The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your band-mates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboration with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.


Just another ordinary rock music documentary in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)” (2011)

To mark the 40th anniversary of a beloved British rock music institution, the BBC made this 2-part series featuring apparently rare interviews and until now unseen archival film material. Part 1 covers the band’s early history from its formation up to the early 1980s and includes the first seven albums. The episode revolves around two of the remaining band members, lead guitarist Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, speaking to an unseen interviewer and reminiscing about significant periods in the band’s career; other people associated with the band, like John Reid who managed Queen for a brief time in the late 1970s and producer Roy Thomas Baker are also interviewed. Band recordings relevant to the passages that proceed chronologically enliven what is a basically straightforward retelling of Queen’s 1970s history which is further spiced with music video clips and a bit of old late 1970s social background context when punk and new wave erupted in the UK and for a while made Queen look dangerously antiquated.

In its first half-hour the film whooshes through the band’s timeline with an emphasis on how particular songs were put together and recorded in the studio. The second half-hour relaxes into an amble through a number of issues that affected Queen’s career throughout the decade such as the tension between preserving musical integrity and the drive for commercial success, creativity under pressure and production expenses, the hostility of the music press, the ownership of songs and the naivety of American audiences confronted by the band’s deliberate artifice and camp image. Parts of this section aren’t always interesting and feature trivia that don’t add much to viewers’ understanding of why the band formed, why the members were so hungry for success and recognition and the song-writing and recording process. Not much really has to be done by the film crew save for ensuring that the images have a structure most viewers can follow: to some extent the music itself reflects and suggests progress and change, and the band’s upward career trajectory in the 1970s and early 1980s conveniently fills out part of the episode in an entertaining way.

Ultimately the episode isn’t very in-depth and merely falls into the kind of conventional rock music documentary territory that dutifully recounts the peaks and troughs of the band’s career. I for one would really like to know what drove singer Freddie Mercury into wanting to be not just another rock or pop singer but a legend, how he developed his singing style and stage act, and what people or styles of music influenced him when he was young. The fact that Mercury was of Parsi Indian ancestry and grew up in an environment heavily influenced by British colonial culture, Zoroastrian culture and others against a multicultural background in India and the-then Tanganyika and Zanzibar territories must have had considerable effect on his vocal style, visual presentation and song-writing approach but the film says nothing about this. The film omits interviews with significant people in Mercury’s life including his girlfriend Mary Austin and family members who might have shed some interesting or revealing light on his motivations and character. Also early music influences on the band overall – influences that would have included 1960s psychedelic rock, early 1970s progressive rock and early heavy metal among others- aren’t covered much.

Shame that an opportunity to look at Queen’s career in a way different from how most rock music documentaries are done was wasted. This particular number will soon join the ranks of other ho-hum TV biographies and be forgotten by most people apart from Queen fans.

Amalgam: no-budget home movie is surprisingly complex in plot and visual effects

Craig Murray, “Amalgam” (2007)

Using just a handycam and his own home as set to make a black-and-white film on next-to-no budget starring himself and a few friends, Craig Murray creates a sinister yet surprisingly comples psycho-slasher flick that looks part “Repulsion”, part “Tetsuo: Iron Man”, part “M” and all extended experimental art / horror music clip. As far as I can tell, the film is a study of an unnamed man (Murray) tormented by recurring images of a giant blonde doll that attacks him at regular intervals in his house and throws him all over bathroom fixtures and other furniture. In between those occasions, he himself attacks, tortures and kills girlfriends and other young women who visit him; then, overcome with remorse, he forces himself to eat their flesh and internal organs, throwing up in disgust while doing so, and later feeling shame and disgust at what he has done.

Shot entirely at home with many close-ups of household fixtures, the film has an extreme claustrophobic feel. Shots are frequently jumpy and Murray uses his camera in astonishing ways, at times facing the ceiling or wall and twirling it around to disorient viewers and give them a sense of the unreality that plagues the protagonist. In scenes just after the doll giant has bashed him, the images are chopped up and sliced so they often appear no more than slews of moving grey shades of unidentifiable objects flashing against a black background. Stop-motion animation is used in some scenes, especially in the film’s introductory sequence of images, and when the man finds himself crawling in naught but his underwear along the street. About three-quarters of the way through the film, when the man ventures outside at night, his odyssey becomes delirious and the images flash back and forth and flicker quite a bit; you can just see the man looking unwell and unfocussed but of what dark demons he is suffering from, you can only imagine how intense they are.

There is no dialogue which has the effect of heightening the horror of the film as we never find out why the man acts the way he does or whether the doll giant is for real or a projection of his sick mind. We can only see his need and desire for company and to connect with other humans, and the self-disgust he feels when he has killed someone who offers him love. Instead of dialogue, Murray uses music from different acts including the post-rock band Mogwai: the music varies from dark, cavernous psychedelic post-rock sometimes reminiscent of Godspeed You Black Emperor to ambient and, in the torture scenes, needling chainsaw noise and power electronics. The music generally jells well with the various scenes and heightens suspense and horror appropriately when needed.

There doesn’t appear to be much plot development although at one point in the film the man decapitates the doll tormentor so there is the possibility that he may change for the better, though that will probably take a long time. There is the possibility that all the murders he commits take place in his mind as the house he lives in doesn’t descend into a cesspit of dried carcasses and blood but bedsheets always look crisp, the furniture ends up in good nick and the bathroom is periodically spotless. I can’t imagine the fellow being house-proud if there’s so much real carnage going on so it’s likely he is giving vent to repressed murderous fantasies.

Not a palatable film, that’s true, but Murray has created a visually impressive work and makes a slim and potentially banal plot look substantial and complicated, all on a frail shoe-string budget. He is well worth watching if only to see how he can deploy his talents in something longer and more dependent on a strong story-line.

How to Start a Revolution: documentary gives too much credit to DIY revolution manual

Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” (2011)

Here’s an interesting 1-hour documentary about Gene Sharp, a modest politcal science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose writings have influenced liberation movements around the globe for nearly 20 years. With a mix of voice-over narration, newsreels and interviews with Sharp and his trusty side-kick Jamila Raqib, who is as much the daughter he needs as assistant, at their modest non-profit Albert Einstein Institute offices, Arrow’s “How to Start a Revolution” shows the methodology Sharp developed to guide wannabe DIY revolutionaries in undermining repressive governments with the aim of winning over police and armed forces to their side. The methodology emphasises a non-violent approach to revolution by enouraging wannabe DIY revolutionaries to study the systems and institutions that underpin their repressive governments’ grip over the general population, and to see how they can undermine public support for those systems and institutions. The armed forces and police in particular are targeted as institutions that revolutionaries should try to win over to their side. A key theme that underlines Sharp’s methodology, detailed in works like “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” which can be downloaded, is that governments, whatever their ideology or structure, only have as much power as the general public is willing to surrender to them and that if subject populations refuse to obey their rulers, those rulers lose power and can be toppled.

The structure of the film follows to some extent the structure of “From Dictatorship to Democracy …” and is also chronological, crossing various continents as it progresses from the past (some time in the late 1980s) to the present day. Revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt and Syria plus a grizzled Vietnam war veteran are interviewed and failed uprisings such as the Tiananmen Square student protest in China, 1989, and the one that followed the Iranian presidential elections in 2009 are covered. Triumphal and overwrought musical melodrama accompanies sections of the documentary in a way that suggests Sharp’s path to liberation and freedom is more or less the right path. Reactions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Iranian government, the latter in a computer-animated propaganda film clip, suggest that repressive governments are wary of his influence.

Would that I could be so sanguine about Sharp’s influence and value to the world! – but my feeling throughout this doco is that Arrow gives Sharp and his work more credit than they deserve. If it were true that using a non-violent approach to insurrection gets results nearly 100% of the time, then Tibet would be an independent state by now; instead that region continues to be undermined itself by Chinese industrial development with an accompanying influx of Han Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other urban centres there. The Dalai Lama himself has given up hope that Tibet will achieve independence and seeks accommodation with the Beijing regime. One problem I have with the idea of trying to win over the armed forces to one’s side, however noble it is, is that such institutions may have their own agenda which they may try to impose on revolutionaries, forcing them into compromises they cannot later amend or break. Certainly in some horrible countries where religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, is banned or severely circumscribed, the Roman Catholic Church may be a willing partner and sponsor of revolution but would you really want it on your side after the despots are overthrown and you need to hammer out a constitution enshrining religious freedoms, the separation of religion and politics, and equal rights for women, homosexuals and religious minorities?

In addition, how do we define a repressive or tyrannical government? Revolutionaries are often drawn from a comfortable middle-class layer in society and if a government follows policies and spends its money in a way that privileges the lower-class majority while leaving the upper-class minority feeling badly treated in certain areas such as freedom to travel anywhere it likes or free university education at the expense of general and technical education for the majority, can it then be said that such a government is “tyrannical”? The government appears tyrannical to the wannabe rebels but not so for most people who often have a “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” attitude towards politics. Indeed a big part of why the rebels failed in Iran in 2009 is that the general Iranian population actually preferred incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a pre-election poll by the Washington Post newspaper done across Iran three weeks before the election indicated that Ahmadinejad had two-thirds of the voters’ support. There may have been some fraud in districts where officials believed he might lose support but generally Ahmadinejad, who is a savvy politician who campaigned widely and tirelessly during election period (while Moussavi barely ventured outside the cities), won the vote fair and square.

Repressive governments themselves (especially if they are staffed by people with technical, scientific and engineering qualifications) can often be very sophisticated, progressive and forward-thinking, and achieve results that benefit people materially. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan might not be the technological powerhouses they are without leaders like Park Chunghee (Sth Korea) and the Guomindang (Taiwan) who often ruled with an iron fist but spent money on planned industrial development, education and necessary infrastructure. True, farmers were often thrown off their lands and forced to go into cities to work in factories in dreadful conditions for measly pay, and the countries may still have massive social problems arising from the dislocations caused by rapid development; but would many Koreans, Taiwanese and others in east and southeast Asia want to go back to the pre-industrial days of poverty and colonial domination? Likewise, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reviled by the West, rightly for his purges of the intelligentsia and armed forces, and for deportations of ethnic groups like the Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan that amount to genocide, but most Russians have been and still are happy with what they believe he did for the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953. It is significant that China has studied the example of its near neighbours and is emulating them diligently. Strict Communist ideology be damned! – Chinese politicians and their bureaucrats can be flexible and pragmatic when need be.

Ultimately the contention that a government’s source of power is the loyalty and support that its citizens give it could well be the Sharp methodology’s weak point. How can revolutionaries undermine the public’s support for a repressive government and win people over to their side if such a government pursues policies that provide material benefits and establish structures of a welfare state? Over time the people’s loyalty and obedience to their government become so strong that it can relax its grip and assume the guise of a benevolent “soft authoritarian” nanny state that knows what’s best for its citizens and invests in their future with appropriate policies and actions that press all the right warm buttons from a social / economic / environmental / technological point of view. This is the kind of state that exists in Japan and many other Asian countries; such countries stay more or less successful or at least acceptable to their publics until a major disaster like the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown of March 2011 occurs. Until October 2011, Libya also followed a similar state model under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. If people are unhappy about living in such a country because of restrictions on their freedoms, the country can simply relax its emigration rules and encourage such people to leave.

I have a sneaking feeling that Sharp missed out on infiltration, an art form that the FBI, CIA and the British government’s MI5 and MI6 are very good at. How might revolutionaries know whether one of their number is actually working for the enemy? Might not the enemy itself use Sharp’s methodology to undermine the revolutionaries? Additionally foreign governments and intelligence agencies like the CIA can co-opt Sharp’s tactics for their own use against a country whose leader they don’t like. They could manipulate earnest young idealists through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter and feed them information that’s not in the idealists’ interests. Above all, how effective would Sharp’s methods of running revolutions be against a government that is backed by US, NATO or other major power with the weapons and firepower to steamroll totally any opposition to their pet dictators?

In short, aspiring revolutionaries should not have any faith in Sharp’s document and the people promoting it but must develop their own methods and strategies for achieving the overthrow of hated governments, else they will find themselves unwitting shock troops for a new tyranny backed by their country’s enemies.

All Watched Over … (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey): falling apart under its own shaky premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey)” (2011)

Final installation in the documentary trilogy sees Curtis pick up a few very disparate strands of African colonial history, the rise of biological determinism and the marriage of cybernetics and mechanistic systems of organisation to sociology, and weave these into a shaky essay about how humans have become no more than machines themselves. As with previous episodes in the series, Curtis selectively picks facts linked more by coincidence than by intent to justify his premise; this latest attempt not only stretches credibility but doesn’t even acknowledge and / or blend ideas and statements made in previous episodes of the series to justify itself.

The episode develops against a background of Belgian colonial domination of the central African countries that became Burundi, Rwanda and Congo (Kinshasa) which later became Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Belgian rule was harsh and the colonies were virtual slave-states from the late 1800s on. Independence in the early 1960s proved no solution; the new countries were woefully unprepared to go it alone and promising politicians like Patrice Lumumba were killed or exiled with the secret connivance of the United States, Belgium or France. Under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the thrice-named Congo state became his personal fiefdom just as it once had been King Leopold II’s, to be looted and his people abused as he pleased. Rwanda and Burundi themselves fell captive to an ideology created by a former leader (King Kigeli IV according to Wikipedia) and enforced by the Belgian rulers that the Tutsi and Hutu peoples were separate races (even though they both speak Kinyarwanda and share kinship networks) and natural enemies; the result was ongoing war between the two “ethnic groups” over decades.

Into all this mess comes British biologist William D Hamilton, come to investigate a pet theory about the origin of the HIV virus in central Africa, and responsible for developing the “selfish gene” theory in which the gene is the basis of all human behaviour and genes act like self-interested, self-organised machines. This theory was elaborated by others to explain phenomena such as murder, suicide bombers and genocide, and applied to developing computer technology reliant on coltan, lithium and other so-called “rare earth” minerals mined in … yes, you guessed it, the modern DRC and nearby Rwanda and Burundi!

The “selfish gene” theory may have come from Bill Hamilton and a close friend and fellow biologist George Price may have helped refined it; there’s no mention though of other scientists like John Maynard Smith and E O Wilson who also contributed original insights of their own, such as introducing game theory into evolutionary studies and the development of sociobiology with which Hamilton became strongly associated. If anything, sociobiology should have been under the spotlight in this essay as a major influence on biological science and potential support for the idea of humans as machines shaped by evolution acting on genes. Funny how Curtis missed this opportunity to explore the field.

Curtis’s contention that accepting and believing the notion of humans as helpless machines as a way of explaining our failure to stop civil wars and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC – and, while we’re at it, most other parts of Africa – is too far-fetched and glib to explain that continent’s problems and ignores the role of Western governments (and more recently China) in creating and maintaining weak political, economic and social systems in African countries for their own interests. Former African colonies of France are bound to that country by the Central African franc whose value is determined by the French government. Inheriting a Westminster style of government and British law hasn’t prevented corruption, poverty, warfare and repressive rule in many ex-British colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Even Liberia, a country founded by former slaves from the United States, has seen its excessive share of civil war and atrocities committed by both government and rebel forces. At the risk of sounding boring, I’d like to mention that Angola and Mozambique endured years and years of civil war partly as a result of South African destabilisation efforts, secretly aided by Israel. The point is that if we Western countries left Africa alone, agreed to trade fair and square with them on equal terms, and helped them with no-strings-attached aid and loans, they wouldn’t be in the hell they are now while we wring our hands helplessly. The recent NATO invasion of Libya under a supposed “Responsibility to Protect” humanitarian charade to kick out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had called for African unity and an African version of the European Community, invested in projects in Chad and Niger, and among other domestic achievements built the world’s largest irrigation project in Libya to bring sub-Saharan water to coastal Libyan cities (and the project being funded entirely by Libyan banks), shows the extent to which the West is committed to greed and selfishness and continuing a form of racism in which Africans are always helpless and can’t fix their own problems and outsiders have to “step in”.

I intuit a distaste for progressive, social-democratic politics in Curtis’s narration which becomes more and more resigned in the course of the program. It adopts an anti-liberal tone when he claims that “liberals” in the Belgian colonial administration encouraged the Hutus to rise up against the Tutsis when Rwanda achieved independence as a way of atoning for their abysmal performance as administrators. At the end of the program, he does not draw the conclusion staring viewers in the face which is that the notion of genes and evolution affecting social behaviour entirely can easily lead to a new kind of racism in which the political, social and economic problems of African peoples are attributed indirectly to their genetic standing and Africa must be ruled once again by benevolent foreigners.

Generally for me the trilogy has been a disappointment though some interesting ideas and history have been put forward. Curtis’s documentaries suggest human societies as they are now are too far gone in their love affair with computers and technology to change and to manage the planet and its resources more responsibly. The hidden elephant in the room, as always, turns out to be modern corporate fascism in which corporations, governments, academia, the news media and the military co-operate and form networks with the aim of self-enrichment while everyone and everything else can go fuck themselves.


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts): plausible premise founders on definitions and little historical perspective

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts)” (2011)

Second episode in his documentary trilogy of how humans have surrendered their power to technology and technological systems, Adam Curtis’s “The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts” looks at how rival theories dreamt up by a botanist / socialist and a military man in South Africa in the 1920s came to influence concepts of the self-organising system in systems engineering, environmental studies and studies of human behaviour which fed into popular culture. The idea of self-organising systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing. There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power. The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance. The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.

Curtis’s documentary proposes that the concept of the self-organising system, rooted in idealistic socialist concepts of British botanist Arthur Tansley on the one hand and in Field Marshal Jan Smuts’s fantasy of a steady-state British empire in which everyone and everything knows its place in a stable hierarchy on the other, will ultimately fail in real situations. In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying, as students of the English Civil War in the 1640s, the French Revolution in the 1790s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and their respective aftermaths will know. Yet the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive.

Curtis appears to be on steadier ground in this episode than in his previous “Love and Power” and the premise of “The Uses and Abuses …” looks very plausible at first sight. There is one problem and that revolves around what Curtis means by “stability” in self-organising natural systems: is he referring to a stasis where nothing ever changes or to an active stability where a network is just balanced but the balance changes constantly? Natural ecosystems may in fact be making continual adjustments and changes even when these aren’t apparent to the eye; if they are not examples of self-organising systems, then what is? Another problem is that natural ecosystems are not closed systems (ie, ones that receive no inputs from outside) where the balance actually tends towards greater disorganisation or randomness (entropy). Likewise human societies are not completely closed systems and, as long as there is some physical or intellectual input, tensions will always exist between the tendency towards hierarchy and social conservatism, and the tendency towards a less-structured and freer structure where social mobility is possible and frequent. Most societies around the world have such tensions.

The closest societies get to being closed systems are societies that are cut off from the outside world, either because of geography as in the case of Iceland, Tasmania and the Polynesians on their various islands for hundreds of years or as part of deliberate government policy as in China and Japan from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. These societies varied greatly in their social and technological complexity and their cultures were fairly stable; in fact Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns (1603 – 1867) enjoyed a flowering of culture and commerce and much of what we call traditional Japanese culture dates back to this period of isolation. On the other hand Iceland was poor during its period of isolation, due to the nature of Danish colonial rule combined with various natural disasters that wrecked the food supply. Modern Iceland developed an egalitarian society based on geographic isolation and cultural, historical and ethnic homogeneity. So whether such societies thrive or struggle to survive depends very much on the political, social and cultural conditions at the time the isolation begins combined with people’s access to the territory’s available resources.

Curtis presents the self-organised system concept as though it were an innovation of the 20th century but the idea as Jan Smuts at least conceived it is actually very old: the mediaeval worldview held that as stars have fixed positions in the sky and the planets revolve in perfect circles around the Earth, so too God lives beyond the sphere of the stars, nine orders of angels live in the heavens and humans live in a triad structure in which priests correspond to God or the head of the body, nobles correspond to the angels or the body’s heart, and everyone else corresponds to the commons or the body’s abdomen. Likewise ancient Indo-European society was divided into three levels of priest-kings, warriors and peasants and this triad structure became the basis of the caste system in Hinduism in India. I am not sure how Tansley conceived the system concept and whether it assumes a fixed flat structure of society in which everyone must be strictly equal and no-one is allowed to be better or worse than everyone else.

The sinister aspect of “The Uses and Abuses …” which Curtis may not have intended is that the film appears to criticise attempts to move towards a freer and more fluid social structure that respects equality, at least in law and in access to resources, and to support hierarchical social and political systems. The film also suggests that attempts to preserve and sustain natural processes and ecosystems are futile; if systems are dynamic and are constantly moving to new states of “equilibrium”, humans need do nothing to preserve the systems themselves, as opposed to returning them to their “original” state. I suspect Curtis was merely being tongue-in-cheek when he made this essay and doesn’t expect to be taken seriously by politically conservative or climate change denialist groups.

What Curtis missed out is that the concept of self-organising systems based on mechanistic systems or views of the universe such as what Tansley and Smuts may have believed where everyone becomes an individual separate from and equal to others has encouraged the development of atomistic societies where everyone is not only a separate and equal individual but an isolated one as well. Informal networks that arise in such societies may be fragile and break down easily if they lack institutional support or are banned. People lose the ability to work co-operatively, to bargain and negotiate with others, and a sense of community withers away. Corporations and government agencies are then able to exploit and manipulate people’s need for personal and collective security. In such societies, people are no longer fully rounded individuals but are merely consumers or ciphers: in short, they are machines. The underlying values and assumptions of such societies become important in determining whether hyper-individualist societies become fragmented or develop a communitarian nature based on individuals working together and Curtis completely overlooked these features.






Young and Innocent: a girl finds truth and wisdom through deception in light-hearted crime thriller comedy

Alfred Hitchcock, “Young and Innocent” (1938)

A plucky teenage girl aids a young man on the run from bumbling police who suspect him of murder by driving him in her police-chief dad’s car through the English countryside. Sounds like the kind of young adult crime thriller fiction Enid Blyton might have once wanted to write but in fact this is the synopsis of a light-hearted and entertaining film by Alfred Hitchcock. The original source material is a whodunnit by writer Josephine Tey but as was his habit Hitchcock reworked the story into another variation of the meta-movie running in his head in which an innocent man, falsely accused of a heinous crime, must prove his honesty and character by finding the real culprit with no help other than a feisty and resourceful blonde lady by his side. Whom he falls in love with, naturally. A link object – in this case, a raincoat – provides an implausible yet valuable clue to finding and identifying the murderer who conveniently gives himself away at the film’s climax.

Seventeen-year-old actor Nova Pilbeam, boasting past childhood acting experience, steals the show as the determined Erica who is unwillingly drafted by Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) into helping him but who ends up taking charge of the search for the real criminal. The character of Erica could have been very one-dimensional jolly-hockey-sticks / senior high-school prefect and while Erica does veer very closely to that stereotype, Pilbeam works into the character spunk and warmth and not a little desperation at times. Tisdall on the other hand is blank and isn’t much help to his own cause even when the couple fetch up at a pub and a fight breaks out there which traps Erica; Tisdall’s attempt to rescue her ends up with her rescuing him. The romance which develops between the two is very fleeting and not at all convincing, and one has the impression Hitch himself was rather uncomfortable with it due to Erica’s very young age (she’s 16 years old, Tisdall is over 30 years of age) and the circumstances in which Erica and Tisdall are thrown together.

The adults in the film are laughable stereotypes: there’s a kind-hearted tramp who could have easily taken advantage of Erica when they’re alone together; Erica’s suspicious aunt and easy-going uncle are a comic couple; the police chasing Erica and Tisdall get into all kinds of silly scrapes; and the crook himself turns out to be a nervous wreck who undoes himself by overdosing on tranquillisers when he sees police surrounding him. (He does not know that they’re actually after someone else which is part of the situation comedy in the film’s ballroom scenes.) The only adult who comes out looking sensible is Erica’s father, a benevolent and comfortingly patriarchal presence.

The film has impressive technical chops as well with a tracking camera shot gliding across the huge ballroom scene to focus on the crook playing drums in a jazz band. While Hitch at the time was not very good with co-ordinating and filming crowd scenes generally, the same can’t be said for his mass ballroom-dancing scenes which are well done and include some slapstick comedy. Quick camera shots here and there and a rescue scene in an abandoned mine herald similar scenes in future Hollywood works like “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “The Birds”.

The film is well-named: Erica, initially innocent in the ways of the world, becomes aware of its injustices in her effort to prove Tisdall’s innocence and by film’s end, she is a very knowing and transformed character while Tisdall has barely changed. Erica has learned that to get to the bottom of things to find the truth, one must practise deception and practise it better than everyone else in the film does. Familiar motifs running through the film include trains, distrust of police, resistance to authority, and birds and seascapes as heralds of disaster caused by human sexual jealousy and violence. Although “Young and Innocent” goes easy on the suspense and menace, and often overdoes the comedy especially in its later ballroom scenes, it’s an enjoyable comedy crime caper that even young people today might thrill to. Enid Blyton might well have wished she had scripted this flick.


The Way of All Flesh: a broad introduction to an unlikely heroine in the history of medical research

Adam Curtis, “The Way of All Flesh” (1997)

As told in this fascinating documentary, the story of Henrietta Lacks – or rather, that of her cancer tumour and the cells collected from it by scientist George Otto Gey in 1951 – is also the story of a particular direction in cancer research and the ups and downs it took over the years. It is also the story about human indifference and greed, politics and a universal emotional rollercoaster of triumph turning into despair which in its turn becomes hope, anticipation and triumph again only to plunge into despair yet again. Narrated by Curtis in his superficially neutral and unassuming manner, the film plays out as a fairly straightforward documentary with a mix of interviews, films of cell activity and old newsreels. The musical soundtrack is dreamy and wistful and, based as it is on repetitions of the Maurice Jarre melody known as “Lara’s Theme”, seems appropriate for the film given that, just as Henrietta Lacks’s family fought to have their mother recognised and acknowledged as a pioneer in cancer research, so too in the film that the music was originally written for, “Dr Zhivago”, a character searches for Lara’s lost daughter and, believing he has found her, tells her of her parents’ history (but she’s not convinced).

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman living in Baltimore, consulted a doctor about abnormal bleeding after giving birth to her son. The doctor referred her to John Hopkins Hospital where the doctor there found a tumour in her cervix and cut pieces of it to send away for tests. The tests confirmed she had cervical cancer. During treatment, part of her cervix which contained both healthy and cancerous cells was cut away and sent to a scientist, Dr George Otto Gey. Gey propagated the cells (now known as HeLa cells) which he then donated, along with the methods and processes he used to develop them, to any scientist who requested them. At the time, permission from patients or their families was not required or sought by custom and neither Lacks nor her family knew that her cells were being used for study and experimentation.

The cells were used by Jonas Salk in testing his polio vaccine and were also used in medical research studies other than cancer research. Because the cells grow easily and are very hardy, and were passed around laboratories all over the world, they ended up contaminating other tissue cell cultures. When scientist Walter Nelson-Rees blew the whistle on HeLa’s widespread contamination of other tissue cell cultures, millions of dollars’ worth of cancer research, particularly research on possible cancer viruses and other cell research (some of which went back to the 1950s), went up in smoke.

The film does a good job of detailing the government hoopla surrounding cancer research and the search for a possible viral cause for cancer in the 1960s. A wealthy socialite benefactor donated generously to research and many Hollywood celebrities joined the TV campaign urging the public to support cancer research. Considerable time is given to the political stoush that almost occurred when Soviet researchers had announced a breakthrough in their cancer research which led to US and Soviet exchanges of cell tissue material and the Soviet material was found to be contaminated with HeLa cells! Later, when HeLa cells became the focus of gene mapping and researchers began to seek out Lacks’s family for information, the children finally learned about what had been done with Lacks’s cancer cells and the film documents in a general way the family’s long fight to have their mother acknowledged as an unwitting pioneer in medical research. There is some mention of the family’s fight for financial compensation but it is superficial and viewers end up with little knowledge of the family’s financial situation at the time the film was made (mid-1990s).

Generally the film serves as a broad introduction to the life and history of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells which continue to thrive, wanted and unwanted, in cell cultures around the world. What’s missing is some insight into the process of scientific research and how stringent its controls and regulations are or are not, and what aspects of human behaviour, both positive and negative, are illustrated in scientific endeavour. It seems that too many scientists neglect to check cell cultures they receive for possible contamination before picking up their tweezers and syringes. You’d think they’d get warnings about checking their equipment and materials before doing any work drummed into their heads at school so much that they’d be doing it in their sleep. Human error and other shortcomings, such as people taking for granted that someone has already cleaned the equipment, simple ignorance or seeing what you want to see, should have been mentioned also. Then of course there’s the pressure from employers such as pharmaceutical firms on people to get results as quickly as possible before other researchers hit the jackpot, forcing researchers to take short cuts or even to fake results. Beyond the presentation of facts, the film barely grazes the social and ethical issues brought up by the history of the HeLa cells and their wayward journeys around the world and viewers interested in more information and the fate of Lacks’s family (who at the time this review was posted still can’t afford the medical insurance to buy the treatments and medicines that the HeLa cells made possible) should read Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, published in 2010.

Since “The Way of all Flesh” was made, there have been developments in cervical cancer research of which director Curtis must surely appreciate the hidden irony: the cancer that killed Lacks has been attributed to the human papilloma virus and a vaccine (Gardasil) has been developed for it. The vaccine itself has become the subject of much controversy due to various side effects (including death) and the fact that in some parts of the US, its maker Merck Inc has been aggressively lobbying state governments to make it compulsory for girls aged 11 and 12 years before they can attend school.

The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough): informative enough for a general audience

Adam Curtis “The Living Dead (Episode 2: You have used Me as a Fish long enough)” (1995)

Curtis sure doesn’t do things by halves and his “The Living Dead” trilogy which explores the manipulation of memory and history for political and social ends is no different. Episode 2 of the series revolves around the history of mind control and brainwashing and the eagerness of psychiatrists to co-operate with governments and intelligence agencies on moulding human beings to create the perfect spy or assassin. Curtis builds up a persuasive argument with an entertaining and often whimsical mixture of interviews, newsreels, previous documentaries, science education films and excerpts from movies like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, embellished with a music soundtrack that often comments ironically on the incidents it accompanies.

The film traces the history of a particular strand of neuroscience that starts with Canadian surgeon Wilder Penfield who found that he could stimulate parts of the brain with electrical probes and thus map areas of the brain corresponding to the functions of limbs and body organs. His work raised the possibility of changing people’s memories and the creation of rational human beings. Scottish-American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was introduced to and inspired by Penfield’s work and he became convinced that by changing people’s memories and thinking through psychiatry, he could get rid of nationalism, prejudice and other undesirable mental traits that had encouraged the rise of authoritarian rule in Germany during the 1930s and led to the outbreak of World War 2.

Cameron was recruited by the CIA in the late 1950s to work on experiments that involved erasing the minds and memories of patients and then rebuilding the subjects’ personalities according to his whims. The wider political and military context of these experiments is shown in the film: the US government was alarmed by reports of apparent brainwashing of American POWs by the Soviet Union and China during the Korean War and the CIA wanted to keep abreast of psychology experiments the NKVD (later the KGB) was supposedly conducting. Curtis later wanders away from Cameron’s experiments to focus on the CIA’s obsession with assassinating Fidel Castro and the possibility that US President John F Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been brainwashed during his time in the Soviet Union. Eventually the CIA stopped funding mind control experiments and along with the US military began to fund research into developing technology with computer software that mimicked characteristics of the human mind such as memory and visual recognition.

Overall, “You have used me …” is a cleverly made and informative film for audiences not familiar with the history of mind control experiments and other unethical experiments sponsored by the US government and its agencies. Each topic touched on in the film is worthy of a 60-minute documentary in its own right so if you’re looking for some fairly in-depth information into the nuts and bolts of how Cameron was approached by the CIA and agreed to work for that agency and what exactly he achieved for the CIA, you may be disappointed. Curiously, nowhere in “You have used me …” does Curtis actually utter the magic term “MKULTRA” as that was exactly what Cameron was working under: his experiments formed part of the MKULTRA project. The omission of the entire MKULTRA project and the related Project BLUEBIRD (later Project ARTICHOKE) seems strange; at the very least, Curtis could have acknowledged that Cameron’s work was one part, albeit a very important one, of the umbrella project that involved the use of chemical, biological and (gulp!) “radiological” methods of achieving mind control.

The film’s conclusion that memory can hold individuals and societies back is chilling. Surely Curtis’s intention here is tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even satirical. The historical context he refers to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which among other things led to various ethnic rivalries, long suppressed by the Communist government, in that country breaking out. A better argument for what happened is that various ethnic groups, denied the political tools to negotiate and hammer out an agreement and a compensation process to settle overlapping territorial and property claims, and all residing in a country with a weakly developed (and probably corrupt) legal system, ended up resorting to violence once the old authoritarian fetters fell away. I also can’t imagine Curtis fronting up to groups like, say, Armenians and Jews, and telling them that focussing on past historical traumas of repeated genocide is holding them back and they should let go of these memories! The loss of memory was not sufficient enough to hold back hundreds of Cameron’s former patients from suing the CIA for compensation: in 1984 the CIA settled out of court with eight plaintiffs who brought a class action lawsuit against it and in 2004 (admittedly beyond the film’s scope) a Montreal court decision allowed over 250 people to claim cash compensation.

The upshot of the failed mind control experiments – Project MKULTRA was terminated in 1973 – was that the US government, the CIA and others concluded that it’s easier to manipulate history than to manipulate minds. History not only can be rewritten to suit the victors and make losers like Nazi Germany the supreme evil bogeymen, it can also be scripted in advance: many countries around the world with leaders not to the taste of NATO, the US, Israel or the EU and suffering invasions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” will surely agree.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power): film cherry-picks facts to fit its premise

Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power)” (2011)

A curious and challenging visual essay, the first in a series of documentaries about how humans have transferred power to their machines and how technology dominates and moulds our thinking and culture, this film posits the idea that eccentric Russian-American author and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) is the spiritual grandmother of our modern social and economic system and its global networks, and how her ideas and beliefs have indirectly destabilised global financial systems, wrecking economies and bringing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 through the so-called California Ideology adopted by the Silicon Valley IT community. A mix of voice-over narration, delivered by Curtis in a droll accent and sometimes feigning astonishment, with interviews and a soundtrack of songs selected for ironic comment on the narrative and the visual information, much of which is previous newsreels, old movie clips and Curtis’s own footage, makes for a distinctive and rather dream-like piece in which the documentary’s premise becomes more plausible than it actually is.

Through her novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, both of which maintain an on-again/off-again modest popularity with the general public, and other works, Rand espoused a philosophy that decried religion, philosophy and all other belief systems as forms of control by which elites kept the masses in psychological and physical slavery and which argued that individual pursuit of self-interest and happiness alone would result in stable societies and peace. Rand’s ideas attracted several followers, known as The Collective, of whom one was Alan Greenspan, the future US Chairman of the Federal Reserve and finance czar to the Clinton government in the 1990s. Rand’s philosophy appealed to people working in information technology, the finance industry, politics and economics, and the notion that computer networks could monitor and stabilise financial and economic systems and networks, bolstered by some dodgy human psychology experiments and other research in game theory, probability and risk management, caught on. With computers controlling and stabilising the global finance industry, people become free to follow their dreams and find happiness as Randian heroes.

The film hops between detailing Ayn Rand’s affair with one of her followers, Nathaniel Branden, and Greenspan’s advice to US President Bill Clinton to let the markets self-regulate. The New Economy so unleashed delivered mixed results and led to a financial crash across east and southeast Asia in 1997. Countries affected were forced to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, prompting international investors to bail out which in turn led to economic collapse. This had very serious consequences: among others, rioting broke out in Indonesia and led to President Suharto’s downfall after over 30 years of corrupt authoritarian rule.

The last part of the film deals with China’s apparent undertaking to manage the US economy (and so stabilising the world economy and avoiding a repeat of the 1997 Asian financial crisis) by pegging the yuan at an artificially low exchange rate to the US dollar. Cheap Chinese-made goods flooded the US and other Western markets and the money earned was invested by the Chinese government in US government bonds. US banks were flush with money which they then lent out to individuals, businesses and corporations with no regard for borrowers’ credit worth. The result was a property bubble, a huge accumulation of private and public debt and the US government being able to conduct wars and proxy wars in several countries. Of course China’s attempt to tinker with the global economy was bound to end in tears as the offshoring of industry and jobs from the US to China led to households and businesses defaulting on loans across America.

Curtis’s argument looks very persuasive but this reviewer had the impression he was cherry-picking his information to make it all fit his film’s premise. He seems unaware that Rand’s ideas were attractive to business, political and science leaders in US society because that society already adhered to a set of values that privileged individual action over collective action and which defined freedom as the absence of restraint and external control over one’s destiny. This negative definition of freedom, often in alliance with escape and remaking one’s identity, is a very American idea arising in part from the nation’s revolutionary birth, its subsequent conquest of territory and the waves of immigration the US experienced over the 19th century. Rand’s emphasis on “rationality” and “objectivity” finds its parallel in capitalist economic theory that assumes consumers in a free market act rationally. As for the notion that people act in self-interest and try to maximise their happiness as measured in accumulation of money and material goods, this can be traced back to ideas and concepts developed by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, all of whom lived before Rand and whose ideas may have been absorbed into capitalist economics as assumptions. Global financial crises were occurring as far back as the 1890s at least before Rand and Greenspan came along. Rand’s ideal human, free to pursue happiness and self-actualisation, is not different in essence from its equivalents in philosophy (think Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist idea that people must decide who or what they want to be) and in psychology (Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs); and we shouldn’t discount the possibility that her admirers have interpreted and changed her ideas to suit their self-serving agendas.

The film’s notion that China attempts to manage the US economy in the way suggested by Curtis is a laughable idea: there are many different reasons why China has deliberately pegged its currency at a low rate relative to the US dollar, not all of them to do with “regulating” the US economy. Some are more about making Chinese Communism look good while keeping potential problems under control. China needs industry and jobs to keep its restive population in check. The country has over 100 million unemployed people and there are an estimated 40 million men who will never marry due to a severe gender shortage caused by the one-child birth policy; these men are viewed by the government as a potential source of discontent and strife. Add to that the perception many Chinese have of their government as not trustworthy or ethical and it’s no wonder the Chinese government pegs all its faith in and throws all its effort behind relentless economic and material progress and advancement; should the economy falter, the fragile political contract between ruler and ruled will crumble.

At least Curtis aims very high, striving to explain the philosophical basis for the way various modern technological phenomena have developed and the role they may have played in the development of rolling economic crises throughout the world since the 1990s. Although the presentation is artistic and original, combining the kitsch with more serious matter and featuring a musical soundtrack that often comments ironically and light-heartedly on the images it plays over, Curtis’s structuring of the issues and ideas he wants to explore is hodge-podge and the connections between and across issues can be very tenuous. Given that Curtis’s focus is on technology and its role in shaping the global financial landscape of the past 30 years, I find it curious that he doesn’t pay attention to the rise of IT companies like Apple Inc and Microsoft and their corporate philosophies, whether these incorporate Ayn Rand’s beliefs and how such philosophies and the companies’ structures and culture might influence the structure of IT systems and networks. How these networks in their turn influence the thinking and actions of individuals and institutions who purchase Apple and Microsoft products might be a topic worth investigating.

Ironically, global political power is shown to pass from governments to the financial industry and its elite through blind trust in technology. This finds its parallel in the lives of Ayn Rand and US President Bill Clinton, both of whose love affairs with Nathanael Branden and Monica Lewinski respectively destroyed their integrity and leadership and dissipated power to others. It is a wonder Curtis doesn’t seize on these parallels and make more of them than he does.