Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison – where entertainment recruits cannon fodder for the military

Maria Pia Mascaro, “Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison / Marschbefehl für Hollywood” (2003)

People may be surprised that the United States Department of Defense takes a keen interest in much of Hollywood’s movie output, in particular the industry’s production of war movies, to the extent that the Pentagon has an office in Los Angeles that gives advice to film-makers, vets scripts and makes changes to scripts to portray the military in a favourable light. The military also supplies equipment and provides technical advice to enable film-makers to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal of soldiers in action. But there is a price to be paid in accepting the military’s advice and using its equipment (including hardware): the Pentagon demands that films must show American soldiers as heroic and moral, to the extent that truth and narrative accuracy end up being sacrificed and the results turn into pro-military / pro-war propaganda. This made-for-TV documentary demonstrates that the close relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon goes as far back as the 1940s at least and that this relationship has a heavy and deleterious influence on public support for the military, reflected in military recruitment of people. The romanticisation of US soldiers in popular cinema conceals real crimes they commit in other countries during war and peace-time: mass murders, rapes, torture and other atrocities inflicted on enemy combatants and civilians, and even incidents like traffic accidents resulting in the deaths or crippling of civilians, with perpetrators more often than not being exonerated by US military courts.

The documentary relies heavily on interviews with military officials who present their side of the issue in a matter-of-fact way, focusing on details of their engagement with aspects of the film industry, that sidesteps the ethics of their involvement. The interviewer does not probe very deeply into what individuals do – perhaps because these people from choice or compulsion would not co-operate otherwise. The film skips around different aspects of the Pentagon’s complicated relationship with Hollywood, ranging from film directors having to agree to Pentagon interference in writing and rewriting scripts and the military’s refusal to provide hardware and equipment if film-makers do not agree to its demands; to Pentagon interest in developing computer and video games that draw on real wars and incidents and reshape them to the Pentagon’s liking; and to the Pentagon’s practice of embedding journalists with troops so that reporters are exposed only to the military point of view. Some famous Hollywood films like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” and his brother Tony’s “Top Gun” are discussed as examples where the Pentagon exercised a great deal of influence in changing the script so as to whitewash American actions or suggest that atrocities or incidents of torture are the work of a lone “bad apple” rather than the foreseeable results of a culture of bullying, misogyny, intimidation, the exaltation of violence and an apocalyptic mind-set within the military.

The film is not very structured and viewers have to follow the voice-over narration and the interviews closely to make sense of what they see and hear. There can be a lot of information to absorb and viewers might need a second viewing to digest it all. Probably the creepiest part of the documentary is where a lawyer explains that Hollywood (in particular, Hollywood actors) seems obsessed with its self-importance and the industry imagines it can have more influence in US culture and society by contacting Washington and offering its services. By doing so, Hollywood and Hollywood actors end up prostituting themselves by virtually agreeing to propagandise for Washington’s interests. The otherwise laudable efforts of actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney in supporting human rights and advocating for particular issues now take on a sinister sheen.

This film best serves as an introduction to a deep and worrying issue of how closely inter-twined the US government and US military are with the nation’s entertainment industries, and how popular entertainment now serves not only as the dominant propaganda tool but also in shaping culture and society to serve a dysfunctional and psychopathic leadership and its ideology.

Mr Turner: a microcosm of 19th-century British society through the life of J M W Turner

Mike Leigh, “Mr Turner” (2014)

I confess I always have the time of day for the under-rated British actor Timothy Spall who always had the talent to be a leading man but was always relegated to minor character roles or playing second fiddle, due perhaps to his basset-hound looks. At last in “Mr Turner”, Spall gets to play the leading man, the famous early 19th-century landscape painter and water-colourist J M W Turner who was turning out Impressionist paintings of the sea and early abstract art before either became recognised and accepted genres. The film covers about three decades of Turner’s life just before his father William died leading up to Turner’s last breath in which he utters “The sun is God”. Turner the character might have been talking about himself as there is hardly a shot in which he does not appear and the camera follows him zealously as he travels from his home in London to Margate and then Chelsea, and various parts of the English countryside including Dover and the New Forest, searching for artistic inspiration and suitable subjects to paint, and dallying with two mistresses and the maid who faithfully serves him.

There is no definitive plot as we would understand it: the film makes its audience voyeurs into Turner’s life (mostly fictionalised but based on what is known of his personal life) as he goes about his business, public and private, and the narrative arises from a collage of snapshots tracing Turner’s life from the mid-1820s to 1851 when he died. The film marks the passing of time by making references to the significant technological, social and historical events of the day: the steam train’s appearance marks the 1830s, Queen Victoria appears in one scene and Turner mentions the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851, in a late scene. All major actors in the film give riveting and often quite emotional portrayals but in a minimalist way. The women in Turner’s life occupy major roles here: there is his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), suffering from psoriasis and probably more besides, but always there for him, however badly he treats her, and secretly in love with him; and there is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady who becomes Turner’s second mistress. There is another mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who had two daughters by Turner. A running theme throughout the film is the way Turner treats his women: he lies to them all and dies without their ever being told that they are rivals.

As well as the acting, the cinematography is outstanding with many shots set up to resemble paintings with formal compositional elements. Turner the character is posed in scenes that later become the basis of the paintings that made him famous. The film emphasises Turner’s interest in light and the way in which light governs the mood of a painting which in turn can influence the way people look at the painting. Turner is seen taking an interest in the scientific developments of his day, even going so far as to invite a Scottish woman scientist into his home, and in his old age venturing into a shop to have his photograph taken just so he can see the challenge the daguerrotype – the forerunner of the camera – poses to his profession. One sees here in a subtle way how changes in technology signify the passage of time in this film that otherwise seems to flow without reference to it.

In spite of no obvious plot and the film’s length, “Mr Turner” does not bore: Leigh’s preoccupation with the minutiae of life in the early 19th century and the characters’ conversations, conducted in the idiom of the time, keep viewers occupied – well, maybe not all viewers but this viewer certainly was occupied. There are references to artistic competition and one-upmanship between Turner and another artist, John Constable (James Fleet); Turner’s friendship with Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a fellow artist of brusque manner who was always in debt and who committed suicide in 1846; and Turner’s acquaintance with the pretentious art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

The film does not completely capture or even try to explain the complexity of Turner or why he acts the way he does, nor does it examine why how he became interested in light and how to capture the fleeting moment in a scene that made his paintings distinctive and at times abstract. The desultory nature of the film in which some moments of Turner’s life are highlighted and others ignored mirror Turner’s own interest in catching a particular moment in the day when the sun shone on a landscape in a particular way. Something of the way in which an artist can be held in public esteem, only to fall into public mockery, can be seen in the film’s later treatment of Turner in which as an eccentric old man, he sees people turning away from him, making fun of him in music hall revues and his paintings valued at a paltry 100,000 pounds by an American businessman.

The film does rise and fall with what viewers can gain out of watching the film. Some viewers will be bored by an aimless parade of diorama scenes and will wonder what the whole point of the film is, having no obvious story to tell and saying nothing profound about Turner’s motivations or character. The film shows a microcosm of the world in which Turner lived, how his relations with his women reflected something of the hierarchical social order of Britain, how his career rose and fell with public approval of his work and how eventually the world left him – as it does other artists, scientists and other significant contributors to human culture and society – behind. In that alone, the film has actually said something quite profound.

Lili Marleen: a celebration and critique of the Hollywood musical tradition and its historical context

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Lili Marleen” (1981)

An unhappy tale of thwarted love, Fassbinder’s “Lili Marleen” plays hard and fast with its original source material, a biography of Lale Anderson who originally performed the famous World War II song “Lili Marlene”, beloved of Allied and Axis soldiers alike. The film is set during a period spanning a decade from the late 1930s to mid-1945. German cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and Swiss Jewish composer Robert Mendelssohn (Giancarlo Giannini) meet in Zurich and fall in love; but Robert’s father (Mel Ferrer) is concerned that his son’s affair with a German citizen will jeopardise his secret mission of rescuing Jews and spiriting them out of Nazi Germany. He tricks the couple into leaving Switzerland and going into Germany on business; when they arrive back at the Swiss border, they discover that Willie is banned from entering Switzerland. The lovebirds are forced to go their separate ways.

Alone and heart-broken, Willie sings Robert’s song “Lili Marleen” in a night-club and a senior Nazi military officer Henkel (Karl-Heinz von Hassel) happens to be visiting at the time. He hears the song and arranges for Willie to cut a single of it. Although Willie is hardly a great singer and her pianist is a fairly ordinary musician, the song enjoys a huge amount of air-time on Radio Belgrade, a German military radio station in the Balkans, and Willie is catapulted to fame. Robert makes a risky trip to Berlin to see Willie and ends up being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. His father, repenting of his cruel trick, agrees to support a clandestine mission in which Willie tours Poland and picks up a roll of film detailing the plight of Jewish prisoners in the Treblinka concentration camp. Willie carries out her part of the mission but an informant reports her to the authorities and her career is ruined. However the film reaches Robert’s father safely and Robert is eventually freed and returned to him. Robert becomes a successful and famous composer while Willie, under constant surveillance, attempts suicide and ends up even more of a pawn of the Nazis as the war drags on and Germany’s war-machine and society are sapped and spiral downwards into ruin.

The film is a fine illustration of the ways in which the individual’s quest for love and freedom is thwarted and denied by society and its institutions, and by other individuals as well. Willie is forced to pay a heavy price by Robert’s father for her love of Robert. Naive and guileless, she ends up in the grip of the Nazi war and propaganda machine. Robert suffers a great deal as well and the fame and fortune he enjoys at the end of the film suggest he will do much better than Willie, materially at least anyway if not in his private life. Schygulla and Giannini’s acting is adequate for the roles though Schygulla seems old for a role that basically calls for an innocent dumb blonde who knows zip about the Nazi government’s policies against non-Aryan Germans, the scale of the war and its utter violence, and the privations suffered by ordinary Germans as the war continues without end. Everything Willie does, she either does wrong or she gets caught out and she eventually pays a price. The pity of it all is that Willie is essentially an innocent who of all people does not deserve the bad luck she attracts; but she lives in a harsh world in which to survive successfully, one must give up child-like artlessness and become hardened and hollow inside.

The film gives full rein to Fassbinder to indulge his love of Hollywood musicals with an extended sequence of chorus girls and other performers dancing and leading massed singing on stage while soldiers and Nazi officers engage in revelry. The cinematography is excellent and gives prominence to an artful use of colour and interior props, especially doors which are used to herald changes in mood and a character’s development. The film does a fairly decent job of highlighting how far removed Willie and elite German society are from the realities of war, the suffering of ordinary Germans subjected to rationing and endless propaganda and the treatment of Jews, gypsies, POWs and other social and ethnic misfits in concentration camps. The song “Lili Marleen”, repeated ad nauseam throughout the film to the point where it becomes an instrument of torture – Willie sings nothing else – despite it being a mediocre effort, can be seen as a metaphor for the banality of popular culture and its purpose as a mass sleeping pill to be ingested daily by a gullible public. This point is driven home by the Nazis’ spiteful drafting of Willie’s clueless pianist as a soldier: he is sent to the Eastern front where he is promptly gunned down by Soviet forces: deliberate murder using your enemy has perhaps never been so cynical and malicious.

Apart from all this, the film is not all that remarkable: it has a distant air and the actors don’t seem fully engaged in their characters. That may have been intentional on Fassbinder’s part – the film is as much critical of its period as it is a celebration of the style of film associated with it. Fassbinder must have recognised the propaganda value of Hollywood musicals and musicals made in other countries that sought to emulate the grand American style and in “Lili Marleen” spoofs it and its associated elements.

 

 

The American Soldier: focusing on alienation and longing for connection

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Der Amerikanische Soldat / The American Soldier” (1970)

A loosely stitched pastiche of elements borrowed from old Hollywood and French New Wave film noir flicks, “The American Soldier” has plenty to say about the relationship between the US and Germany (or West Germany at the time the film was made, during the height of the Vietnam War) and the hypocrisies of contemporary Western society and certain of its features that divide humans from one another and prevent them from being authentic and fully human. A professional killer, Ricky Murphy (Karl Scheyde) has just returned to Germany and is leading a desultory sort of life. Three corrupt cops, pressured by their bureaucrat police commissioner to do some real work and stamp down on their end of the national crime statistics, hire him to wipe out some crooks. Murphy does his job a little too efficiently and becomes a danger to the police in upstaging their crime-busting efforts. While the rogue cops figure out how to set him up, Murphy becomes a little too intimate with the prostitute girlfriend of one of the cops and they both plan to escape Germany and go to Japan.

There’s so much packed into the film’s 80 minutes, it could afford to lose those Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman “Casablanca” references: the nattily suited Ricky Murphy visits his old flame Inga at the Lola Montez club (familiar from Fassbinder’s “Gods of the Plague” gangster flick) and discovers she’s married to another man. Like Ricky in the 1940s thriller classic, Ricky Murphy is a lesser man not living up to his full potential as a human being but whereas Bogart’s character did redeem himself, Murphy resolutely remains a killing machine who (spoiler alert), living by the sword, eventually dies by it – or a gun, rather. The woman he plans to run away with comes to an unhappy end as well. In fact nearly all characters in this film, minor as well as major, are unhappy and disconnected from one another and from themselves, and are destined either to come to a sticky end or continue living hollow lives. Probably the only character who comes closest to being authentic turns out to be a hotel maid stood up by her boyfriend who kills herself in despair.

The acting is not very good and Fassbinder himself surfaces as Franz Walsch, Ricky’s partner in crime. Actors appear to be cold and robotic and this stilted manner of acting calls viewers’ attention to the alienation several characters feel and which some are driven to overcome. A number of elements and characters from Fassbinder’s earlier gangster films appear here: one of the police officers who romances the prostitute who takes a shine to Ricky is the same cop who encouraged Joanna in “Gods of the Plague” to rat on her ex-lover. On the other hand the cinematography is well done with good use of panning to capture the gritty atmosphere  and seedy underground of Munich. The plot is very basic and is secondary to character portrayal and the loneliness and isolation felt by several of them. As in “Love is Colder than Death” and “Gods of the Plague”, characters display an obsession with money as a means to the freedom and the promise of new relationships and connections they strive for but probably never know. Society is revealed as corrupt: the three detectives use Ricky in an effort to bolster their careers for a bureaucrat who is under pressure himself from his unseen superiors. Ricky does not yet realise that he is as disposable as the people he kills. Everyone is demeaned in some way by the deals they do in pursuit of money and relationships and no-one is any happier at the end of the film than at the beginning.

The relationship between Ricky and the police officers reflects to some degree West Germany’s relationship to the United States since 1945 as Fassbinder saw it in 1970: the country had experienced considerable economic recovery and had become Europe’s largest economy and one of its richest, largely on the back of the US military which meant West Germany could divert money that might otherwise have been spent on defence into investing in social services and infrastructure, and improving people’s standard of living.

Unexpected humour is to be found in the film’s one sex scene where Ricky and the prostitute try to make out in bed while the hotel maid sits on the edge and recounts a story about a woman called Emmy who falls madly in love with a Turkish man called Ali and marries him; and in the film’s closing scene in which Ricky’s younger brother wrestles with the killer’s body in a way that suggests a wild homosexual encounter. All the films in Fassbinder’s gangster trilogy contain references to repressed homosexuality between men which say something about the nature of an otherwise permissive society that prides itself on being free and uninhibited in which his films are set.

For the most part the film has a less experimental style though its plot, concerns and stilted style of filming still mark it out as an art-house film. After “The American Soldier”, Fassbinder turned his attention to making melodramas and made-for-TV films and series.

Gods of the Plague: a character study on social hypocrisy, loneliness and the destruction of dreams

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Götter der Pest / Gods of the Plague” (1970)

Following on from “Love is Colder than Death” in R W Fassbinder’s trilogy of gangster films, “Gods of the Plague” follows the adventures of one Franz Walsch (Harry Baer instead of Fassbinder himself) after his release from prison.  He attempts to turn over a new leaf with his singer girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) but mainstream society is hostile to him and gradually he falls back into his old mode of life. He drifts away from Joanna and takes up with two other women, one of whom is the girlfriend of his brother  who had been killed some time ago by a gangster Günther (Günther Kaufmann), also known as The Gorilla. Walsch meets The Gorilla and the two strike up a friendship and plan to rob a supermarket to get money and supplies for a trip to Greece with a lady friend. Joanna, feeling sore at being abandoned, finds friendship and romance with a police officer charged with tracking Walsch down. The police officer persuades Joanna to turn informant on Walsch and she in turn relies on a woman who sells pornographic magazines to supply her with information on Walsch’s movements. Eventually Carla tips off Joanna about the planned supermarket heist and Joanna passes the news onto the police officer who resolves to foil Walsch and The Gorilla’s plans …

The most salient feature of the film is its listless and lackadaisical style due in no small part to Baer’s portrayal of Walsch as uninterested in conforming to social expectations and having his own self-centred outlook on life. Society spurns him so he sees no reason to buckle down and accept his allocated space at the bottom of the social ladder; he lives to enjoy himself and whatever time he has on the planet. Through Baer and his interactions with others, and the general indifference shown him by the general public coupled with the police department’s interest in spying on him, the film expresses scorn for the hypocrisy and double-dealing nature of Western society that result in people being chewed up. Baer’s attitude to The Gorilla, initially hating him for killing his brother but later changing to affection and an acceptance that the brother’s death is just part of the business of gangsterdom, seems to have a homosexual frisson and this may be reflective of Fassbinder’s own bisexuality which led to his having an affair with Kaufmann.

Use of black-and-white film-stock together with a formal, minimalist look and experimentation with lighting endows the movie with a strong dark film noir flavour. Creative use of panning with the film camera gives the film a highly artistic and stark look and reiterates the film’s themes of boredom, alienation from the mainstream, loneliness, a sympathy and fascination with the underworld, and how relationships between and among characters can lead to their downfall and loss. Dreams of freedom and escape from a humdrum way of life are dashed forever. Money is an ever-present concern with several characters who resort to seedy or degrading occupations to make ends meet. Character development is privileged over story-telling and viewers see how Walsch develops as an essentially passive character who allows the river of life to take him where it will. The beautiful Schygulla is a welcome treat to watch – even if by now she has become stereotyped in playing duplicitous blonde floozies – and Fassbinder himself has a very small part as a customer interested in buying a pornographic magazine from Carla. Although the acting is not of the highest standard – everyone looks and acts doped out much of the time – it’s sufficient to portray character, motivation and hints of a personal nihilistic outlook on life.

As in “Love is Colder than Death”, there’s considerable wry humour and the music soundtrack is very important though if I have to hear the ditty about the passengers on Noah’s Ark that played during Walsch and The Gorilla’s sojourn in their new (shared) girlfriend’s apartment again, my brain will burst and splatter from the sheer cheesy kitschiness oozing out of its rhyming couplets. A three-way fight scene at a farm-house in which all combatants knock one another out cold is very comical.

Perhaps this isn’t one of Fassbinder’s better efforts but this is quite a dark film about desperate people living on the fringes of society who cope with life as best they can in the only ways they know how … because society callously treats them as little cogs in a machine, only of value when they serve but to be disposed of when they show signs of independence or of wanting more from life than work and money.

 

Love is Colder than Death: a study of nihilism and individuals’ relationships in a mercenary society

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)

Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders.  The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.

The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious:  the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut.  The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.

Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.

Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.

The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.

Wild Iran: interesting film on a photographer’s journey across Iran

Herbert Ostwald, “Wild Iran” (2011)

This documentary follows the Iranian-German wildlife photographer and environmentalist Benny Rebel on a 6-week journey across Iran taking photographs and videos of endangered species of animals in their natural habitats in the country’s national parks. The film zigzags through a variety of landscapes from the semi-tropical forests of northern Iran through the mountains in the central part of the country down to the hot and arid desert regions of the south and then back north to the Caspian Sea coast. Animals encountered along the way include brown bears, Asiatic cheetahs, deer, flamingoes, gazelles, ibexes, leopards, mouflon sheep, picas and various species of birds and reptiles.

It can be a bit bewildering to watch: there appears to be no logic in the way the film was put together and viewers have the impression that Rebel was dashing all over the country in Range Rovers and planes whenever the whim took him. The film would have done better to map out the routes he actually took on an animated map that would appear from time to time throughout the film just so viewers could appreciate the scope of the work Rebel undertook. Few in the West know much about Iran and most Westerners have very stereotyped views of the country and its people from news reports which either hammer on about Iran’s nuclear energy programs, its treatment of women and minority groups, and human rights violations. The narration can sometimes be annoying and a little patronising to viewers; far better it would have been for the film-makers to follow Rebel about and let him do all the explaining and talking as his English language skills are very good and his passion for his work lights up the screen.

The film does a good job of emphasising Iran’s unique position as a crossroads of animal life and landscapes: animals we associate with European temperate climes (bears, boar, deer, mouflon) live almost cheek by jowl with animals more usually representative of African desert and Asian tropical areas. Feral camels wander the desert in Iran and Caspian leopards hunt red deer. A cheetah is filmed chasing down a rabbit. The off-camera narrator will sometimes give current population figures for particular species of animals and note that the creatures were far more populous and widespread in the past. Opportunities to examine human-animal interactions and the role nature has played in Iranian history and culture over two to three millennia are unfortunately few but those that appear in the film can be quite astounding, in particular the filming of the interiors of pigeon towers, used not just to house pigeons but also to express Iranian ingenuity and artistry in arranging nesting places in pleasing geometric patterns such that the pigeons don’t crap on top of one another, and to collect the guano that falls to the ground for use as fertiliser. The film stops to visit a group of nomadic Qashqai herders taking their goats to new grazing grounds and to follow some animals that have taken refuge in the ruins of Persepolis, built about 2,500 years as a monument to imperial Persian power.

Unfortunately the emphasis on Rebel’s journey around Iran means that the film-makers did not consider asking members of the Iranian public about their views on conservation and preserving the country’s remaining wilderness areas as this was not part of the film’s scope. It might have been interesting and informative for Western viewers to see and hear what ordinary Iranians think of Rebel’s efforts and his aims in documenting wildlife conservation efforts. We also do not see Rebel writing his report for the Iranian government – mention of the report comes as an after-thought near the end of the film – and so we have no idea of how committed the government might be to preserving the nation’s wildlife and natural environments.

Some information on Rebel’s photography and particular methods of capturing animals on film and the equipment is given but it is very vague. He works very close-up to the animals, so much so that he often puts himself in some danger from the animals’ reactions to his presence and the noise his equipment makes.

The film works as an interesting nature documentary and travelogue for family viewing and as a snapshot of life in Iran in a very general way. People wanting more depth to their nature documentaries and to know more about Iran’s conservation efforts must treat this film as an introduction and find out more information for themselves.

The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

The Name of the Rose: quite good if underrated adaptation of a literary novel with some extra features

Jean-Jacques Annaud, “The Name of the Rose” (1986)

Based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name, this film is a very good if underrated adaptation of a highly literary novel. The novel’s appeal is in the way it turns the traditional murder mystery on its head: clues found by its hero, William of Baskerville, lead him to solve the mystery but once he does so, he realises that the clues in themselves and the pattern they created were entirely unrelated to the actual mystery itself, and that it was sheer accident that he managed to solve the mystery. Thus the quest for closure, finality and meaning is revealed to be something we humans impose on otherwise random and meaningless events and incidents. Of course such a premise a popular crime mystery flick won’t make, so director Annaud chose only those elements of the novel that were most adaptable to the format and demands of a popular murder mystery and with the help of three script-writers and a talented cast fashioned a movie. “The Name of the Rose” is not a bad result at all and perhaps with the passage of time might be seen as a classic.

William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his assistant Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at a monastery in northern Italy to attend a conference that will determine the future of their Franciscan order. While there, William is called upon to investigate a series of mysterious suicides and murders of several monks in the monastery’s cloisters. He and Adso quickly find that a small group of monks has been reading a particular book written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle on the use of laughter and comedy to teach and illuminate certain important truths. Further investigations lead to the discovery of a vast, secret, labyrinthine library filled with books William has only ever heard of, and the discovery fills him with delight. Of course, several villains and a few sub-plots derail William and Adso’s quest, and most notable of the villains in particular is the inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F Murray Abraham) who has crossed swords with William in the past and who, on meeting him again, is eager to trip up William and his inquiring, analytical mind once and for all with the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church behind him. William faces the very real possibility of being declared a heretic and ending up on a pyre along with a number of other characters, most notably a hunch-backed monk Salvatore (Ron Perlman) and a feral peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) with whom Adso falls in love.

In two hours the film captures something of the oppressive and paranoid atmosphere of the period during which the Church was the final arbiter and keeper of all knowledge and people were prevented from learning, discovering and interpreting information and knowledge for themselves. The monastery is remote in culture as well as in physical location and there is an all-pervasive atmosphere of grinding poverty and self-censorship. The library, when found, owes a great deal to the influence of Argentine short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The film presents quite starkly the contrast between what William represents – reason, intellectual inquiry (and not a little pride), a scientific, logical approach to solving problems and giving people access to learning and education – and what Gui and several other monks in the film represent: the claim by an earthly institution to control all knowledge, even knowledge coming directly from God or other higher forces and to ensure its power over all humans by deliberately keeping them ignorant, unhappy and poor.

Connery does excellent work as the Sherlock Holmes character who thinks before he acts and revels in brain power over brawn; the William character is a huge contrast from other characters Connery has played in his career. Slater in his debut acting role is not bad but Adso is essentially a passive role and the young actor spends most of his time looking just plain puzzled. Perlman steals most of the scenes he’s in with a superb performance as the wretched and often quite demented Salvatore and upstages Abraham whose role is actually quite small and rather stereotypically villainous, given that he appears in the film’s second half. Most of the actors have distinctive, rugged features that fit them perfectly for their roles and for the sinister Gothic world in which the film’s events roll out.

The film isn’t completely faithful to the complex novel whose body count at the end has a rather different mix of characters than the film’s lot. A few issues and sub-plots that are an important part of the novel had to be jettisoned but the film’s plot is quite faithful to the book’s plot. The film adds its own concerns about religious bigotry and intolerance and the control of information by an elite, all of which create a world in which even a highly intelligent, sensitive and learned person may find impossible to survive in without running afoul of the self-styled guardians of order and gate-keepers of knowledge and being forced to pay dearly for being authentic. Both the film and the novel are best viewed as companion pieces that have their own commentaries on the nature of oppression and control of information and knowledge.

1945A / The Gift / R-Ha: three science fiction shorts that show creative and visionary promise

Ryan Nagata, “1945A” (2010)

Carl Erik Rinsch, “The Gift” (2010)

Kaleb Lechowski, “R-Ha” (2012)

These films have a few things in common: they’re very short science fiction films, they use CGI, they have open endings and they involve conflict of one sort or another. The films look very credible in spite of their low budgets and at least two of them have been picked up by Hollywood for future movie treatments. Of the three directors, Kaleb Lechowski is a German film student, Carl Erik Rinsch was Ridley Scott’s protege and Ryan Nagata has had extensive experience working in television since 2005 at least, according to his profile on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).

The “A” in “1945A” stands for alternate reality and it poses the question of whether victory of the Allied forces in World War II was due simply to luck on their side and not on the Nazi side. The American forces, fighting somewhere in western Europe, are suddenly confronted by a new sophisticated Spinnepanzer machine that not only stalks the landscape like something out of H G Wells’s “War of the Worlds” but breathes flames up to 50 metres in length and even has a laser death ray that melts tanks into metal pancakes! The Americans panic and flee. Nagata leaves us in no doubt that technology such as this eventually won the war for the Nazis in his parallel universe. Although filmed in colour, the story takes place at night and so the visual style of the film is various shades of grey. The fighting is desperate and brutal on both sides and Nagata doesn’t flinch from showing the horrors of war as soldiers are incinerated and one man screams in pain from two severed legs. The short looks as if it’s part of a much longer film and some viewers might find it unsatisfactory as a short in its own right. The acting looks quite credible and I didn’t think it was amateurish at all.

“The Gift” takes place in a futuristic Moscow in which a stranger carrying a mysterious box wangles his way into a politician’s mansion and uses the box to distract the man’s attention in order to assassinate him. The stranger later dies and his box is picked up by the politician’s robot servant who races away from the police. The second half of the film short is taken up by the police chase which ends tragically for the robot. The police never recover the box which ends up lost in an icy river. We are left to guess what the mysterious object in the box is that fascinated the politician.

The film is suspenseful and the acting at least is effective for the plot’s purposes. The integration of CGI with live action looks realistic though viewers may wonder why such sophisticated technology like a robot servant and a breath-testing analyser in a tiny metal straw co-exists with tinny box-like police cars. Oh well, the Russian government obviously took the police force for granted and didn’t throw enough roubles at the nation’s men in blue. As with “1945A”, we are left guessing at what might happen next with the box and this adventure with the stranger, the politician and the robot is just one of many that the box and its secret denizen have experienced.

Like “1945A”, Lechowski’s short could be a trailer for a much longer film. Two alien civilisations are at war and each is determined to destroy the other. The pilot of one civilisation is captured by the war machines of the other and subjected to torture. He steadfastly refuses to give up any information but the torture forces him to open up his mind to the machines that read his thoughts and memory. The pilot manages to escape and fly off but the war machines pursue him. Has he really escaped or have they tricked him and are using the information obtained from his mind to lead them to his headquarters?

The dialogue between the alien and the machine is hard to follow even with the volume levels turned up to maximum so I lost some of the details of the plot. The CGI work is very impressive, especially in the scenes where an entire city is destroyed by giant spidery war robots. In this short at least, torture pays off and the pilot may live to regret that in a moment of weakness he allowed the enemy to plumb his mind and inner being. Of course there’s always the possibility that in the torture scene the pilot deliberately thought of something that might lead the enemy machines astray. There is the obvious conflict between two very different alien species fighting for their own survival and there is also the conflict between an alien species that believes in putting soldiers on the ground and one that relies on machines to fight on its behalf: the suggestion is that the species that puts its own on the line is somehow “nobler” or more ethical and less cowardly than one that vicariously fights wars. I wonder if Lechowski was making a comment about the West fighting drone wars across western Asia and parts of Africa?

All three films show a lot of promise for their creators and I wish the three well in their future careers as film directors, writers and SF visionaries.