people like Patrice Lumumba and Nikita Khrushchev or images like the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who dumped petrol on himself and then self-ignited in protest at the civil war in his country, it’s because I was curious enough to try looking up some of these incidents and personalities in print or online media, or they have become iconic in contemporary pop culture.

The film does ground viewers into its preferred time-range by showing captions of significant events about to unfold or to be realised off-screen at a later date: thus the film mentions that construction of the World Trade Center buildings began in the mid-1960s and that Osama bin Laden’s father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden died in 1967, having built up a successful construction business that spanned nearly 40 years and which included clients such as the Saudi royal family and the Carlyle Group, the global private equity investment firm whose directors and senior management have included George H W Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major, Olivier Sarkozy (the half-brother of the French President) and Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand whose sister Yingluck is the current incumbent. Other events covered include the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers, JFK and Robert, the history of HIV and how it jumped the species barrier from apes to humans, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s rise to power which was aided by the CIA. The way these tidbits of information are scattered throughout the documentary is meant to be intriguing and titillating but after a while they get a little irritating because they come without much context: the emergence of HIV as a major threat to humankind means little without reference to Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt rule as President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the civil war fought in Katanga / Shaba province which tried to secede from the country: both the corruption and the war among other things kept most Zairois stuck in poverty and many people must have hunted apes as a free source of food – this may be one explanation for how HIV came to infect humans. (Another possible if very un-PC explanation is that apes were used as sacrificial victims in religious rituals and their blood included in local medicines or religious worship.) Similarly, mention of the TV show “Bonanza” being Osama bin Laden’s favourite viewing as a child means nothing unless we know for sure if bin Laden sympathised with the Indians and not the cowboys.

The episode overall looks like a rather self-indulgent, even timid excursion in nostalgia for the fads, pop culture and celebrities of mainstream US culture in the 1960s. There’s nothing about experimental or cutting-edge artistic, scientific and technological trends that emerged during the period (we get a brief glimpsed of a young Andy Warhol but that’s about it) which were to become significant in later decades; I would have thought at least the musician and composer Raymond Scott, whose music was adapted by Carl Stalling for classic Bugs Bunny cartoons and who was a significant pioneer in electronic music composition and inventor of various electronic music devices and instruments, might have rated a mention or a music credit as might also the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the time. The message that the episode is meant to convey – that the dominance of US pop culture throughout the world in the 1960s was overwhelming to the extent that other cultural alternatives were either forgotten or went underground where they festered and warped into something abnormal and diseased – is lost on viewers.

The song “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, based on US singer Little Eva’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, is an allusion to the episode’s theme; it was covered by girl-group the Crystals who were famous for songs like “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Little Eva herself became famous for the original version of “The Loco-Motion”, later made famous around the world by Australian singer Kylie Minogue as her debut single.


The Trap … (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free): picking apart arguments over nature of freedom

Adam Curtis, “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? (Episode 3: We will Force You to be Free)” (2007)

Part of Adam Curtis’s “The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?” trilogy exploring how the concept of freedom came to be narrowly defined by politicians in order to deal with a particular historical emergency (the Cold War) and how this definition helped to turn people in Western societies into self-seeking, soulless automatons lacking in purpose, this episode targets concepts of negative freedom and positive freedom as proposed and developed by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s, and how these concepts formed the basis of policies followed by Western powers to stifle revolutions in Third World countries and / or to bring Western-style notions of democracy and liberty to these countries, often by force and violence. Using archival newsreel footage and excerpts of movies and documentaries such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous 1966 “Battle of Algiers” film, Curtis weaves a seductive argument about how the over-emphasis on negative freedom and the West’s fear of and desire to suppress positive freedom have ironically led to the current global situation that the West most feared positive freedom would birth: an unstable and violent world where democracy and freedom are retreating even in its traditional strongholds and where people have become so fearful and insular that they come to lack initiative and direction.

In Berlin’s view, developed in his paper “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative freedom (freedom from externally imposed constraints) is to be preferred over positive freedom (the improvement of human beings to make them more “rational” thinkers so that among other things they can choose what sort of society they wish to live in). Berlin believed that the Soviet Union and societies with similar political cultures were the greatest threat to freedom in the world because they insisted on imposing positive freedom on their people and this imposition not only curtailed the people’s negative freedoms but was accompanied by fanaticism, violence and mass deaths. Systems must therefore restrain the “do-gooders” who want to improve humanity in case they get ideas about resorting to “tyranny”, whatever that is, to force-feed such improvements. Of course, “coincidentally” Berlin’s ideas dovetailed with other ideas derived from capitalist economics, American cultural values that emphasised individualism and competition, industrial relations (in particular, the scientific management ideas of Frederick Taylor) and were adopted by Western governments as part of an integrated package.

The documentary follows with various examples the paths taken by the proponents of negative freedom and positive freedom with their associated cultural packages in different countries and how these paths clashed. We boing from the American neoconservatives in the 1980s who believed that the US should use its power to actively spread “demcracy” and “freedom” by force to other countries which didn’t necessarily want them (in their American versions) to the 1979 Iranian revolution which according to Curtis was inspired by Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati’s fusion of ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon on decision and freedom in day-to-day life and on colonialism respectively with Islamic principles; to the deregulation / privatisation “shock treatment” meted out to Russia under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s by Jeffrey Sachs and his team of economists which resulted in widespread poverty among the public and in asset-stripping by well-placed members of the nomenklatura (the former Communist Party network of government and government agency insiders and their families) and favoured individuals who became known as the “oligarchs”. (And I imagine Sachs and some of his team got their share of riches as well.) The social and economic upheavals caused by the Sachs team’s recommendations resulted in greater political repression by the Yeltsin government which then pursued confrontations with groups in Chechnya wanting independence as a way of diverting the public attention away from the economic problems; this paved the way for Vladimir Putin to assume power. Somehow we end up in Iraq after 2003 where Paul Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority overseeing Iraq’s transition to US-imposed “democracy”, tried to remake the country’s economic and political structures: the result was huge unemployment, hundreds of thousands of people thrown into poverty and greater terrorist activity after the Iraqi army was disbanded (bad move, that) and public servants belonging to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were banned from government employment. The country’s entire pool of secondary and primary school teachers – many of them women, I imagine – must have been thrown into an employment black hole overnight.

Curtis’s argument sounds quite convincing, at least for those who haven’t read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” which covers much the same territory as Curtis’s documentary does (Russia, Iraq) but from a different viewpoint in which the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek take pride of place over the gift of negative freedom and its benefits to supposedly benighted peoples. Like Curtis, Klein is guilty of cherry-picking examples to bolster her arguments especially in her comparison of economic shock treatment to the MK-ULTRA and related psychology experiments carried out by Ewen Donald Cameron and others from the 1950s to 1970s. In both the book and the documentary, the influence of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss’s views, or at least his followers’ interpretations of them, on American political and economic neoliberalism becomes the proverbial elephant in the room; it’s debatable as to whether Isaiah Berlin’s notions about the nature of freedom should be given any preference over Strauss’s views on liberalism (belief in liberty and equal rights) as a precursor to two forms of nihilism (brutality and terror being one, the result of positive freedom; and materialistic, purposeless hedonism the other, the child of negative freedom)  and the role of elites in society as an influence on the American neocons. Indeed Curtis’s documentary in parts looks more like a criticism of Straussian philosophy than of Berlin’s philosophy.

Curtis concludes by saying Berlin that was mistaken in his ideas and that governments and societies following his views on positive and negative freedoms have created a “trap” in which humans live lives lacking in purpose and devoted to materialistic self-interest and hedonism supplied not from within their own imaginations and resources but by external others with hidden agendas. The only way to escape the trap is to create outlets and opportunities for positive freedom. Curtis does not suggest any alternatives as to how to do this; neither does he actually look at whether Berlin’s definition of positive freedom is flawed or ambiguous. If the ideal of positive freedom is to create a better, more “rational” kind of human who can determine what society s/he wants to live in, we had better ask ourselves what we mean by “rational” so that we don’t end up creating a society of so-called “positive” freedoms of the sort that both Berlin and Strauss feared so much and which forced them and their families to leave Russia in 1920 and Germany in the 1930s respectively to avoid persecution as Jews and as members of the middle class. I note that in the documentary, Curtis refers to “rational” people as being motivated by self-interest without reference to emotion: that’s one definition of a sociopath.

We must redefine positive freedom in a way that avoids ambiguity in its definition and takes it beyond a mirror opposite of negative freedom. I prefer to see positive freedom as the freedom that expands one’s horizons as a result of having made a choice between or among mutually exclusive options, such that if you had the opportunity to make the same choice again between or among these options, you’d still go with your original choice. An example would be choosing between an easy, secure life in which you never leave your comfort zone and operate according to your desires and insecurities; and a life that might be hard, lonely, uncertain at times and inviting scorn from others but also a life that makes you a better person morally and spiritually. This enables a person to be in control of his/her life and to achieve self-actualisation.


The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic): how a romantic fantasy of a glorious past disguised a thirst for power at any cost

Adam Curtis, “The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic)” (1995)

Having seen the mishmash that was “The Iron Lady”, I figured it was high time I saw something a bit more factual about the period when Margaret Thatcher reigned over Britain as quasi-monarch from 1979 to 1990. Happily that maker of whimsical documentaries Adam Curtis comes to the rescue with this installment in his “The Living Dead” trilogy which posits an interesting parallel between Thatcher’s dream of restoring British imperial glory to a demoralised country on the one hand, and past Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to shore up the crumbling empire during World War II. The essay that Curtis weaves holds strong throughout the episode’s 1-hour running-time; if anything, Curtis could have made his case stronger still by emphasising the destructive effects of both Churchill and Thatcher’s dreams and the ways in which they and their governments used their vision to keep the public under control.

Less eccentric than other AC documentaries I have seen, “The Attic” follows a conventional chronological narrative detailing MT’s rise to the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s in the wake of the oil crisis and election as Prime Minister in 1979 with her vision of returning Britain to the imperial glory the country had once enjoyed (supposedly). This vision included attacking and dismantling where possible the bogeys afflicting British society and economy, namely, trade unions seen to be overrun by left-wing, possibly Communist, radicals and other socialistic influences eating away at the nation’s moral fibre. Thatcher embraced the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek which emphasise less government control and regulation of the economy and that economic freedom underpins political freedom. In her vision for a New Britain, MT invoked the memory of a previous British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had led the country during World War II, a major event still fresh in the minds of many people in the 1970s.

As Prime Minister, MT got off to a bad start: the economy failed to respond to her nostrums, trade unions became even more restless and strike activity was frequent, unemployment rates continued to climb, and resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland became more violent. Just when it looked as though MT’s reign as Prime Minister was to be short-lived, an unexpected life-line was thrown: Argentina, at the time under military rule and its leaders wishing to deflect public attention away from the country’s ongoing economic crisis and human rights violations, invaded the Falkland Islands in early 1982. Britain’s successful defence of the islands gave MT the space she needed to implement her economic policy and allowed her to win the 1983 general election in a landslide. From then on, the Conservative Party more or less dominated the political landscape in Britain until 1997 but the influence of so-called “Thatcherism” in the country’s political and economic life has never really gone away.

I think “The Attic” should have focussed much more on the insidious and destructive aspects of Thatcher’s vision and the Churchillian vision that inspired her and her considerable fanbase throughout the world. I presume that Thatcher’s vision of Churchill as a great leader conveniently leaves out the fact that in the late 1930s when the British government considered investing in radar technology for defence purposes, Churchill opposed the proposal: needless to say, radar technology played a major defence role during the Battle of Britain in 1941. Churchill’s idea of wartime leadership consisted of beating Germany into a pulp and throwing that country back into a pre-industrial age; hence his enthusiasm for the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, resisted by the US military high command (in particular by Dwight D Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe) and now recognised as a major war crime by historians. It can be argued that Germany’s determination to fight to the death at the cost of millions of lives during World War II was as much due to Churchill’s refusal to negotiate or have anything to do with anti-Hitler groups in that country, as to the German leader’s paranoia and mania. Churchill would later approve the Morgenthau Plan which called for turning Germany into an agricultural backwater, stripped entirely of its industrial base, and which led to the deaths of 1 – 2 million Germans (some sources say as many as 10 million) from starvation in 1945 – 1950. And there is also that episode in which Churchill agreed to hand over 90,000 Cossack men and their families living in Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union; most of these people, who had left Russia in 1918 and were technically not Soviet citizens, perished in the gulags. It is difficult to believe that Churchill had no idea what would happen to them after the “hand-back”.

Even in the domestic sphere Churchill’s “vision” amounted to very little: it seems to have had as its goal power at all costs and to that end, Churchill happily wandered the entire economic spectrum from free market economic liberalism to virtual democratic socialism. During the war, he allowed Britain to become a social welfare state by approving plans for a national insurance scheme and for housing and health services. As Prime Minister in the early 1950s, he presided over the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya in 1951, an ongoing revolt in Malaya and the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the CIA. Once again, it could be argued that British handling of or participation in these crises was poor (the military option was preferred) and in the case of Iran, the coup which Britain backed stymied any democratic and progressive tendencies in that country for decades. Interestingly, as Prime Minister, Churchill and his Labour Minister Walter Monckton adopted a policy of appeasement towards trade unions and this perhaps encouraged the union movement to assume an attitude of entitlement that decades later Thatcher tried to fight.

A brief look at Thatcher’s friends and networks should give us some pause for thought: during the Falklands War the Chilean government under Pinochet, itself notorious for human rights abuses and imposing its own version of Friedman / Hayek economic change on its people, supplied information about Argentine military forces and their movements to the British. (This at the same time that both Chile and Argentina were sharing information about torture methods and helping to arrest one another’s “dissidents” under Operation Condor!) Pinochet himself later became a friend of MT to the extent that she opposed any move by the British government under Tony Blair to extradite him to Spain on war crimes charges when he visited Britain for medical treatment in the late 1990s. Hayek himself visited Chile a few times in the 1970s – 1980s and accepted honorary chairmanship of a free-market economic think-tank in that country. The fact that in Chile and Britain, and several other countries, economic freedom as perceived by Friedman and his followers at the University of Chicago had to be imposed on people and political freedom sacrificed in the process – not to mention that the “reformers’ benefitted financially from claiming privatised government assets for themselves – suggests that this form of “capitalism” is more gravity-defying flooding-up rather than “natural” trickle-down as I was taught at school and university.

Yes, when we look at Churchill and Thatcher’s visions and compare them, what do they really amount to? – they amount to retaining power at any cost without principle. The cynicism and selective thinking involved are breath-taking to say the least. The result in both cases is an impoverishment of British culture and society in some way: the Churchillian “social welfare” society was taken for granted with people and institutions alike not learning how to negotiate for rights and privileges, and that such rights and privileges need to be defended and expanded upon skilfully with diplomacy and negotiation; now that this society is being dismantled by Thatcher’s successors, people erupt with violence, become passive or try to beat one another over an ever-shrinking pie. Pity that Curtis’s otherwise fine documentary with its narrow focus on the spin-doctoring during Thatcher’s reign missed that point.

Sources used: Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill” and various Wikipedia articles


The Iron Lady: biopic ignores dark and unsavoury aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s life and career

Phyllida Lloyd, “The Iron Lady” (2011)

I steeled myself to watch this film; I had seen the trailer and it had filled me with fear. Donning a Kevlar vest and protective wrap-round glasses to deflect excessive radiation, I entered the cinema with grim anticipation of camp heart-of-darkness horror. As it turned out though, “The Iron Lady” is more sugar-sweet seduction than full-steam-ahead torpedo fire and that soft approach may be more insidious for the target audience. The use of Baroness Thatcher’s dementia to explore the woman’s history in flashback sequences is a useful distancing device that at once humanises her but removes and dehumanises the victims of her policies, and this becomes both the film’s saving grace (aside from its lead actor) as a character study and its weakness as a historical document.

The film simply wouldn’t have worked without Meryl Streep in the lead role: Streep all but submerges herself in the character of Thatcher. I have seen only one other film in which Streep played a real-life woman to perfection and that was Lindy Chamberlain* in “Evil Angels”; Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for that role. Her portrayal of MT looks eerily accurate: she embodies MT’s vulnerabilities as wife, mother, politician, Prime Minister and dementia victim as well as the woman’s more familiar public face as formidable and steely. One highlight scene comes near the end in which MT in the twilight years of her reign holds a meeting with her Cabinet and one man confesses he hadn’t given her an important timetable and the paper he has handed to her is a first draft; Thatcher rips him apart over his spelling and tardiness and the other ministers around him wilt from the full force of the burning light streaming from her being. At once viewers see MT as she must have appeared to her minions – exacting and tough as nails – and also cracks in the carapace: the expression on her face after her ministers depart softens and shows exhaustion and her fingers and hands tremble, as though to suggest that whipping the errant minister took more out of her than of him.

Apart from Streep’s astonishing acting, the film itself has little plot and must rely on Thatcher’s career from the 1950s to her downfall in 1990 for narrative direction. Jim Broadbent and Olivia Colman as Thatcher’s husband Dennis and daughter Carol are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes: Dennis shows nothing of the forceful millionaire businessman who supported MT financially and smoothed her path to No 1 top dog, and Carol is reduced to a caregiver role. (In real life, Carol is a journalist / writer / media celebrity who started her career working for The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.) Son Mark Thatcher barely figures in the film and that along with other moments indicates an extreme unwillingness on the script’s part to confront some of the less savoury aspects of MT’s general career and ideological persuasion: far from refusing to work with fascist thugs as suggested in the film’s Falklands War episode, the British worked with fascist-ruled Chile (Argentina’s supposed enemy)** during that war; and MT’s son was later investigated by South African authorities in the late 1990s for loan sharking and was also accused of racketeering in Texas about the same time. (And of course there was that little Equatorial Guinea coup d’état attempt escapade in 2004 for which Mark Thatcher was fined 3 million rand and received a suspended jail term.) Other characters in the film simply flit by and register very little on viewers’ radar.

Even as a sympathetic and small-scale character study, the film has obvious flaws and omissions: what happened in the young Margaret Roberts’s life as grocer’s daughter that made her decide to enter politics at a time when women were expected to be wives and stay-at-home mothers? What happened later on to prompt her to challenge for the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s? (It cannot just have been a desire to upset people.) Why did she decide to change her image from a dowdy housewife politician with a shrill voice to a hard-headed plutonium blonde bombshell with the deep throaty tones? Where and how did she acquire and adopt the economic philosophy, championed by economists Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, of less government intervention and greater privatisation of the economy that was to transform Britain so much during her tenure as Prime Minister and beyond? The film’s narrow focus on Thatcher as a child of the working classes fighting entrenched social and economic class-based attitudes and becoming a role model to all women diverts viewers’ attention away from asking these and other uncomfortable questions about how politicians use public relations and spin-doctoring to further their careers and impose particular ideologies and polices on a restive populace. Posing MT as a role model for girls and women in fighting gender inequality also overlooks the fact that MT is consistently shown to be a woman with a somewhat masculine style of thinking and behaving that likely would alienate and drive away any potential female friends and allies.

Remove Streep and what is left? Hardly anything that would qualify as a film: the ending in which the ghost Dennis finally disappears from Thatcher’s life is comic and leaves the film hanging as it were from an invisibly crumbling cliff. This in itself says something that subtly and ironically undercuts the film’s message: for all her being championed as a role model and leader for women in politics, Margaret Thatcher ultimately depended on a man of wealth and elevated social position to rise to the top.

*Lindy Chamberlain was the woman whose baby was taken by a dingo at Uluru in central Australia in 1980; Chamberlain was later charged with murder, found guilty and jailed for life in 1982. In 1986 after new evidence was found suggesting the dingo story was more credible, and the forensic evidence presented in 1982 found to be suspect, Chamberlain was released from jail and her conviction was overturned in 1988. A 1995 inquest into the baby’s disappearance returned an open verdict. The case has been re-opened and a new inquest is due to begin in early 2012.

**Six countries including Argentina and Chile collaborated under Operation Condor to capture people targeted as “subversives” or “internal enemies”: the collaboration included sharing information on torture and execution methods as well as seizing, torturing and killing people in one another’s jurisdiction. (Source: Third World Traveller,