Human Resources: documentary on mind control is mind-exploding

Scott Noble, “Human Resources” (2010)

What can I say? This two-hour documentary on the history of government and elite attempts to control human behaviour and direct human culture and society is sheer mindfuck: it covers a whole gamut of approaches, methods and techniques to control people’s thoughts, moods and actions from the late nineteenth century to the present day. No stone is apparently left unturned and unexamined by director Scott Noble as he trawls through psychology, eugenics, race relations, corporate philanthropy, scientific worker management, the structure of education and schooling, Nazi medical experiments and CIA mind control experiments that produced a torture manual. Interviews with various political, social and cultural commentators including Harvard academic Rebecca Lemov, activists Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and former schoolteacher turned education critic John Taylor Gatto mix with hard-edged female voice-over narration, a slew of archived newsreel material and excerpts from Hollywood and other movies going as far back as 1917 to give an overwhelming and often disturbing presentation on the nature of political-economic-cultural power.

The Adam Curtis school of documentary film-making sure has much to answer for: the music soundtrack is eclectic, boasting artists like Phillip Glass, Do Make Say Think, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Mira Calix, Amon Tobin and Bob Dylan, and unfortunately can be too intrusive and distracting, especially during John Taylor Gatto’s interview; but apart from the whimsical music choices, the film overall has a lo-fi appraoch with very few fancy special effects. It could have been better structured: the film weaves from one topic to another and by the time the relevant “chapter heading” in the guise of a quotation appears on a red background, the film is already quite deep into the issue under scrutiny. Possibly “Human Resources” could have been divided into a three-part mini-series in the style of Curtis’s tetralogy “The Century of the Self” which deals with a similar if more restricted theme; Noble could have included more jettisoned material (he had 10 hours’ worth) into a trilogy.

The film starts off with an investigation of behaviourism and its development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: even then, psychologists were seizing its concepts and philosophies to justify their agendas and political views and those of their sponsors in business, government and academia. From behaviourism the film goes into an exploration of eugenics and the social and political conditions prevailing in the United States that enabled the eugenics movement to flourish (though there is no mention of early links between birth control and family planning advocates on the one hand and the eugenics movement on the other) and then into how corporations tried to combat labour movements and unions with philanthropy and the adoption of scientific management or Taylorism (after Frederick Taylor, its founder). The attention given to Taylorism and how it dovetailed with Fordism, the organisation of work in factories and offices and the psychological effects of task fragmentation and deskilled work is considerable and chilling; needless to say, both Communists and fascists and other folks in-between found Taylorism attractive and tried to co-opt it into their workplaces. From the workplace to the school – ya gotta start oppressing ’em young! – and interviewee John Taylor Gatto (descended from Frederick Taylor) waxes strongly on the aim of Western education and its structures to control and mould children into passive, unquestioning and indifferent sheep, and the effect of grades, the use of testing and exams, and competition on children’s mental and emotional development.

The film emphasises that competition is far from natural – it takes care to mention that Charles Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest” but only discussed natural selection – and there is mention of cross-cultural studies showing that co-operation rather than competition encourages creativity and originality whereas competition has the opposite effect. Frustration / aggression theory is invoked to explain why bullying, scapegoating and violence against outsiders or out-groups occurs and the idea of mental illness as being culture-specific is mentioned. Significantly governments and politicians are fingered as the most important mass murderers and serial killers in recent history and the film goes out of its way to examine the US government’s eagerness to employ Nazi German scientists, many if not most of whom were engaged in heinous medical experiments during the Second World War, in many post-war science and medical programmes. A depressing list of secret US government experiments in which unwitting civilians, sometimes whole cities, were exposed to uranium, radiation, bacteria, various chemicals and even yellow fever follows. (There is no mention of the government’s obtaining of documentation of Japanese medical / science experiments, equally and sometimes more horrific than those of the Germans, done in Manchuria and other parts of China, and apparently in Singapore and the Philippines as well during the same period. The documents are stored in a secret facility in Utah state.)

The rest of the documentary focusses on various mind control experiments sponsored by the CIA from the 1950s under Projects Artichoke, Bluebird, MKUltra, MKSearch and other related projects: adults and children alike were forcibly put on LSD, mescaline and other drugs, forced into prolonged sleep or subjected to electro-shock treatments. All these mind control experiments ultimately failed but helped to produce the CIA’s infamous torture manuals that were used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq among other places. The film concludes with the ultimate mind control instrument: the television set and how the attrributes of moving images can ensnare viewers into passivity and suggestibility.

Inevitably with such an ambitious scope there will be weak spots and some of the film’s assumptions about frustration / aggression theory and behaviourism may be open to challenge. The film does not cover all it could and does not offer alternatives like W Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management concept to Taylorist ways of organising work and the workplace, or forms of education other than the conventional Western kind with its emphasis on kids studying subjects in a fragmented way that emphasises testing and beating the other kids. No attention is given to public relations, marketing and advertising as forms of social control and the film also ignores Hollywood and other popular films and TV shows as potential propaganda tools: the narratives of most movies and TV shoes which emphasise conflict, winners and losers, and one hero individual against a mass enemy should have taken a beating. Pop music and other youth-oriented cultures and sub-cultures which stress individualism and peddle notions of freedom in the sense of being free from restraint and social conventions and doing whatever you like regardless of consequences also escape the hatchet job. The film does not cover gaming and whether gaming could encourage a passive mentality amenable to control and suggestion even though for some years now people at videogame-like consoles in the US send drone aircraft into faraway places around the world to kill selected target humans: there is a statistic doing the rounds on the Internet that for every two terrorists killed by drone aircraft, 98 innocent civilians are taken down as well. That’s some accurate kill rate.

The two things that really smacked me over the head were the revelation that the theory of evolution as Darwin had originally conceived it says nothing about competition being part of the process of natural selection – the idea originated with Darwin’s contemporary, the biologist / philosopher Herbert Spencer – and the news that economist Adam Smith had predicted that the organisation of work into a fragmented series of repetitive and boring tasks would destroy people psychologically and turn them into soulless beings.

Although an investigation of Western economies is outside the scope of the film, I consider that the kind of economic system we have and its assumptions connect too well with the social and psychological forms of control “Human Resources” discusses. Debt-based financial systems have the pernicious effect of encouraging competition among businesses and consumers which then spreads to other areas of society, irrespective of whether it’s needed or useful; scrambling for money to pay debts may force individuals to stay in unwanted jobs in which fragmented work tasks destroy their initiative and make them passive, and businesses to engage in intense forms of competition such as perpetual redesigning and marketing of products, aggressive and unethical marketing, pursuing cheapness, mediocrity and quantity at the expense of durability and quality, and stifling innovation and creativity. The result is that a short-term point of view is preferred over a long-term viewpoint and the economy lurches from one crisis to another. Competition biases economies towards a growth orientation which results in wastage of resources, pollution, environmental rape, economic colonialism which has to be justified somehow (hence, the need for propaganda about the racial, religious or other inferiorities of people like Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims generally and First Nations people of various countries to demean them as true owners of land and other resources so that foreigners can strip them of their wealth) and the accompanying military adventurism which generates even more environmental destruction, pollution and resource wastage, to say nothing of the lives and cultures destroyed.

When all modes of social, psychological and economic control are taken together, the conclusion that “Human Resources” comes to is that they reveal the nature of power as wielded by generations of elites as something psychopathic and wilful and that those who work for it willingly, even eagerly, will end up as much victims as the rest of us already under its jackboot. The film may require several viewings for its message to be absorbed.

Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre: documentary makes case for war crime but provides no context for attack

Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, “Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre” (2005)

This 27-minute film plays like an extended news or current affairs report: it originally aired on Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana state government TV network on 8 November, 2005. It asserts that the weapons used during Operation Phantom Fury on the city of Fallujah in central Iraq in November 2004 were chemical weapons such as white phosphorus and other substances similar in nature to napalm which had been used during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.With a mix of newsreels, interviews with various parties including former US soldiers now turned activists, Iraqi civilians and Italian journalists, the film builds a case for war crimes against the people of Fallujah by US military forces.

The presentation is bare-bones straightforward with a shrill Arab music soundtrack that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the voice-over narration. Various issues that viewers will pick up include the murder of children by US forces (because children as young as 10 years of age were fighting the soldiers), the targetting and killing of journalists not embedded with US and Coalition forces, US marines shooting and killing wounded people and the deliberate neglect in reporting civilian casualties as a result of the pounding of the city. The film gradually homes in on reports of people suffering unusual injuries and of bodies of people and animals who suffer no outward injuries but have horrific internal wounds. Film footage of corpses with faces simply scorched and blackened or melted away appears and it seems that weapons that produce intense heat and burning have been used against them.

A major part of the film includes interviews with Jeff Engleheart and Garret Reppenhagen who say that the use of white phosphorus, which penetrates through layers of clothing and other protection to burn skin and which, if inhaled, will burn lungs and other internal organs, on Fallujah residents was intentional. However these activists and others who appear in the film did not participate in the Fallujah attacks. Other interviewees include two Italian women journalists who claim that US forces tried to prevent them from revealing what happened in Fallujah and British ex-Labour Party member Alice Mahon who criticised the UK government under Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the Iraq war.

Where the film suffers is in providing a historical context as to why the United States should have pounded Fallujah in the ferocious way it did. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of information available at the time: the unhappy relationship between Fallujah and the US that led to the attacks in August and November 2004 on two separate occasions can be traced back to an incident in April 2003 in which city residents protested outside a school that had been taken over by US forces, demanding that the school be handed back to them so children could attend lessons. Soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing several and wounding many others. After a second protest during which US troops again fired on civilians, the city’s mood was sour and hostile. Into this situation in March 2004, a convoy guarded by four private military soldiers from Blackwater USA (later Xe Services, now Academi) arrived and was ambushed by Iraqis who lynched the four soldiers and mutilated their bodies. According to Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, there is evidence that the four soldiers were set up by Blackwater USA as one of them had criticised his supervisor; normally a convoy such as theirs travelling into a hostile city must have eight soldiers guarding it, four in front and four at the back. The lynchings made worldwide headlines and prompted the US armed forces to launch an attack on Fallujah in August 2004 and the second attack in November 2004 (source: Wikipedia, various articles).

Since the attacks in 2004, doctors in Fallujah have reported that rates of cancer, leukaemia and birth defects in newborn babies have risen greatly and city officials have apparently advised female Fallujah residents not to have children. The sex ratios of newborn babies since 2004 have also become very skewed: normally in most places each year the number of boy babies born slightly exceeds the number of girls babies born (usually about 103 – 106 boys for every 100 girls) but in Fallujah, the post-2004 ratios had fallen to about 85 – 86 boys for every 100 girls. There are reports that the birth defects observed are consistent with exposure to depleted uranium (DU) radiation. As far as I know, only one scientific study on this subject has been carried out and back-up studies are needed to verify the results but it’s likely that any future studies will be affected by harassment from US-led forces.

If it can be proved that white phosphorus and/or other dangerous chemicals have been used on Fallujah and that the ongoing sufferings of the Fallujah residents can be attributed to the use of these weapons and DU ordnance, the US government and military at the time must be held responsible for war crimes and crimes against peace. In November 2011, a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, found former US and UK leaders George W Bush and Tony Blair respectively guilty of crimes against peace against the Iraqi people; the tribunal judges intend to add Bush and Blair’s names to a war crimes register and pass on their findings to the signatory nations of the Rome Statute which established the International Court of Crimes (source: Wake Up World, www.wakeup-world.com).

 

 

 

Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness: a fair documentary on car culture and its effects on American economy and society

David M Edwards, “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” (2008)

Stumbled across this very pertinent documentary on the consequences of Western societies’ dependence on cars as the dominant form of transport for most people on cities, life-styles, economies, public health and even government policies, in particular foreign policies. “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” was made at a time when Peak Oil warnings – the concern that global oil production would soon hit its maximum and thereafter decline as major oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Mexico were depleted – were attracting much attention and a significant part of the film revolves around the effects that long-term oil production decline and the depletion of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal will have on societies and government energy policies. Although the film was made mainly for an American audience, it has relevance for Australian audiences, most of whom live in cities and their sprawling suburbs along the south-eastern Australian coast, and people in other countries living in flat cities also spreading out far and wide from their urban cores so much so that the idea of commuters spending up to 2 or more hours in their cars travelling from home to work each day is common.

The film divides conveniently into two parts thanks to an off-screen Kate Bush warbling “Hello Earth” over a CGI animation of the planet right in the middle of the documentary: a really whimsical moment in an otherwise po-faced feature. The first half of the film concerns itself with the problems that over-reliance on the car poses for American people and the economy: having been touted by advertising as a symbol of freedom, independence, individuality, adventure and exploration, the car comes to enslave Americans in their mobility and life-styles. Commuting to the city for work and other reasons takes up ever greater amounts of time in people’s lives and exposes them to more air pollution which endangers their health. Traffic engineers trying to solve traffic jam problems by adding extra lanes or building more freeways quickly find that drivers adjust their behaviours to the technological fix with the result that there is more traffic on the roads and the old bottleneck problems return on a greater, more intense scale. There are economic costs as well: as the road infrastructure ages, the cost of maintaining roads and bridges in a time when US government debt levels are already high becomes a headache; but ignoring the problem and allowing roads and bridges to deteriorate will result in major disasters like bridge and road collapses that claim people’s lives. At the same time, growing middle classes in China and India desire to emulate the Western life-style which includes driving cars.

The dependence on cars and the depletion of once reliable oil fields such as al-Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in Mexico start to influence US energy policy and foreign policy as well, with the result that the US is now intervening in (and interfering with) many areas around the world known to have large oil and gas fields: Libya, southern Sudan, the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania and western Africa come to mind. Many if not most people around the world suspect the real reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was due to greed for that country’s oil; ditto for Libya which has Africa’s largest oil-fields. (I rather think that the two countries not belonging to the Bank for International Settlements was the main reason they had to be punished.) So it could be said that over-reliance on cars for transport is literally killing other people in other lands.

The second half of the film emphasises how American society can be weaned away from oil with the use of renewable energy sources and rethinking the design of urban communities: the rethink might include mixing residential, commercial and industrial functions in the same neighbourhoods so that these areas can acquire their own distinctive and attractive characteristics; greater density in housing which itself will be mixed, catering for individuals and households in varied stages of their life-cycles; and privileging public transport above private forms of transport.

Structure is straightforward with a mix of 1950s advertisements, cityscape shots, excerpts from the movie “Mad Max” and interviews with city government officials, energy consultants and commentators such as James Kunstler who has written books on issues about suburbia and residential land use. The film is strong, determined and straight to the point early on but as it ploughs through its second half, momentum drains away and the documentary becomes a boring series of endless talking heads and pretty scenes of light rail and families enjoying leisure activities in public parks in cities that have adopted solutions approved of by the film-makers. The music in the film’s second half becomes ever more hopeful and uplifting to a point where it starts to grate on the ear.

Fixing cities so that they are less petrol-dependent sounds so easy according to “Sprawling from Grace …” but the truth is there are vested interests that may want to keep cities the way they are; developers and corporations may influence and/or bribe city government officials to ignore the public interest and favour the people lining politicians’ pockets. The film fails to consider the power corporations may have over city and suburban planning. Corporations may also block government efforts to develop alternative sources of energy in often ingenious ways: for example, they may buy up the alternative-energy competitors, strip them of their assets and use them as tax shelters; again, the film fails to mention that there could be problems in achieving a desired state where society relies on multiple sources of energy rather than just the one.

In all, this is not a bad documentary but it’s also not the really great, hard-hitting gutsy film it could have been.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A portrait of cultural fascism through one individual’s exploitation in “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story”

Todd Haynes, “Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)

Using Barbie and Ken dolls to play the main characters in miniature sets specially made for this film might seem a pretty perverse way of paying homage to a beloved singer but the ploy turns out to be the master-stroke in Haynes’s loose retelling of Karen Carpenter, singer / drummer of 1970s melodic pop duo the Carpenters. The film is more than a reverent tribute to the singer: it also sneaks in a documentary on the exploitation of women and their bodies to sell a particular product or message and how the music industry co-opts artists into creating a world of bland, unseeing innocence to mask and blot out political reality and dirty tricks. Anorexia nervosa, the disease that killed Karen Carpenter (hereafter referred to as KC), is briefly revealed as a cultural phenomenon in which the physical human body becomes a battleground of control between its owner and those attempting to control the owner herself. The use of dolls to play KC, her family members and other support characters becomes a logical part of the film’s narrative: as KC’s body and talents were used by others to project their ambitions and desires through, so children’s dolls like Barbie become projections for mostly adult fantasies and desires and attempts to teach and direct children into socially appropriate play activities. In contemporary Western culture, the Barbie doll’s body has also become a site for speculation by experts in various fields ranging from health to advertising to child-rearing, often in the context as talking-heads yapping to journalists employed in the commercial media. It becomes impossible to treat Barbie as just another plastic toy.

Haynes picks particular episodes in KC’s life to illustrate the hold that anorexia nervosa had over her; he’s not particular about the exact dates when she commenced her performing career and the onset of the disease. There is in fact no chronology: the narrative plays as one flashback drama and the general direction is straightforward and concentrates almost entirely on KC’s condition. A quick look at her Wikipedia entry shows she began dieting not long after starting to play music seriously in her mid-teens but the two may not be necessarily connected. The characters in the film are very exaggerated and one-sided for effect: KC’s parents are portrayed as ambitious and controlling and Richard as obsessed with fame and sucess, abusive and violent. The film suggests that Richard might be gay but does not mention he was addicted to Quaaludes which originally were prescribed for sleeping problems. The agent at the record label that signs up the duo is Mephistophelean-creepy as he extends his hand (rendered almost claw-like) to KC to clinch the deal.

KC herself tends to be a helpless victim of other people’s manoeuvrings and any resistance on her part is answered by disturbing scenes of spanking. As KC wastes away, the doll takes on a more withered look with abraded plastic skin and her arms and legs erode and drop away.

The film has a home-made, almost shambolic look: captions bleed into images and there are many shots of black-and-white Vietnam War newsreel interspersed into the narrative to ground the biography into its historical context and make clear the suggestion that bands like the Carpenters were part of a culture propaganda offensive on the part of the music industry to inoculate the US public against the country’s extreme violence overseas. The Carpenters’ music including their most popular hits is played throughout the film (Haynes did not get copyright permission to include any music and I doubt he would have got it anyway, given the film’s subject matter) and the soundtrack becomes an ironic counterpoint and comment on parts of the narrative and the film’s agenda: it adds pathos to the pain that KC might have felt while singing the songs. One thing not mentioned in the film which Haynes could have emphasised is KC’s drumming skills; she was regarded by many musicians as a very talented percussionist but this regard didn’t translate into mainstream recognition and offers of work.

There are some live-action passages but they are restricted to actual film clips of the Carpenters and other light pop performers of the 1970s and interviews of women who talk about the influence (or not) of the Carpenters on their lives. It might have been interesting for Haynes to have taken a brief detour and surveyed what happened to some of these singers and musicians as of 1987. Did they manage to survive the 1970s and continue into the next decade with sanity and health intact? Were they still shilling for the corporate music industry or had they all been swept away by new music trends like punk, new wave, ska, reggae and industrial?

The film makes no claim to be balanced or unbiased: it is sympathetic to KC’s plight but is also a screed against the exploitation of women, their bodies and talent for profit and corporate propaganda purposes. Perhaps it could have gone deeper into the influence of the corporate music industry and media generally on popular culture and how corporate values shape thinking and the direction of cultural values but the film looks very low-budget and so is restricted in what it can cover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Experiments in the Revival of Organisms: Soviet science propaganda film blandly ignores a horrifying truth

D I Yashin, “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” (1940)

A curious short documentary from 1940 about a series of experiments on reviving dead or inanimate organs and whole animals, this educational film appears well on the way to achieving cult status: among other things, it has been referenced by Metallica in their 2009 videoclip for their single “All Nightmare Long”. Introduced and narrated by British geneticist J B S Haldane, the documentary follows four experiments starting with two relatively simple ones of reviving a dog’s heart and lungs and progressing to the most ambitious and complex study in which a dog itself is put down and then revived after several minutes. The experiments, all carried out by unnamed female workers, were under the supervision of Dr Sergei S Bryukhonenko, an early pioneer in open-heart surgery procedures in Russia, at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy in Voronezh.

The experiments shown may be re-enactments done for educational purposes. Not having qualifications in medicine or biology, I can’t comment on whether the filmed experiments shown are real or fake. Close-ups of revived organs and similar results emphasise the achievements of the work. Bryukhonenko developed a heart-lung machine called an autojektor to do much of the revival work and animated diagrams explain the basics of the machine and how it revives organs and a dog’s head without going into a lot of detail. A general audience will be able to follow the procedures involved as well as a scientific audience and it’s possible that Bryukkhonenko or director Yashin wanted to get as much public acceptance for the experiments leading to additional experiments as possible.

The narration is dry and concentrates closely on a blow-by-blow account of the procedures and how successful the experiments were. I really would have liked to know though what the purpose of the experiments was. What was the experimental design? Why did Bryukhonenko carry out this work? How many dogs or other animals were used? Did the scientists notice any statistically significant differences between the revived animals and a control group? Were the experiments influenced in any way or made possible by the historical context (political, social, technological) at the time? Did the scientists intend this work to have practical applications for medicine and surgery for humans?

The clinical, business-like tone of the film – Haldane’s clipped narration is no-nonsense and brisk, and is keen and narrowly focussed on the work being done – may be the creepiest part about it. None of the workers in the film shows any emotion or awe that what she is participating in could be momentous for science and humanity. The filming method is basic and the look of the film is not particularly sharp but neither is it grainy or blurred. Triumphal music appears towards the end of the film when the dog is revived. If there’s anything in short supply in this film, it is humility.

It’s obvious the film was made to demonstrate the advance of science and medicine under the Stalinist regime of the time. The truth as always is very different and even horrifying. Those viewers knowledgeable about the history of science and scientific research in the Soviet Union will know that during the 1930s – 1950s the scientist Trofim Lysenko exercised a harmful influence on Soviet research in genetics and biology by denouncing and causing the imprisonment and deaths of hundreds of scientists who disagreed with and opposed his anti-Mendelian genetic theories and unscientific practices. Needless to say, Soviet scientific practice suffered immensely for a long time.

The Mark of Cain (dir. Alix Lambert): excellent documentary on prisons and prison life in Russia

Alix Lambert, “The Mark of Caïn” (2000)

Ostensibly a film about the declining custom of tattooing in Russian prisons, its history and how it serves as a language among prisoners, Alix Lambert’s “The Mark of Cain” is a disguised documentary of the conditions in Russian prisons and the social structures and culture that developed among the prisoners and those who run and manage the prisons. The documentary immerses viewers in the lives of prisoners by allowing the prisoners to state and explain what they do, what tattoos they have and what they mean; the film-makers simply follow and film their subjects, and edit the film to follow particular strands of the narrative. The film does weave in and out of the tattooing topic, starting with it and ending with it, and hopping back and forth between tattooing and various other aspects of prison life. Several prisoners and prison administrators at various penitentiaries (including the brutal White Swan prison established by Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky – Cheka was the forerunner of the NKVD which later became the KGB) in Moscow, Perm and Samara are interviewed. Viewers will come away with mixed feelings about what they have seen: many prisoners will elicit compassion, others will inspire contempt, and their living conditions are often horrific and very depressing.

Topics covered in the doco include the often squalid and overcrowded living conditions of prisoners, their meagre diet, health and hygiene, the apparent brutality of the guards and the ways prisoners try to cope with prison life and one another. The social hierarchy they observe is spelt out in the tattoos they accumulate: particular images may indicate what crimes they committed, their interests in life, how long they have spent in prison and what their status among other prisoners is. A code of conduct known as Thieves’ Tradition (Vor v zakone) exists among the prisoners and very stringent it can be: only those who achieve the highest level of Thief-in-the-law (the leadership level) in the prisoner hierarchy may have images of Stalin, Lenin, Marx or Jesus on the cross tattooed on their bodies, and they must refrain from having families or family ties or holding down a job or any other form of government-approved commerce. The lowest level of the hierarchy is reserved for Downcasts who play a catamite role and are thus regarded as polluted and untouchable. While the code of conduct and hierarchy may give prison life some order and stability and reduce the likelihood of conflict among prisoners, obviously some inmates benefit more from this system than others. A couple of camera shots of some men in a cell taken by Lambert’s crew during the lunch-time scenes suggest depression and other mental health issues are a major problem though the film’s active attention to prisoner health is restricted to investigating the prison authorities’ inconsistent treatment of TB which has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease among inmates.

The notion of prison as a microcosm of Russian society is broached by the prisoners themselves who talk about how prison transforms and hardens people, and how it reflects wider social changes in a more intense and blunt form. Older prisoners bemoan the mercenary nature of younger prisoners who buy tattoos rather than earn them. There is a definite tension between the older and younger generations of prisoners which reflects the different social and economic systems they have grown up in. Addiction to drugs is becoming a more urgent issue among inmates and is changing the nature of prison society with a resulting breakdown in the prison code of conduct and its communication system.

The emphasis on letting the prisoners and prison authorities speak for themselves and the world they inhabit gives “The Mark …” a grim and often depressing tone. At times the atmosphere is very insular and suffocating though there is also a meditative, poetic mood reminiscent of the Tarkovsky science fiction movie “Stalker”: prisoners even refer to their world as The Zone. At least they have a wickedly dark sense of humour. The possibility exists that some prisoners talked up their degradation so as to make prison life seem grimmer than it actually is. Perhaps Lambert could have tried to find some statistics from both government and unofficial sources about prison conditions to round out and confirm (or maybe counter) what the prisoners and prison administrators say in the film and to provide some distance from her subjects so viewers can breathe a little easier during often harrowing scenes.

Nowhere in the film does Lambert interview any politicians at federal, state, provincial or local city government level so it’s difficult to say whether the Russian government is indifferent or not towards the prison system. As it is, with its flaws and shortcomings, “The Mark …” is a riveting film to watch. We’re not likely to see another film soon about conditions in Russian prisons so people should see this if they can and have an interest in tattooing and/or Russian society. (The film is available on Youtube.)