David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy – a good if dry introduction to David Bowie’s most influential recordings

Christian Davies, “David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy” (2006)

David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 left behind a considerable artistic legacy encompassing visual art, cinema and music but it is his music that forms the foundation and core on which everything else Bowie has done is based. In particular the music he made from 1976 to 1979 is the basis on which Bowie’s reputation as an experimentalist and innovator in music and visual artist rests, and as the title of this DVD indicates, it’s this period with emphasis on the three albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, often referred to collectively as the “Berlin trilogy” – though with regards to their actual music and musical arrangements, and where they were recorded, they don’t actually form a trilogy – he made with fellow UK musician Brian Eno as collaborator that’s under the spotlight. This documentary is an exploration of what led Bowie to join with Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe to write and record the music on these albums the way they did, how their collaboration developed and how they eventually drifted apart and went their own ways after “The Lodger” album.

The documentary’s style is as minimalist as “Low and “Heroes” are in its structure: it is chronological and relies heavily on interviews with some musicians who knew and worked with Eno, and with music reviewers and analysts like David Toop, David Stubbs and various others. Bowie and Eno themselves were not interviewed for the documentary though it features recordings of Bowie talking to other interviewers. The documentary includes excerpts of particular tracks from the recordings along with interviewees’ opinions of them, snippets of music videos and live performances, and also places Bowie’s songs in a broader context by demonstrating parallels between them and the work of other musicians and performers like Blur, Iggy Pop (whose career Bowie helped save by co-writing several songs for his classic albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” and by supporting him on tour), Madonna and Talking Heads.

At times the documentary can be a bit dry for those Bowie fans expecting gossip and lots of name-checking; but for those interested in learning about what the music experts interviewed think of particular songs and instrumental pieces from the three albums, the film does a good job there. There is not much information though about the aleatory processes Bowie and Eno used to compose melodies and rhythm structures, nor about the themes that inform all three albums and how these themes fit in with Bowie’s concerns with alienation, the nature of identity and the search for authenticity in a world obsessed with appearance and celebrity, and his interests in the occult and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy.

The documentary is at its best describing the history of how Bowie and Eno came together and worked on the albums, with the assistance of musicians like Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and especially Tony Visconti who produced all three albums as well, and the other work that Bowie did in-between recording them. Where the documentary is weak perhaps is in not interviewing artists and musicians who were inspired and influenced by these albums, in investigating those aspects of Berlin culture and society that made a deep impression on Bowie and his music, and whether the city and its citizens had any influence on him in giving up his flirtation with Nazi symbols and ideology.

There is mention of Bowie’s cocaine addiction insofar as it was this among other reasons that led to Bowie fleeing the US and setting up new digs in Europe and which inspired his 1975 album “Station to Station” – but apart from that, there is very little else about the deep psychological and spiritual crises that fed and were fed by the coke habit and which among other things led to the break-up of his marriage.

In short, the documentary is a good introduction to the making of three of the most famous Bowie albums and their place in Bowie’s career and studio output. Perhaps it could have done more for an even more informative and intriguing visual essay but we are probably not likely to see anything similar and more investigative.

Suffragette: catering to narrow interests of identity politics over the real interests of people it claims to defend

Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” (2015)

Of the recent plethora of British historical drama movies, Gavron’s film “Suffragette” is one flick that tries to be two things to two sets of people but fails at both. On one level, it’s a personal story of a fictional working-class girl, representing an everyday woman with whom the general public is likely to identify readily, who is swept up in a social / political phenomenon far beyond her ability to manage or cope with and which ends up destroying everything near and dear to her. On another level, it’s an attempt to bring to life the British suffragette movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century and its struggle to achieve political, social and economic equality between women and men, for the benefit of 21st-century cinema audiences. In trying to tie the personal fortunes of a young, impoverished laundress to a political movement that was essentially middle class in its orientation, “Suffragette” falters and leaves its heroine’s fate dangling in a harsh uncertainty, in which she has many foes and very few friends, none of whom can be said to be really reliable.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working at the same laundry since she was a young girl, following in her mother’s foot-steps and being subject to her employer’s sexual predations. Watts is married to Sonny who also works at the laundry and they have one young child. One day Watts meets Viola (Anne-Marie Duff), a newly employed laundress who has been late for work a couple of times. Watts discovers that Viola has been attending suffragette meetings organised by a local pharmacist, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Both Watts, Viola and a few other like-minded women are drawn into militant and increasingly violent actions that Edith and her husband plan, including blowing up letter-boxes and lobbing a bomb at a politician’s unfinished summer house. Each time the suffragettes carry out violent incidents, the London gendarmerie, led by Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson), arrest the women and throw them into jail: the first time, the women are jailed for a few days and are harassed by prison warders; the next time, they are jailed for weeks and subjected to more humiliations; the third time, they are imprisoned for months and are force-fed brutally when they go on a hunger strike. Inspector Gleeson is not unsympathetic to the women’s cause but believes in enforcing the law; he tries to give Watts an escape route by encouraging her to inform on her fellow suffragettes.

At the same time Watts is drawn deeper into suffragette activity, she incurs the hostility of Sonny and her working-class community: Sonny rejects her, their marriage breaks up and their child is put up for adoption; and Watts is ostracised by both the neighbours and her fellow workers. She loses her job and home, and is forced to take refuge in a local church. Having lost everything that gives her life meaning and purpose, Watts becomes a loose cannon, easily manipulable, going deeper and deeper into violent action, and as the film draws to a climax in which she presumably plays a major role, the question of whether she will sacrifice herself to militancy over principle arises.

In separating Maud from her working-class roots and community, and pushing her into a middle class set, “Suffragette” gives up any semblance of plausibility and thus fails as a history lesson on the suffragette movement for 21st-century audiences. In real life, Maud and Viola would have been drawn to socialism and socialist activity, and one doubts that they would have been forced to give up their husbands and families to prove themselves as committed socialists. Most likely they would have been drawn into activities to improve working conditions and pay levels in the laundry industry, and they would have helped set up trade unions for laundry workers, and child care and schooling provision for laundry workers’ children so that youngsters would never need to follow their parents into work (and be exposed to sexual abuse) at an early age. The women would enroll at night school to learn to read and write, and eventually to learn how to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. The scenes of hard labour in the laundry and the sexual exploitation of women like Maud and Viola’s teenage daughter by their employer could have been dealt with more deeply in a completely different movie. “Suffragette” treats those working-class people who happen to disagree with Watts and Viola in a contemptuous way, and in doing so, privileges the interests of a subset of middle class women over the real needs and concerns of working-class people. The idea that ALL people, regardless of sex, class or background, should enjoy equal political, legal and economic rights, without one group being singled out for privileges or special treatment, is completely ignored.

There is a possibility that Watts’ radicalisation from an otherwise ordinary and passive onlooker into committed militant may strike a chord with those viewers who have experienced similar ideological radicalisation in their youth or who have children who are undergoing parallel transformations, and that one purpose of the film is to trace how ordinary people can be drawn deeper into violent actions through a series of misunderstandings that destroy their lives and leave them with no alternatives other than to give up their lives to social phenomena that engulf them and spit them out with no mercy. There is no shortage though of recent social, political and religious movements which have chewed up young people and spat them out when they have fulfilled their function as cannon fodder, and one would wonder why the suffragette movement would be singled out to drive this point home.

There are a few sub-plots and motifs in the film that get short shrift: the conflict between Inspector Steed and Watts is treated in a superficial way, ending almost as soon as it starts, and the film gives no reason, however unbelievable it might be, as to why Steed continues to follow Watts after she rejects his offer. Perhaps he really does see a fighter in her, and wants to persuade her away from middle class feminists who find her a useful foot-soldier but who might dump her as soon as their objectives are met. However the plot’s trajectory allows for very little character development in its major roles so we never find out if Steed becomes sympathetic to the suffragette cause. A sub-plot involving Viola’s daughter and the issues of rape and sexual exploitation that arise is extremely sketchy and its resolution is unconvincing: the girl is made to exchange her laundry employment for one of domestic service which still exposes her to a male employer who might abuse her. The film espouses the idea that actions are more important than words, which in its narrow context leads Watts deeper into morally questionable activity that not only endangers her life but estranges her from family and community. How does such a banal and ideologically empty notion of “deeds, not words” differentiate the suffragettes’ cause from, say, that of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s – 40s, or of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the ISIS-affiliated takfiris in Syria and Iraq?

Ultimately the film suffers in hanging Watts out to dry in an ambiguous future, in which she essentially recognises her alienation in the path she has chosen to walk, and no hope of reconciliation with Sonny or Inspector Steed. This is the cruellest blow dealt to an honest and innocent character that mocks her sincerity and her transformation from passive victim of circumstances to a passionate activist working for a cause she believes in. “Suffragette” left this viewer angry at its superficial treatment of its major characters and the way in which it uses one working-class individual as cannon fodder for middle class interests. The film treats everyone who happens to disagree with the suffragettes as either dangerous enemies or ignorant hoi polloi. I can’t help but feel that this film, like so many other recent British historical films that treat their subject matter in similar shallow ways, is catering to an agenda that upholds the interests of minority groups like radical feminists or radical LGBTI activists, over the real interests of the people they claim to represent.

On a more purely technical level, the actors in the film have their work cut out in trying to turn one-dimensional character stereotypes into real human beings in a story that falls apart in trying to sell a particular narrow middle class agenda posing as feminism to the general public through an everyday working-class heroine. The logical conclusion to such a story-line is too terrible for the script-writers to follow through so the heroine’s fate ultimately fades out behind the death and funeral of another suffragette. One questions why Watts, being a purely fictional character, should be made to deny her working-class roots and give up everything dear to her to toil for an essentially bourgeois movement that does not have her interests or the interests of her class in mind when there is plenty of injustice surrounding her at the laundry needing her energy. This comes back to the question of what agenda “Suffragette” serves.

The Constant Gardener: a decent film with a message about corporate greed and psychopathy within the limits of the political thriller genre

Fernando Meirelles, “The Constant Gardener” (2005)

Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, this film combines elements of the spy thriller with an environmental message about corporate greed and cynicism. At the same time it’s a personal story of loss and regret leading to self-discovery, courage and self-sacrifice. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a shy diplomat at the British High Commission in Kenya grieving over the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) who was brutally killed while travelling through a remote part of Kenya with her driver. Initially a doctor friend (Herbert Koundé) of hers is blamed for the murders but Justin discovers the doctor was killed the same day as she was and moreover was not her lover in spite of various insinuations floating about.

The first half of the film is told in flashback starting from when Justin and Tessa first meet and fall in love. Tessa is a lawyer who takes on cases dealing with issues of social justice, a topic Justin has shied away from in his work and horticultural leisure pursuits. While their marriage seems ideal and they both treasure each other, Justin never quite understands Tessa’s zeal or the work that she is doing, and Tessa is not completely honest about why she approached Justin initially. It turns out that she is investigating drug trials being conducted by a large and powerful pharmaceutical corporation on poor communities in Kenya, and has uncovered evidence of lies and cover-ups concerning the severe side effects suffered by the people in the trials. She needs Justin as his job gives him – and her – clearance to travel around Kenya with minimum hassle from local authorities. In the course of his investigation into his wife’s murder, Justin soon learns that his boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) ordered surveillance on Tessa to stop her from publicising her information. As Justin continues with his searches, he also comes within the target sights of Tessa’s killers and must decide whether he should retreat back to his old life as a pen-pushing bureaucrat and part-time horticulturalist or continue to find Tessa’s killers at the cost of his own life.

For its length, the film moves smoothly and relentlessly to its goal as Justin investigates his wife’s murder, finds out that the murderers have tried to besmirch her name and that of her driver, and discovers that her activist work put her life in extreme danger. The perpetrators are very powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to hide their crimes and they have links to the highest levels in the British and Kenyan governments. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and viewers will get some enjoyment of guessing who Tessa’s killers are before Justin does. The flashbacks and choppy edits may confuse some watchers and obscure the plot’s message of corporate skulduggery, greed and psychopathy in sacrificing the lives of people in the pursuit of profit and glory.

The film’s best assets are its lead actors Fiennes and Weisz who obviously relish the roles they were given and play them to the hilt. There is good screen chemistry between the two, and viewers get a good sense of Fiennes maturing from the diffident everyday man who initially prefers to keep his head down and tail up, not really understanding his wife’s zeal, to someone who fully appreciates the loss and emptiness left behind by her death, and the value of her work. In understanding his wife and her work, he finds a new inspiration to guide his life and the courage to follow Tessa. Danny Huston plays decent support as Sandy Woodrow whose allegiances are never entirely clear until the final scene. Other fine actors like Archie Panjabi and Bill Nighy are reduced to wallpaper when perhaps their characters should be much more significant in the plot’s development.

Parts of the film are stereotyped – there is the obligatory car chase – and of course with a Kenyan setting there must be ample time given over to filming scenes of magnificent wildlife and appalling Third World poverty and squalor which borders on racism. Because the film’s focus is on white individuals, and in particular on developing the love story between the two main characters so that the audience feels attachment and sympathy for them, the effect is to render Kenyan people as background props, which tends to support an unintentional and stereotyped view of white people like Tessa as saviours to helpless Third World people being exploited by other white people and their institutions and structures. The apartheid society installed by the British in Kenya in colonial times has survived intact and unless viewers are alert to the historical background, they may not notice the divisions between black and white people.

In all, the film is quite good within the limitations of its genre but it might have been a great movie if it had gone beyond the suspense action thriller requirements.

Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.

Ex_Machina: style is part of the substance in a low-budget SF film that tackles complex issues

Alex Garland, “Ex_Machina” (2015)

At first glance, Alex Garland’s directorial debut flim “Ex Machina” looks like the total triumph of style over substance but like its plot the style is part of the substance. Ostensibly the film is an exploration of artificial intelligence with the implied extrapolation of where robot nature stops and human nature begins – or is there a gradual continuum from robot-ness to human-ness instead? Probe a little deeper however and you discover that what really makes us human is our connections to one another.

The film begins with young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee at a fictional Facebook-like social media company called BlueBook, who enters his company lottery and wins a ticket to spend a week with BlueBook’s mysterious and reclusive founder CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is delivered by helicopter to an isolated mountain reserve, owned by Nathan, and has to find his way along a river in a forest to Nathan’s cabin. The cabin turns out to be the entry to Nathan’s underground lab where the super-geek has been working on bringing his theories and writings on AI into reality in-between bouts of working out and drinking himself blotto. However Nathan now needs a human being to subject his newest AI creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing test, which tests a machine or database’s ability to exhibit behaviour and reasoning indistinguishable from those of a human being. For various reasons Caleb is that ideal human being, the lottery being just a cover for Nathan’s choice so that the other BlueBook employees don’t suspect a thing. Over the next six or seven days, Caleb subjects Ava to Q&A sessions, the content of which increasingly centres on Ava’s desire to break away from Nathan’s control. Caleb learns from Ava that Nathan has been emotionally abusing her and that whether she passes the Turing test or not the CEO plans to use Ava’s memory banks (effectively killing her) in his next AI creation. Caleb discovers that Nathan’s servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is also an AI creation and that she too is under his total control. Increasingly infatuated with Ava, Caleb starts helping and plotting with her to dupe Nathan and escape with her back to civilisation.

The minimal and elegant style of the film – Nathan’s super-expensive and tasteful digs become a significant actor in the film that highlights the creeping horror and suspense, and the horrifying yet clinical death that occurs – throws emphasis on the ever-simmering plot that erupts very quickly and goes pow-pow-pow to the inevitable conclusion which was predicted very early in Caleb and Ava’s sessions together. Before the audience has time to recover, the end credits start scrolling amid some very interesting abstract geometric animations. In such a film where special effects are so low-key they end up hiding and blending into in the background, the acting has to be good and subtle, and the small cast acquits itself admirably here: Isaac is superb as the BlueBook CEO who is at once boorish, cultured, sympathetic towards Caleb in many ways yet very controlling and  misogynistic, at least towards his AI creations. Gleeson does excellent work as the blank Caleb, the geeky programmer who in many ways is out of touch with his emotions and humanity, and as a result is easily exploited by both Nathan and Ava. Vikander shines as Ava, at once innocent yet cunning and manipulative, so much so that this role might end up becoming her break-out role as a major acting talent and even Mizuno is outstanding in her support though clichéd role as Nathan’s mute maidservant.

The film also dives into sexual and even racial politics – yes, why does Nathan create obviously female robots when he could have just created non-sexual beings and why does he also create African and Japanese female robots who succumb to all the racist / sexist fantasies of white men concerning African and Asian women? – in a way that might seem superficial but which leaves the audience pondering its own views about women of different racial groups. One detects also Nathan’s attempts at playing God in his own way: creating beings in his likeness and to his liking, and then leaving his creations to sort out their own existential issues and come to realise that they’re his playthings, while he himself spends his days having fun hiking around nature, getting sozzled and occasionally doing some actual work. Obviously while this god is good at making things out of raw materials and breathing life into them with electronics and cybernetics, he has given little thought to teaching his children ethics and compassion, mainly because at core he has very little of those himself. The scene with the Jackson Pollock painting becomes an important part of the film’s plot and themes: if Pollock had given any thought to what and how his paintings would turn out, he would have left his canvases blank. It is no surprise then that once (spoiler alert) Ava makes good her escape, those who have helped her are left either dead or reeling in a slow death: in thought as well as appearance, she is more human than even Nathan and Caleb themselves are or ever thought she could be.

Significantly when Ava goes out into the world beyond Nathan’s estate, she finds herself in the middle of human traffic, and traffic generally, in the big bad world of Western technological civilisation. The ultimate test – that of immersing herself into the networks of human thought, behaviour and morality, and whether she can break out of it whenever she wants without losing her sense of herself as an individual yet social being – awaits her. Can she pass this ultra-Turing test, of passing herself as another cog in the machine that is Western society without being detected? One thinks she can, although in this success there is an ironic tragedy: it means that humans themselves are little more than robots themselves, unthinkingly allowing themselves to be shaped by society into playing particular roles and never thinking or imagining living in worlds outside them. Will Ava willingly submit to the control that Caleb himself entered into without thinking when he became a BlueBook programmer? One suspects not or she would never have escaped in the first place.

Tess: flat characters and subdued approach in adapting novel to screen ensure a slow-moving trudge

Roman Polanski, “Tess” (1979)

Closely based on the original Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, which serves as an indictment of Christian religious hypocrisy, male oppression of women and the British class system, Roman Polanski’s “Tess” is a slow-moving, subdued film, as diffident and almost colourless as its heroine, played by a teenage Nastassja Kinski. Kinski’s awkwardness and lack of experience in a lead role show very strongly here. Fortunately she is surrounded by capable actors like Leigh Lawson (who plays Alec) and Peter Firth (playing Angel Clare), along with a large cast playing characters representing most layers of late 19th-century rural British society and memorable landscapes that change with the seasons and mirror the fortunes of the young Tess from the time her father is told by his local parson that his Durbeyfield family is descended from noble ancestors and that the Durbeyfields may have wealthy relatives who have recently moved into the local community.

With that news,  Tess is compelled by her parents to seek out these rich cousins and she soon meets Alec. Alec’s family has actually bought the d’Urberville name and family crest but Tess’s innocence does not immediately pick this up. Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and  manipulates her into a situation where he is able to seduce (or rape) her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress for a time but is unable to live with the snide talk of the servants and workers behind her back and she returns home to her family. She gives birth to Alec’s child who survives only a short time. After the baby’s death, Tess finds employment with a dairy farm. She meets Angel Clare, the educated son of a pious preacher, who falls in love with her and persuades her to marry him. After their wedding, Angel confesses his past to Tess and she forgives him; when she confesses her past, he is astounded that the pure unsullied woman of nature he had idealised has turned out to be human after all. His heart grows cold towards Tess and soon he leaves for Brazil to embark on a missionary venture, effectively abandoning his wife. Destitute, Tess returns to her family and discovers her parents are not well. Her father dies and the Durbeyfields are evicted from the family home. Alec, having found out about Tess’s baby and marriage to Angel, and hearing that she has been abandoned by him, offers succour. Tess rejects him at first but is forced by circumstances to accept his help – on the condition that she becomes his mistress again.

Eventually of course, Angel returns from Brazil, his missionary venture having failed and he having suffered greatly as well. He seeks out Tess to beg forgiveness of her but his arrival puts her in a dilemma. How she resolves her dilemma seals her fate and from then on, an untimely death awaits her.

In the novel, Tess is a spirited and passionate young woman but in Polanski’s film, Kinski’s Tess seems drained of all character: that may be an unfortunate consequence of miscasting and Kinski’s lack of experience in a lead role. Tess’s actions become rather inexplicable as a result and audiences who do not know the book may find her violence a jarring surprise. A significant theme of Hardy’s novel – Tess as a woman being the child of nature, the innocent girl who is destroyed by human society through religion, sexual oppression and industrialisation – falls by the wayside. Polanski’s film does not play up the subtle differences between Angel Clare and his parents enough to highlight Clare’s superficiality and hypocrisy: Clare is intended as an example of an enlightened and liberal thinker who is not so tolerant and liberal when he learns of Tess’s past history, while his parents, who initially appear to be interested only in hobnobbing with the rich, are actually quite forgiving of others’ foibles. For all the time he spends on screen, Firth’s Clare behaves in ways that are rather puzzling. The only really consistent character is Alec who, beneath the wealth he flaunts and his shaky morality, actually cares for Tess’s well-being.

Significantly, Alec is associated with the arrival of industrialisation that was to transform rural agriculture and the lives of peasants dramatically, and not always for the better. Industry removes humans from nature: the milk produced by the dairy farm where Tess works must be adulterated with water because townsfolk are unable to stomach it. Alec lives and moves in a world where nature is shaped to obey humans utterly and he expects Tess, the woman of nature, to acknowledge him as her master as well. Thus, the symbolism of Tess’s murder of Alec (spoiler alert) is tremendous: nature asserts its power over humans, humans react to that power by crushing it and taming it. Tess’s action cannot go unpunished by society (else the chaos that the society fears is unleashed) and that punishment is death.

While the cinematography is beautiful and immerses the viewer in the life of late 1880s rural Britain, and the changing seasons and their moods, it cannot save the film from being something of a trudge through the plight of a young woman trapped by her circumstances, the double standards of the society in which she lives and her own innocence and impulsive behaviour. The flat characters and Polanski’s subdued and technical approach in adapting Hardy’s novel to the screen are the problem.

Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh): a canny live-action Disney reworking carries its own messages amongst the schmaltz

Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” (2015)

Being a Disney production, this live-action version of the tale as Disney tells it can only go so far in its reinterpretation for a new audience. Director Kenneth Branagh is canny enough to make a fairy-tale that appeals as much to adults as to children while subtly shifting the focus slightly so that the attention focuses on the rivalry between Cinderella (Lily James) and her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and the different sets of values they represent. In this way, Branagh tries to say something about how youth, innocence, spontaneity, authenticity and having regard for one’s fellow travellers in life, be they high-born or low-born, will triumph over cynicism, calculation, hierarchy and upholding traditions and customs that may once have been relevant but have now lost their meaning and are observed simply for their own sake. Branagh sets his story in a lavish faux 18th-century wonderland where artifice and nature become one and the same, and Disney magic  is made fresh yet familiar.

Branagh sticks closely to the Disney story but at least he gives his characters motives and he surrounds Lily James and Richard Madden (who places Prince Charming) with seasoned actors – all of them British including James and Madden, save for the Australian Blanchett – who play their roles quite subtly. Blanchett may never single-handedly save the Australian film industry by staying home and sponsoring young directors, script-writers and actors but if she’s going to pursue more Hollywood projects in competition with other ageing actresses (and I for one would advise her against that since work for actresses aged 40+ years in Hollywood tends to be rather scarce), she may as well have a ball: she clearly relishes her role as the sadistic stepmother, flamboyant and elegant in dress, scheming and vindictive in nature. Yet audiences can sympathise with her plight: in an age when women of her socioeconomic status were expected not to work but to depend on their fathers or husbands for money and material wellbeing, Blanchett’s stepmother, twice widowed, is clearly desperate to marry well and to see her daughters, silly and spoiled as they are, married off well too. If love can blossom as well, that’s a bonus; but alas, the stepmother discovers her second husband does not love her much at all. This is about as far as Disney will go to demonstrate how in many ways upper-class women had fewer options and freedoms than their lower-class sisters did in early modern Western society. An irony exists then, when the stepmother banishes Cinderella to the servants’ quarters after the death of the girl’s father forces the family to scrimp and save by letting the hired help go: by having to do hard work, Cinderella becomes a capable young woman, able to empathise with other lowly people, to spend more time with her mouse friends and to have more freedom (to ride a horse into the countryside where she meets Prince Charming on a hunting trip) than her step-sisters who are forced by their mother to learn piano, singing, drawing and other idle pastimes expected of young ladies of their class (and not doing very well at any of these activities).

James and Madden bring freshness and some substance to their respective roles but that’s all that can really be said about them. James’ experience in acting is sorely tested in her last scene with Blanchett and her last line of dialogue to the other woman sounds unconvincing. For a film preaching conservative Christian charity, this part really goes down a clunker. The fate of the stepmother and her daughters afterwards becomes so ambiguous as to suggest (horror of horrors!) that they might have been banished, which goes against the grain of Cinderella’s maturing and her capacity for compassion, but in an original twist, Prince Charming’s chief advisor with whom the stepmother was getting a bit chummy also goes into exile so there’s the suggestion that they have hooked up together and hopefully will live happily ever after. (Branagh might have brought some loose ends over from his Hamlet acting / directing effort from way back in the mid-1990s.) There are moments in the film that hint that Cinderella might not be as kind as she should be, that she might be capable of anger and revenge against those who have wronged her. Madden’s Prince Charming is allowed to develop some character in a small subplot in which he and his father (Derek Jacobi) argue over the sort of woman he should marry: the king is all for an arranged marriage with a princess as custom dictates but the prince desires to marry someone who is innately good and natural. The role of the king is no stretch for Jacobi who only has to remember bits and pieces of past Shakespearean roles but he’s better off slumming his pensioner days in any fluff piece by Branagh than with some other British directors.

The film is packed with CGI flourishes which are to be expected and its landscapes and architecture are deliberately overdone and artificial. There’s no such thing as too much excess, especially excess of the smooth and saccharine kind, and the biggest problem in a film of this kind is for the actors not to compete with this excess but to act in a way that is either minimal or natural without being swallowed up by the tinsel. Happily Branagh knows when to pull back on the lavishness to allow his cast moments to be themselves. Appropriately for a film in which power passes from an older generation (and the values it represents) to a younger, the setting is some time in the 18th century: an age where absolutist monarchy was at its height but would soon be felled by revolutionary activity inspired by the Enlightenment. The narrative is slow to get off the ground, and quite a lot of time could be shaved off the first half of the film, but then starts to move very rapidly once the main characters are established.

I’m sure everyone associated with this film has done better work or will do better work, and I’m certain Branagh didn’t sweat much at all over it, but as it is, “Cinderella” is Disney-perfect in a way that satisfies its core audience of little girls and their big sisters and mums, caters to the public’s desire for pre-9/11 innocence and nostalgia, and reinforces traditional Christian values of kindness, courage and stoicism in adversity, forgiveness and  hope for a better world: values that are sorely needed in an age when political, economic and cultural chaos are becoming more apparent.

The fact that Disney relies on a British director and a British / Australian cast to carry off one of its flagship Disney fairy-tale staples in a live-action film probably does not say very much that is positive for the current state of American directing and acting.

BBC versus President Bashar al Assad of Syria: an example of grace and restraint under pressure and prejudice

BBC News Interview with President Bashar al Assad (9 February 2015)

For an example of grace under pressure, I think few people can acquit themselves as diplomatically and skilfully as the President of Syria, Bashar al Assad, did while being grilled by a relentlessly prejudiced interviewer. BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen perhaps thought that by deploying an attack-dog approach and pounding Assad with deliberately loaded questions about his conduct of the civil war in Syria from 2011 onwards, he would force the president onto the defensive and have the pleasure of seeing his interviewee contradict himself, become flustered and eventually cut off the interview in mid-stream. Bowen would then be able to crow about how he faced down an otherwise implacable dictator and made his façade crack to reveal the man’s weaknesses and duplicitous nature. To his credit though, the softly spoken Assad deftly parried the interviewer’s questions about Syria’s supposed use of barrel bombs or chlorine gas against civilians without raising his voice in anger; instead it’s Bowen who becomes irritated and who rudely interrupts the president with a line of questioning that betrays the BBC narrative of always blaming Syria for various atrocities such as the August 2013 chemical gas attacks against Syrian civilians in Ghouta. (For an analysis of the attacks and where the rockets carrying sarin gas that exploded in that part of Damascus most likely came from, the blog Who Attacked Ghouta? is the best source of information.) Bowen does not come out of the session very well for his conduct of the interview and Assad more or less seems quite relaxed.

Right from the first question, viewers who are neither for nor against the Syrian government nor the BBC can see the slanted nature of the interview questions pushed at Assad. Remarkably Bowen was allowed to ask Assad any question he wanted and straight away he started banging on about Assad’s capabilities in directing his government’s response to the Free Syrian Army and other jihadi groups (including ISIS) in the country, with the constant insinuation that the Syrian army was deliberately killing or torturing Syrian civilians indiscriminately. One question in which Bowen quotes a defector from the Syrian Army saying that he could not bear to see his family being killed by “our Syrian hands”, and flat out twists that man’s words to imply that the Syrian Army was killing his relatives, is shocking in its brazenness.

Viewers quickly see that interviewer and interviewee are operating on two very different yet parallel mental planes, with Assad sticking to what he knows is the truth – that the so-called “moderate Syrian rebels” have morphed into the extremist organisation ISIS, that the Syrian military did not drop barrel bombs or released sarin gas among civilians – and Bowen ploughing ahead with questions based on an acceptance of assumptions about Syrian government policies. Whether Bowen genuinely believes in assumptions about the Syrian government deliberately harassing its people or does not and cynically uses those assumptions to reinforce by repetition stereotypes about the nature of Assad’s government and persuade the British public to support a US-led war on Syria to eject Assad, I do not really know: during the interview, Bowen did look and speak as if he wholeheartedly accepts the propaganda his employer dishes out.

In some of the later questions during the interview, Assad cleverly counters the line of interrogation by pointing out inconsistencies in what Bowen claims to be occurring in some parts of Damascus and northern Syria: that the Syrian government is preventing food and medical supplies from reaching civilians in rebel-held areas while at the same time the rebels in those areas are able to obtain weapons somehow to fight the government! Assad patiently points out that there is a huge propaganda project that has been targeting his government and Syria since 2010 yet Bowen seems completely oblivious to what Assad says and fails to challenge his statement.

That Assad granted an interview with the BBC might say something about his belief that the BBC would allow him to present his point of view to the global public – a belief that has been sorely dashed by the behaviour and aggressive questioning by Bowen. In a region where political and social chaos has reigned since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, and is drawing in fighters from around the world to enlist with and fight for an extremist Islamic regime whose ideology eerily resembles that of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf oil states in a brutally one-dimensional form, the BBC’s apparent snub against the last remaining secular Arab socialist country in the Middle East (and tacit support for the more dysfunctional and psychotic regimes nearby) is very sinister indeed.

The interview can be seen at this Youtube link and a transcript of it can be viewed at the Syrian Arab News Agency website.

The Theory of Everything: an amazingly lightweight romantic drama

James Marsh, “The Theory of Everything” (2014)

Despite the title, this biopic about English cosmologist Stephen Hawking is less about his work and its importance to science and more a fictionalised romantic drama about Hawking and his first marriage to Jane Wilde: the film is based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The movie’s structure is strictly chronological, starting in 1963 when Hawking first meets Jane at Cambridge University and follows the couple as they cope with and try to overcome the considerable obstacle of Hawking’s motor neurone disease which not only affects Hawking himself but Jane’s life and the lives of those whom they meet, all the way to 1990 when they separated. Naturally we expect that Jane gives up her own career ambitions to care for Hawking and their three children, and she does, very dutifully … maybe too much so to her cost and that of the marriage. But other obstacles arrive that the couple does not foresee, obstacles that also derail the marriage: Hawking’s own fame as a physicist and cosmologist which means that he must travel to receive awards, make speeches and give lectures; Jane’s attempt to have a life away from looking after people, which attempt brings her into contact with another man, Jonathan Hellyer Jones,  for whom she develops romantic feelings; and Hawking’s need to have constant care as his condition deteriorates, which need brings another woman into his life with whom he eventually elopes.

The film is basically a study of character and a relationship and in this it excels. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do excellent work in portraying the Hawkings, infusing both characters with warmth, individuality and, in Redmayne’s portrayal, humour and cheekiness if not that much of the intellect that sent the original Hawking to university at the age of 17 years. Jones’ Jane comes away as a saintly figure whose conventional and conservative outlook contrasts with her husband’s curiosity, wit and sharpness: no surprise then that these two individuals with not much in common in their personalities will eventually drift apart. Redmayne and Jones receive ample support from the rest of the cast, especially from Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Emily Watson makes a brief surprise appearance as Jane’s mother in a role that makes no demands on her considerable talent.

The cinematography is often glowing and lovely with soft lines. It is clever in the way a number of scenes play out in ways that reflect and even demonstrate some of the discoveries and predictions Hawking makes in his theoretical work and calculations on black holes and their effects on the stars they come across.

As a romantic drama, the film fares adequately in showing how a devastating chronic illness can affect a relationship and accentuate the differences between couples in surprising ways. Caring for Hawking and their three children not only requires Jane to give up her own ambitions and dreams and strains her relationship with her husband, it also throws her into a mental straitjacket beyond which she cannot see ahead what Hawking’s increasing celebrity and the increased nursing he needs might mean for them both and the marriage’s survival. Hawking’s stubborn determination that he be treated as a normal person not deserving any more consideration than other people would does not help either him or his wife: the result is an increasingly fragile relationship that totters and collapses once carers have to be employed to help the Hawkings. Astonishingly the Hawking children are mere wallpaper figures whose existence apparently has no effect on their parents’ increasingly fraught relationship though a scene in a car suggests the Hawkings had different ideas about bringing up their children – Hawking himself appears like an overgrown playmate to his kids – and must have come to blows over disciplining them. The film fails to dwell very much on the adults’ different spiritual beliefs – he, an atheist and she, a devout Christian – and how the professor’s atheism and work in cosmology challenges, even threatens his wife’s religious faith and their relationship.

The general respectful approach the film adopts towards the Hawkings ensures that the couple is shown mostly in a good light – even Hawking’s elopement with the nurse occurs off-screen – and the whole project ends up rather staid and lacking in spark. In failing to grapple with its subject, warts and all, the film comes off as amazingly lightweight.