Malacostraca: personal and career inadequacy, family breakdown and resentment leading to tragedy

Charles A Pieper, “Malacostraca” (2018)

Playing like a conventional creature-feature horror flick with all the inconsistencies the genre often attracts – how on earth does the mother manage to survive nine months being pregnant while the father descends into full-blown derangement without being endangered herself? – this film initially invites laughs at main character Chris (Charlie Pecoraro) as he sinks further into career crisis with his writer’s block and his paranoid suspicions about the baby his wife Sophie (Amber Marie Bollinger) brings into the world. Seen a second time, the tragedy that befalls the entire young family as a result of Chris’s derangement replaces the silly laughs. Fears about his own inadequacy as a writer, husband and father, the resulting isolation he falls into and draws around himself, the decreasing contact with reality: all take their toll on Chris’s emotional health and stability and he projects his fear and resentment onto his and Sophie’s baby.

The film’s plot is predictable, the characters are not well developed and their house with its dark colours and blue hues tends to scream “creepy!” all the way through. The baby is always portrayed as a crustacean and it is only in the final frames of the film that its human nature becomes apparent. The look on Chris’s face as the awful realisation dawns on him that he has just killed his own child as the culmination of the story he has been writing to overcome his writer’s block is priceless.

The actors do their best with what they have been given and it is they, in the strident manner required of them, who give the film its heart and soul. The crustacean puppets that portray the baby – we see the pregnancy and the baby from Chris’s point of view – are not very realistic but are cute in their own way. Through Chris and Sophie’s interactions, we see that their marriage has lacked warmth and closeness for a long time, having been replaced by conflict. The state of their relationship finds a parallel in Chris’s writing, inspired by a dream he has about Sophie being impregnated by a yabby or giant shrimp, both miraculously reviving at about the same time. This perhaps might say something about the nature of creativity, that it needs an environment of love, warmth and connection to others in order to thrive.

At risk perhaps of being seen as derivative of Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror film “The Shining” which also deals with writer’s block and the delusion of a writer, this short horror piece could be stretched into a longer work lasting some 90 minutes with better character development and a deeper exploration of both Chris and Sophie’s motives and commitment to each other. Sophie would have to risk her life to save the child. A sub-plot involving either of the couple will be needed that draws out the film’s themes of parental anxiety, individual inadequacy, family breakdown and their consequences.

The Replacement: an inquiry into the nature-versus-nurture dilemma

Sean Miller, “The Replacement” (2018)

What starts out as an investigation of the consequences of cloning in this sci-fi comedy short turns out almost to be a philosophical inquiry into the vexed question of how much nature or nurture influences a person’s destiny, the choices he or she is able to make, and how acquiring power and control can also influence personality and future choices, with all the consequences that arise. (The film’s original premise was actually more ordinary: it was intended to show what uncomfortable consequences could accrue if biological and other scientific breakthroughs and advances resulted in actual technological changes faster than society’s ethics and laws can keep up with them.) Despite a rather weak plot, the film leaves viewers pondering how much of a nation’s politics and ultimately its history, culture and society are shaped by the personalities of its past leaders and their backgrounds. In the not-so-distant future, lowly janitor Abe Stagsen (Mike McNamara) subscribes to an organisation that makes clones of his cells in the belief that ultimately his clones can help get him out of his low-paying job; instead his clones pursue their own ambitions and one of them ends up being elected President of the United States. Irate, Abe cancels his subscription and vows to get even with President Abe to demonstrate that the original Abe still matters. In his quest to find President Abe, the real Abe discovers that he’s not the only person angry at his clone; other people are out to hunt down all the Abe clones and his own life is in danger.

Structured as a vehicle for McNamara to show off his acting chops, which he does admirably, the film ends up having a sketchy plot which ends with Abe joining an underground movement. Viewers are left high and dry with this open-ended and uncertain coda. The film glosses over the discrepancies in the time the clones take or need to grow up before one or a few of them actually meet a still youthful orignal Abe as adults. Instead the film shoves poor old Abe into one rushed and not well thought-out scenario after another, with many improbable escapes: in one scene, he narrowly escapes being machine-gunned into Swiss cheese when in the nick of time, a bunch of police centurions leap into the scene and machine-gun his would-be executors willy-nilly while miraculously sparing him even though he is in the thick of it all.

Still, that Miller manages to pack a 12-minute film with so many interesting questions on the ethics and consequences of cloning for society is no mean feat. The film really needs a proper full-length movie treatment or a television series that can investigate the moral and ethical issues in some depth.

Slut: a highly accomplished student film on teenage sexual awareness and the danger it attracts

Chloe Okuno, “Slut” (2014)

Set in the 1970s, this cheesy morality tale is a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and Southern US small-town Gothica in the style of famous horror films of that period, such “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Carrie”. Heck, there isn’t much in “Slut” that Stephen King would not recognise, from the teenage female main character who is rejected by the cool kids at high school to the narrow-minded and bigoted atmosphere in the town where she lives, to Granny who spends all her days watching cartoons on television, the lone drifter who rolls into town and the spate of serial murders of teenage girls that begins shortly after.

Molly McIntyre plays Maddy, the teenage girl who lives in a ramshackle house with her grandmother (Sally Kirkland) in a rural town and who is ill at ease with the sexually aware girls in her form at high school. The kids laugh at her for her bespectacled look and her dowdy long dresses. One day a stranger (James Gallo) turns up at the shopping mall ice-skating rink and, after observing her and one other lass, a blonde called Jolee (Kasia Pilewicz), tells Maddy that she’s a lot more interesting than the girls who only care about flaunting their bodies and sexuality to attract dates. After some time though, and having caught sight of that stranger one evening going off with Jolee, Maddy determines she’ll try to dress the same way and goes off home to cut the legs off her jeans and put on some diaphanous blouses with the bottoms tied at the waist. Dressed in such provocative clothing, Maddy starts hanging out at various places where the high school boys congregate in the evenings. In the meantime, the stranger tortures Jolee and kills her in a horrifically excruciating way.

The stranger discovers what Maddy has been up to and decides to teach her a lesson by breaking into her home at night and attempting rape and torture. At this point the film becomes violent and grisly, and the cinematography can be dark and murky. In contrast with its slower first half, in which Maddy’s character is delineated, and her surroundings to be quite impoverished culturally, the film’s action from here on is very fast and surprising as Maddy finds deep inner resources in herself as she fights the stranger.

The character stereotypes are so obvious as to be hackneyed and ripe for parody. The story’s setting pays homage to the old 1970s horror films that must have held director Okuno and her friends spellbound as kids. The film’s themes of awakening teenage sexuality and the danger this can put young innocent individuals like Maddy into, the small-minded nature of rural towns and teenagers’ yearning for purpose in their lives that will take them away from the bigotry and alienation of these their home towns may be familiar to fans of such movies but they take on additional resonance in Maddy’s actions against the stranger. Maddy discovers she is much more than just a kid who can transform from dowdy to alluring with a change of clothes; she realises she can be her own woman after all. The irony is that the one fellow who showed her her true potential happened to be a serial rapist and killer.

McIntyre does a great job playing Maddy in all her character transformations while the other actors have too little screen time to do other than just reinforce their character stereotypes. Gallo at least manages to appear charming and supportive, and dangerously deranged at the same time, and the film gives him a motive to change his mind about Maddy and see her as a slut.

While the film’s pace is a bit uneven and maybe its earlier half could be tightened a little more, it has such fun playing with audience’s expectations of what may happen to Maddy and with the various devices and motifs typical of 1970s teenage horror flicks, that it turns out to be very enjoyable to watch. One can scarcely believe that it is the work of a student film director.

Bad Peter: the panopticon police state controlling an individual life to an astonishing degree

Zach Strauss, “Bad Peter” (2017)

At first rather amusing but then quickly becoming sinister and horrific, this nine-minute short presents smart-home artificial intelligence (AI) as an extension of the omniscient panopticon police state. Young expectant – and apparently single – mother Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is subjected to a humiliating and cruel health-and-exercise regimen by an AI database known as Peter (voiced by Ross Partridge) that presumes to know what is best for her and her unborn baby, even as the woman becomes physically and mentally exhausted by the excessive demands made by the technology. Most sinister of all, if Rachel refuses to obey, she is subjected to electric shocks from a neck brace she is forced to wear.

For its length, the plot actually drags on too long and prolongs the viewer’s distress at Rachel’s suffering. We do not know why Rachel must wear the brace or why she has to follow the database’s orders. There is nothing to suggest that she has done anything wrong in the past or that she is a surrogate mother bound to a contract. She wears clean casual clothes and lives in a lovely furnished house with tasteful Scandinavian minimalist design but we do not know how she is supported financially or if she works outside the house. She appears to be completely at the mercy of the database, obeying without question and rebelling in small ways, only to resume her obeisance, and that may be the most horrifying aspect of the film.

The message of the short seems to be that as technology is allowed to intrude more and more into our lives, we are just as ready to surrender our psychological and emotional independence to the machines and the agenda and values of those who write algorithms that power the technology, as we do our physical independence. As we give up our power and control over our lives, we become more and more like children, and we end up needing more external intrusion and control over our thoughts and actions. There is a moment in the film in which Rachel, having silenced Peter, appears to be lost in the sudden silence. Perhaps in that moment she is forced to face the awesome responsibility of having taken charge of her life.

While the film is well presented with a bright atmosphere and clean lines, and Shaw does a good job as the compliant young mother-to-be, the film gives very little context about her character and how she came to be a virtual prisoner. Perhaps this film is a proof-of-concept piece: it certainly deserves a more detailed treatment as a longer short film or a 70-minute movie.

The Truth: where lies and deception are as important as truth in keeping families together

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “The Truth” (2019)

Ironically truth is the one thing going missing in this gentle French comedy about a family whose members use lies and deception to get and hold onto what they want and to smooth their relationships with one another. Lumir (Juliette Binoche), her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) fly to Paris from New York when her mother, legendary French acting icon Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) publishes her memoirs. The threesome end up staying with Fabienne when the actress’s private secretary quits his job, apparently miffed that his employer hasn’t mentioned him in her book. During their stay, Lumir and her family accompany Fabienne to her latest movie shoot, a sci-fi number in which Fabienne is one of three actresses to play a character who is visited by her mother every seven years from outer space: the mother had originally gone into space as part of a treatment for an unspecified disease, and the treatment has the side effect of slowing down the ageing process so she remains youthful and young while the daughter ages back on Earth. The mother is played by Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) who greatly resembles Fabienne’s old acting rival Sarah Mondavan, whom Fabienne once cheated out of a coveted role in a film by sleeping with the film’s director.

There are many sub-plots in this film, each of them revolving around some form of deception which ends up (or nearly does) unravelling. Hank, a struggling actor, deceives Charlotte by telling her he is working on a film whenever he goes to rehab for his drinking problem. Fabienne tells Charlotte that the turtle in her garden is Charlotte’s dead grandfather: this story nearly falls apart when the grandfather unexpectedly turns up alive at Fabienne’s mansion. Lumir has long believed that her mother always put her acting career ahead of their relationship and Fabienne, at least in the early half of the film, seems to confirm this single-minded focus by suggesting that actors must always keep their eyes on the straight and narrow path of advancing their careers at the expense of everything else. Fabienne herself seems to envy Lenoir in much the same way she envied Mondavan to the extent of killing the latter’s acting career; a tension develops in the film as viewers are encouraged to look for signs of Fabienne trying to upstage Lenoir – and signs there are aplenty.

Surprisingly these sub-plots turn out quite harmless as the various characters resolve their issues or conflicts, several of which apparently turn out to exist only in their respective characters’ heads. Director Kore-eda is quite the master to invert these sub-plots and show them as little more than characters’ own self-deceptions and rationalising as a way of overcoming their inadequacies. It is easier to blame someone else for problems one should be overcoming. In the process of dissecting various characters’ issues and conflicts, Kore-eda does a fine job detailing how one particular family’s inter-generational dynamics operate and serve to define family members and put them in their niches within the family hierarchy. Lies and deceptions play an important role in preserving hierarchy and reputation.

The film can be seen as a character study and a vehicle for Deneuve to comment on aspects of her own career as an acting legend and of her personal life and relationships. It seems significant that the role of Lumir was given to Binoche and not to Deneuve’s real-life actress daughter Chiara Mastroianni: the two have been in a fair few films together as a mother-daughter pair acting out similar scenarios. Both Deneuve and Binoche dominate the film: Deneuve plays a queenly role, seemingly unperturbed by what trouble she creates and given to sudden petty actions when the occasion suits, yet capable of regret (which may or may not be genuine; the character is an actress after all) when others remind her of the mess she leaves behind. Binoche plays Lumir as a perfectionist and idealist shocked at her mother’s deliberate manipulation of what she, Lumir, believes to be true. Hawke is happy to play the laid-back subordinate complement to Binoche’s rather domineering wife. The rest of the adult cast does capable if not very outstanding work.

Viewers may find “The Truth” rather confusing in the way the various sub-plots are turned on their head. Memory proves unreliable and lies and deception turn out to be just as important as one’s memories in forming individual, family and other collective identities. Even the film itself may be very one-sided; for one thing, we are only aware of the sci-fi film within the film when we visit the set along with Fabienne and Family, and the sci-fi film may actually be about more than just a mother being blessed with apparent immortality while her daughter misses out. A lesson might be taken from “The Truth” in considering just how much people, organisations and societies depend on truth and on lies, deceit and manipulation in defining themselves. In this, “The Truth” is very much of a piece with Kore-eda’s more notable work “Shoplifters”.

Apocalypse Now Now: where superstition and technology create monsters in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia

Michael Mathews, “Apocalypse Now Now” (2017)

Made as a proof-of-concept film on which a television series or a feature film will be based, “Apocalypse Now Now” posits a future dystopian South Africa where supernatural cyber-monsters roam through abandoned cities full of giant heaps of technological junk and people live huddled and frightened lives in slums dominated by fundamentalist Christianity. In this milieu travel two unlikely partners: Baxter Zevcenko (Gavion Dowd), a cynical teenager who may or may not be a serial killer and who is on the run from police for supposedly killing his girlfriend Esme, whom he is searching for; and Dr Ronin (Louw Venter), a bounty hunter of supernatural monsters. In this short film, Dr Ronin uses Baxter as bait to lure a giant lumbering aardvark beastie laden with discarded machine trash into a trap. Dr Ronin’s ruse is briefly interrupted by a crazed woman keen on avenging the death of a loved one and whose encounter with the monster results in a fair amount of tomato ketchup being splashed about.

The characters look good: Baxter resembles a chubby and smug upper-class Harry Potter figure, and he may have a touch of the sociopath about him; Dr Ronin seems a bit undeveloped and his mannerisms derived from a motley collection of characters ranging from Captain Jack Sparrow (of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) to Doc Sportello of the film “Inherent Vice”. The relationship between the two could be more combative and for the time being in this short film, the actors appear to be relying on stereotypes of upper-class, know-all schoolboy brat and doped-out hippie shaman investigator.

The environment in which the two unlikely buddies travel around in is very well realised: the giant praying mantis blends in with the post-apocalyptic / post-industrial dystopia, superstition born of local African and apocalyptic Protestant Christian traditions oppresses communities, and the weird monsters inhabiting the landscape straddle two worlds of dystopian science fiction and a fantasy fusion of two very different cultures that are hostile to each other.

I can see a television mini-series being made out of this film but I am not sure that it can sustain a television series over several seasons unless the scriptwriters are prepared to add more quirky characters and the main characters themselves are allowed to develop in ways that take them far from what they are in the short film.

Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.