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.)

 

Tabloid: entertaining portrait of an eccentric obsessive doesn’t delve deeply into media culture and social values

Errol Morris, “Tabloid” (2010)

Errol Morris’s documentaries fall into two camps: a serious one (“Fog of War”) and one of portraits of eccentric individuals dominated by their obsessions who often don’t realise they’ve transgressed the invisible boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. The focus of Morris’s scrutiny is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 became obsessed with a young man she met in Utah; the man, Kirk Anderson, began training as a missionary with the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ aka Mormons to escape her attentions and the Church sent him to England. McKinney pursued and kidnapped Anderson with the help of two men and imprisoned him in a cottage in southwestern England. The incident aroused (ahem) much interest throughout the UK with its combination of conservative religion and its strict morality as regards sexual relations, kidnapping and sexual bondage. McKinney was arrested and charged but managed to jump bail and escape back to the US. Although she and one of her accomplices were later arrested by the FBI, the English courts did not request her extradition and sentenced her in absentia to jail for a year. Two tabloid UK newspapers competed for sales with opposed views of McKinney’s antics and background based on information and material obtained in often shady ways.

McKinney is an entertaining and garrulous interviewee, bright and open to a fault. Her apparently guileless manner may well hide a calculating and shrewd mind intent on getting what she wants no matter what it takes or what obstacles are in her way. Morris’ Interrotron technique of interviewing subjects, in which McKinney looks into the camera which projects her face’s image onto a two-way mirror positioned in front of the lens of the camera facing Morris, and vice versa for Morris (he looks into his camera that projects his image to the mirror positioned in front of McKinney’s camera), ensures that viewers are hit with the full force of McKinney’s bubbling and sometimes overpowering personality but it also means that Morris himself ends up too close to his subject to be able to show a more objective view of her personality and character and the wider meaning of the 1977 kidnapping and the UK tabloid press’s involvement. At times Morris appears willing to be swept along by McKinney’s version of what happened and her insistence that Anderson was being brainwashed by a cult but the veteran interviewer never presses or challenges her opinion and prejudices.

Morris also interviews a former Mormon missionary who perhaps is the most objective and sane person in the whole film, and two journalists from the rival tabloids that salivated over McKinney and Anderson, each recounting the newspapers’ wildly differing versions of the incident and of McKinney’s character and defending their stories and research. Viewers see some of the conflicting opinions and views of two people in the British media towards the story: one is amused and nonplussed, the other is cynical and predatory. Unfortunately the two most significant male characters in the whole saga, Kirk Anderson and Keith Joseph May, are absent from the documentary: Anderson refused to be interviewed and May had already died, so any pretence at “balance” is precluded.

The film’s presentation milks the whole incident for laughs with insertions of tabloid-style title cards that introduce the interviewees and give something of the flavour of the news coverage of the time. Cartoons and cartoon montages help give a light-hearted and racy feel to the film. Towards the end, after the abduction and its consequences become history, the film slows down with the coverage of an unrelated incident that also attracted news attention: in 2008, when her pet dog died, McKinney had it cloned into a litter of puppies by researchers in South Korea.

Though the film is entertaining and sympathetic towards its subject, it missed an opportunity to examine McKinney’s upbringing in some detail, in particular the expectations and stereotypes she grew up with and absorbed which fed her beliefs about romantic love and marriage and encouraged her obsession with Anderson. In the end, these notions undid McKinney and derailed her life: she resolved never to love another man and became reclusive. That an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman with great drive and energy who lived for romance, marriage and a brood of many children gave up her dream completely is a tragedy that the film glosses over. Morris’s attempt at investigating the media hysteria and celebrity worship surrounding McKinney’s abduction of Anderson amounts to very little and says nothing about the kind of media culture that existed in the UK then and the social values that supported it. Perhaps Morris isn’t the best person to examine and appreciate the kind of society the UK was at the time. The best that “Tabloid” does is to show that the truth about the incident remains elusive and that people’s memories of it can be wildly different for many reasons, of which self-preservation is the primary one.

 

WikiRebels: competent documentary on Wikileaks brushes the surface to maintain “balance”

Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist, “WikiRebels” (2010)

Made for Sveriges Television AB (SVT), this documentary traces the rise of Wikileaks, the global non-profit media organisation that publishes news and information of a private, secret or classified nature received from anonymous sources and whistleblowers, over a period of several months in 2010. The film is aimed at a general audience and, apart from showing a few scenes in the Wikileaks headquarters in Sweden and explaining the nature of the organisation, who hosts it and who its key people are or were, there is not much mentioned in the documentary that isn’t already public. Relying mainly on interviews, their own film footage and snippets of other TV networks’ newsreels, Huor and Lindquist have created a competent documentary that basically introduces Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange to the general public but does no more.

The really interesting part of the documentary is the broadcasting of the notorious air strikes on Baghdad, Iraq, on 12 July 2007, in which a team of two US Army Apache helicopters fired on several people and killed a number of men including two Reuters war correspondents in three air-to-ground strikes. The footage which was leaked to Wikileaks by US soldier Bradley Manning brought Wikileaks worldwide attention and led to the US government’s pursuit of Manning.

Some very brief information about Assange is presented before he formed Wikileaks and the film also traces his partnership with Daniel Domscheit-Berg before the two came to disagree on disseminating material without redacting some of it and Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks to form Openleaks, essentially to be a distributor of information rather than a publisher (though so far it’s not lived up to its name and appears unlikely to). Other significant interviewees featured in the film include Icelandic politician / writer / artist / activist / Wikileaks volunteer … whew, let’s just say all-round talent Birgitta Jonsdottir and a former US State Department advisor Chris Whiton who has written articles for Fox News.

The film does try to maintain a “balance” so as not to appear too favourable towards Wikileaks and passes no judgement on Assange or Domscheit-Berg’s decisions and actions. Significantly Huor and Lindquist make no reference as to who funds or has funded Wikileaks operations in spite of suspicions, some of which have been voiced by Wikileaks volunteers, that Assange has taken money from semi-official Israeli sources. Although the film identifies considerable opposition, notably from the US government and its agencies, to Assange in releasing over 200,000 unredacted US diplomatic cables, it omits to mention that Wikileaks was forced to release these cables because journalists at UK newspaper The Guardian unethically revealed the password Assange used to protect a digital file of the cables in a book published by that paper. It would be ironic if Wikileaks and whistleblower Manning were to be destroyed by the actions of people associated with a major media institution supposed to have a reputation for responsible and ethical journalism; this suggests that Wikileaks’ greatest enemies are not necessarily governments and corporations paying lip service to democracy, clean operations and openness but for-profit media institutions with an interest in capturing and corralling their reading public’s desire for truth and accuracy in news reporting.

At this time of posting, Wikileaks’ survival was looking bleak after several defections by volunteers from the organisation, citing lack of transparency and Assange’s autocratic leadership style among other reasons for leaving, and it now seems to be a matter of when, not if, Wikileaks becomes history itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)