Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1): a timely historical survey of mining in Australia

Jacob Hickey, “Dirty Business: How Mining made Australia (Episode 1)” (2012)

If this first episode is typical of the three-part series, this documentary should be quite an eye-opener on an industry that, even more than the sheep and cattle industry, made Australia and Australians the country and the people they are. The episode performs a fair few introductory functions: it traces the history of mining in Australia back to early gold rush years in the early nineteenth century, it links mining with the early growth of Australia’s second city Melbourne and it looks at certain aspects of Australia’s cultural history and social development such as racism, the White Australia Policy and nationalism and how these were influenced by mining.

Beginning with the impact of gold rushes in the state of Victoria during the nineteenth century, the documentary stretches out to include the early history of Chinese immigration into Victoria to the extent that Chinese made up 10% of the people living in that state and were the third largest ethnic group in the country after the English and Irish. The reactions that Chinese immigration stimulated among local whites form one of the darkest episodes in the nation’s history and the growing racism against Asians, later extended to Pacific Islanders, in the second half of the nineteenth century has an eerie parallel with deepening racial hostility towards black people and American Indians in the United States in the same period. The documentary also traces the cycle of resource boom and bust in Australia’s economic history: the boom period of the 1870s – 1880s gave way to a major depression in 1893, from which arose the drive to unite the various Australian colonies into one federated self-governing dominion in the British empire. Sharemarkets begin their rise in the colonies at the same time and to some extent the frenzied activity that often take place in the country’s bourses lead to a rollercoaster economy. The documentary embraces other mining booms in nickel and iron ore (associated with Lang Hancock who with his wife is said to have discovered the immense iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in 1952) and brings viewers up to the present day with the issue of the fair distribution of income earned from mining and the conflicts this has caused in the mining industry for the past 160+ years and continues to provoke today.

Using archived photographs and film, interviewing historians and interspersing time-speed camera work into the program, overlaid by voice-over narration, this film is easy on the eye and ear and travels at a steady pace. There’s quite dramatic footage that director Jacob Hickey obtained with a camera bound to the fixed wing of a plane. Some people may object that the documentary’s range is rather too all-encompassing and that mining can’t be blamed for the race riots that took place in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s – 1860s or that Melbourne’s Golden Age wasn’t entirely based on mining wealth. But to consider Australia’s social, political and economic development as having been stimulated by mining is an original and thought-provoking idea: the film dares to suggest blandly if mutely that the mining industry, not stock-raising forms of agriculture or wheat-growing, has really been the mainstay of Australia’s wealth and development.

It is too early to say yet if the series will touch on mining’s impact on the Australian character and attitude to a land beneath which lies an enormous treasure chest of minerals that can be dug out easily. Certainly the easy availability of gold and other minerals and the riches these have brought can be thought to have contributed to the Australian reputation of self-satisfied “she’ll be right , mate” complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in most situations. Is it possible that Australian expectations that resources booms will last forever more or less with the odd rare hiccup or two make Australians quite vulnerable to the coaxing and sometimes outright bullying of other more powerful countries? How will Australians cope when the news finally dawns that we cannot live off mining indefinitely, that it might be destroying other more useful activities such as agriculture, tourism and scientific research into plants with medicinal qualities, and that it might have stymied cultural, social and political development and maturity in Australia? The experience of refugees fleeing war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan says that Australia’s fair treatment of others, especially underprivileged others and allowing them to share in the nation’s wealth seem to be values not many Australians, migrant as well as locally born, believe in or share.

Tsar to Lenin: an incredible compilation of archival footage of the Russian Revolution

Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman, “Tsar to Lenin” (1937)

Presented by Mehring Books and the Socialist Equality Party, “Tsar to Lenin” is an incredible historical document of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising that saw off Tsar Nicholas II and his government in February 1917 through the October Revolution of the same year to the civil war that lasted three years and which resulted in Soviet victory and domination of the lands that became the Soviet Union in 1921. The film is a compilation of archival footage found and assembled by Herman Axelbank (1900 – 1979) in chronological order with a spirited and often dramatic narration by Max Eastman (1883 – 1969). The original photographers and film-makers who made the films in the assemblage numbered over 100 people who came from all walks of life: Russians of all classes including the Tsar himself and his Royal photographer, foreigners including Americans, Japanese and others,  those who supported the Soviets and those who opposed them.

The film begins with a sardonic description of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia: the lives of the aristocracy, particularly those of the Tsar and his courtiers, are portrayed in some detail. We see the Tsar at leisure with his courtiers, playing a ball-game and later swimming nude in a lake. (Eastman’s narration smirks that the world has never seen a king presented as “he really is”.) The Tsarevich is shown with palace guards who help him up on his horse. From there the film flits to the lives of the upper class and progresses to the peasants and industrial working class people and at this point the story takes off as workers go on strike and march in demonstrations in St Petersburg. We soon go to war with the Russian forces and Eastman informs us that the Russian army fared very badly against Germany and its allies. Against this background, the Tsar increases his repression of the workers and peasants, protests break out and in February 1917 the Tsar is overthrown.

The new Menshevik government tries to continue prosecuting the war against Germany and this in itself leads to more demonstrations. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin gain popularity on an anti-war, populist platform that promises land reform, food and other material security, and peace to the workers and peasants. In November 1917 (late October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) and from there Soviet influence spread to the rest of European Russia and Helsinki in Finland.

At the same time, anti-Bolshevik resistance – the White movement –  forms from a motley collection of monarchists, republicans, army generals, disgruntled nobles and political reactionaries, and Ukraine under nationalist and anarchist influence attempts a breakaway from Russia. Foreigners are invited by the new Ukrainian government to assist and the West eagerly sends troops and supplies to the anti-Bolshevik forces through several fronts including Kiev, northern Russia, the Ural mountains region and even Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan. The fighting is hard and atrocities are committed by Soviet and enemy forces alike. The highlights of this section of the film include a shocking sequence of images in which troops commanded by anti-Bolshevik leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak execute Soviet POWs in a field and repeatedly look into an open mass grave to make sure all their prisoners are dead. Another very distressing scene shows mummified Russian Orthodox monks being exhumed and then re-interred in a ruined building.

The film concludes with the victory of Soviet forces, backed by the Russian people, against the Whites and their foreign allies, and the final sequence of scenes shows some unforgettable footage of Vladimir Lenin animatedly explaining socialism to his audience. The man’s eyes are shining with excitement and his being gives no indication of the mysterious condition (syphilis?) that would afflict him in his later years and lead to his untimely death. Eastman’s narration portrays Lenin as an idealistic and passionate man with a vision that encompasses all that would benefit the Russian people.

Major highlights in the film are many and include detailed listings of people prominent in the Menshevik and Bolshevik political elites, a bird’s eyeview of a scene in St Petersburg in early 1917 in which Tsarist troops fire on panicking people running away and scenes of fighting in northwestern Russia during the civil war. There are uplifting scenes as well, notably those of the celebrations that took place in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. There is also an impressive and detailed listing of delegates who attend the Internationale in Moscow in 1920. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is introduced quite late in the film and appears for less than a minute; his small footnote appearance suggests that his contribution to the momentous events from 1917 to 1921 was either insignificant or perhaps sinisterly underhand.

The film is well put together and Eastman’s narration, often slyly mocking of personages like the Tsar and Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, is easy to follow. School students and undergraduate university students will find this documentary a good introduction to the events of the Russian Revolution; I myself thought I knew a fair amount about the events of 1917, having studied some Russian history at school, but I obviously forgot a great deal about the 1917 – 1920 civil war. In the film, Axelbank and Eastman make no apologies about whose side they’re on; they’re clearly on the side of Lenin and Leon Trotsky who is also portrayed as a heroic leader. (The booklet that accompanies the DVD that I watched explains that Eastman later repudiated his former radical views and embraced a more politically conservative viewpoint.)

And even if viewers are not history students, they will still discover much in the documentary that resonates with contemporary global political issues today: the Western invasion of Russia in 1917 and the war the Soviets were forced to fight against foreigners – the film states that the Bolsheviks were up against 14 foreign forces – has its parallel with events currently unfolding in Syria where mercenaries from Iraq, Libya and other countries, backed by Saudi Arabia and NATO, are fighting with the Free Syria Army against  Syrian government forces.

À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.


9/11 Intercepted: dry and technical presentation of what may have actually occurred in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks

Rob Balsamo, “9/11 Intercepted” (2011)

Over a decade has passed since the World Trade Center attacks occurred and we are still no closer to knowing what actually happened on that day that changed the course of world history. In the meantime an abundance of stories and theories about what occurred varying greatly in credibility has accumulated. Suffice to say that the official US government account of the events, accepted by the mainstream Western media, is a poor representation of the facts. This documentary, presented by Pilots for 9/11 Truth, presents a more credible picture of the trajectories of the four commercial passenger jets that either crashed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and Department of Defense headquarters in Washington DC or went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The presentation is fairly dry and concentrates closely on a detailed examination of the routes the four planes took. Chris Kelley’s gravel-toned narration of what happened at what time agrees with the timeline information I have gathered over the years from various Internet sources. There is heavy reliance on computer simulations of the planes’ routes, radar data, graphs of figures and tape recordings of conversations among air traffic control staff. It is clear from the narration and the visual information presented that the hijackers hit pay dirt on September 11, 2001: the jet-fighters were either slow to scramble, flew at low speeds or were occupied in various wargames that were taking place that morning. Errors, misunderstandings and false information in communication between air traffic control and airforce bases in the eastern US are noted. There is a plausible suggestion that at least three jets swapped with drone aircraft and that the drone aircraft crashed into the WTC buildings and the Pentagon.

The information given of military jets engaged in war games, their pilots presumably confused as to whether the new information they were receiving was for real or part of their simulation exercises; of fighters lying in the wrong directions or towards cities far from their bases when jets at other military bases were much closer; of commercial jet aircraft being flown like jet-fighters, an indication that either their pilots had military training or the planes themselves were being remotely controlled; of reports of other aircraft converging with the hijacked jets and then diverging from them; of aircraft still flying after supposedly crashing into buildings; of poor communications with phones not working and aircraft positions being wrongly reported … all this indicates that the official narrative of the 9/11 events is filled with errors piled upon errors with the result that  general public has been misinformed to an extent that suggests the US government has deliberately deceived the world over what happened. Moreover, the US has used the events of September 11, 2001, as an excuse and prelude to conduct continuous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.

Rather lamely, the documentary urges American viewers to contact their Congress or Senate representatives to request a full formal explanation of what occurred on September 11, 2001. However if the political representatives have been bought by individuals, firms or other agencies that have an interest in maintaining the official 9/11 narrative, then lobbying those representatives will amount to very little apart from polite acknowledgement and interested people should contact Pilots for 9/11 Truth  or similar organisations such as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth dedicated to investigating the truth behind the WTC and Pentagon building attacks and United Airlines Flight 93’s crash in Shanksville.

“9/11 Intercepted” does not cover other aspects of what actually happened on or before September 11, 2001, such as the unusual stockmarket activity that occurred over two weeks starting in late August 2001 on the New York stock exchange and other bourses around the world and which involved the stocks of American Airlines and United Airlines and of various companies that had their headquarters in the World Trade Center buildings; the mysterious collapse of WTC7 in the evening, announced by the BBC several minutes before the building actually fell; and the shooting death (changed to stabbing in later news reports) of passenger and former Israeli Defense Forces’ Sayeret Matkal officer Daniel Lewin on American Airlines Flight 11 before the plane plunged into the North Tower of the WTC complex, among other anomalies.


The Surprising History of Egypt with Terry Jones: continuity of the ancient in the modern with a message about living life to the full

Phil Grabsky, “The Surprising History of Egypt with Terry Jones” (2002)

An entertaining trip into the lives and customs of every-day people of ancient Egypt, with host and narrator Terry Jones of Monty Python fame thrown in as a bonus to spice up the history lesson, this program uncovers a surprising continuity between the people of ancient Egypt and the people of modern Egypt in spite of centuries of invasion, one set of foreign rulers after another, and drastic changes in language and religion. Jones’s approach to making this documentary is warm, conversational and often comic, making the history lesson accessible to families and children. He chats easily with archaeologists, historians and other experts on aspects of ancient Egyptian life and the film moves at a brisk pace, flitting breezily from examinations of ancient life as portrayed on murals and in archaeological sites to scenes of modern life.

With a striking redhead Egyptologist guide called Joanne by his side, Jones visits a family at home where Joanne explains how the construction of the residents’ home, their furniture and the family’s sleeping arrangements have changed very little in concept, design, basic structure and function from early times. They visit a cloth seller and tailor to buy material to be made into an ancient Egyptian costume for Jones and they have lunch at a cafe, consuming food and beverages that ancient Egyptians might have been familiar with. They talk about the kind of work most ancient Egyptian workers would have done: farming, construction work (for the elites), running shops and other small businesses, metal-working. Along the way Jones detours into those aspects of ancient Egyptian life and society that have survived to the present day: the Coptic language, spoken and written, literature and literary genres such as the autobiography. Jones discovers also that ancient Egyptian women enjoyed some economic and social equality with men.

In the last 10 minutes of the documentary, Jones tries on his costume, dons appropriate sandals and submits to a skincare and moisturising routine worthy of most ancient Egyptian workers. He puts on a wig and goes for a walk through town to the amusement of adults and the horror of young children. It’s all very amusing but apart from observing that Jones looks like one of his old Python drag queen acts, I don’t find that his dress says much about what ordinary Egyptians used to wear: there’s little discussion of fashion trends those worthy ancients might have followed, whether men and women wore different things, whether women had to cover their hair and faces, and if clothing styles depended on the work people did. There is mention that both men and women wore kohl to protect their eyes from sun glare but Jones and Joanne make no comment as to whether modern Egyptians still follow the most personal of customs from ancient times.

Jones makes the observation that the ancient Egyptians were self-sufficent in their thoughts and worldview, and within that worldview, life was good and was as much for fun and good living as it was for work and obeying the gods, the rhythm of the Nile river and one’s rulers. Beyond the Nile and the Valley of the Kings, there was only desert, death and not much else the ancient Egyptians needed. It is this worldview, complete in itself, that has created a society conservative in many of it ways yet adaptable enough as to adopt two religions from the outside world (Christianity and Islam) in the last two thousand years and change its everyday language from its native Egyptian / Coptic to an Arabic flavoured with native Egyptian and foreign vocabulary, morphology and pronunciation,

The film does an excellent job of bridging the old with the new, combining history and archaeology with travelogue without the expected laundry list of dates, rulers and conquests, and serves well as an introduction to ancient history and its continuing impact on modern life to young people.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts): demonstration that victors write history to flatter themselves and demonise others

Terry Jones, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts)” (2006)

This droll history lesson delivered by former Monty Python member Terry Jones examines the complicated relationship the Roman empire had with the ancient Celts whom they more or less subjugated and assimilated over several hundred years and finds that this relationship was even more complex than at first appears and the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” all but collapses. Conventional wisdom that says the Romans were civilised and the Celts were barbaric and savage is turned on its head as Jones discovers that the Celts were more organised and cultured than they have been credited with simply because they didn’t have or use writing to the extent the Romans did. They were unable or unwilling to write their history so the Romans did it for them – not in their favour of course.

Visiting museums and archaeological sites in Britain, Ireland, France and elsewhere in Europe, and talking to scientists and other experts, Jones discovers that the ancient Celts had extensive metal-working industries and trade networks extending throughout their territories across Europe from Spain to the Balkans and Turkey, and traded with their Roman rivals. He discovers the Celts had also developed sophisticated road-building techniques to assist their trading. Interestingly the Celts’ trading and road transport networks reveal their societies to be very decentralised, a possible indication that they valued political and social egalitarianism in which no one city dominated and every city and town was equal, in contrast to the Roman civilisation in which all roads and networks literally led to Rome.

A section in the documentary dealing with the burial of a wealthy and powerful Celtic woman in France leads Jones to discover that Celtic societies treated men and women equally; his trip to Ireland leads him to research ancient Irish laws which confirm that not only did ancient Irish women (and by implication ancient Celtic women) enjoy social equality with men, they also enjoyed economic equality in that they could inherit property, divorce their husbands and keep property after the divorce.

A running narrative is the clash between the forces of Julius Caesar (Rome) and Vercingetorix (a chieftain of the Arvenni tribe of Celts in Gaul), presented as a struggle between two very different and polarised worldviews, one of which was to die and to be distorted by the other worldview as bloodthirsty, violent and savage.  Jones points out that it was Caesar who took Vercingetorix as hostage and treated him cruelly, imprisoning him first, then publicly displaying him before having the Celt strangled to death. One group of Celts singled out for demonisation by Roman propaganda was the druids who were portrayed as sinister witch-doctor types presiding over mass human sacrifices that involved burning hundreds of people in wicker-man statues, hanging people or drowning them; the reality more likely was that humans were offered as sacrifices only in extreme situations of famine or hardship, and that the Romans slandered the druids as they were the political, social and cultural elite in their societies and it was necessary to paint them as wicked in order to break the Celts’ resistance to Roman rule and to teach people who were already vassals of the Romans that it was pointless for them to revolt against Rome as well.

The episode makes the point that history is written by the victors to suit themselves and more often than we’d like to think serves as propaganda to stifle rebellion and keep vanquished people psychologically enslaved so that their lands and resources may be seized by the victors for their own use. This message has much relevance for the world today as it stands on the brink of major warfare in the Middle East that may spread to northern Africa and central Asia. People across the world are being exhorted to support US-led NATO intervention in Syria by propaganda that paints Syrian leader Bashar al Assad as a criminal who must be removed and replaced by a new government that will bring democracy and freedom to Syria. Russia and China, which have objected to al Assad’s forced removal by foreign forces, are being portrayed in the Western press as authoritarian societies hostile to democracy and freedom. Uncomfortable facts such as the United States’ past interference in Middle East politics during the 1950s which among other things helped to bring the Ba’ath Party to power in Syria and Iraq and enabled Hafez al Assad (Bashar al Assad’s father) and Saddam Hussein respectively to seize control and rule as dictators are ignored. The fact that Libya remains in chaos and its achievements under Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s rule (1969 – 2011) have been destroyed or are being run down by Islamists after NATO intervention is also forgotten. If we don’t wish the 21st century to be one of unending New World Order violence, destruction and widespread poverty under a small and privileged elite, then we must resist the Western propaganda and the people, institutions and countries behind it. Unfortunately the BBC which made “Terry Jones’ Barbarians” series is one major institution peddling such propaganda.

Hysteria (dir. Tanya Wexler): a light-hearted giggle that riffs on women’s oppression and choosing between principle and respectability

Tanya Wexler, “Hysteria” (2011)

A romantic comedy very loosely based on historical fact, “Hysteria” purports to tell how Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the world’s first vibrator in 1880. For much of history up until the early 20th century, physicians (mainly male) had been treating various “conditions” in their female patients – conditions that might now be recognised as sympomatic of frustration both sexual and non-sexual, anxiety, depression, menstrual problems or even dissatisfaction with a limited, mostly home-bound role in society, but which were grouped into a catch-all ailment known as female hysteria (from which the film takes its name) – by masturbating them until the women experienced orgasm. The practice was lucrative for doctors since the women usually ended up being repeat patients (ahem!) but clitoral and vaginal massage was taxing for the doctor as the technique was difficult to master and appointments with patients could take hours. Hence there was a need for massage devices that could shorten the time required to treat patients from hours to minutes and during the 19th century, various treatments and devices including hydrotherapy and vibrators operated mechanically or by clockwork were invented. Thanks once again to Wikipedia for the information!

As for the film, the plot is a love triangle of Shakespearean “The Taming of the Shrew”  or Austenesque “Pride and Prejudice” inspiration: a young idealistic bachelor doctor (Hugh Dancy)  in need of a proper medical profession after being sacked from yet another hospital job because his belief that germs cause illness upsets the medical establishment applies for the role of assistant to Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice is doing a roaring trade among the desperate housewives of the middle class. Dr Dalrymple specialises in relieving mild forms of hysteria among these ladies. Darcy’s doctor Granville is a hit with Dalrymple’s patients too but quickly develops repetitive strain injury which causes a problem for him in the surgery. At the same time he is pressured by Dalrymple to become his partner, eventually to take over the practice, and marry his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) but older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an activist and prototype suffragette who runs a school and community centre for the poor in London, catches his eye and eventually his heart.

After losing his job because of his injury and sympathy towards Charlotte, Granville together with foster brother Edmund St John Smythe (Rupert Everett), a tech-buff and dissolute layabout, invent what they call a portable electric massager which they test on Dalyrymple’s maid Fannie and some of Dalrymple’s patients. The invention proves a hit and make Granville and St John Smythe rich. Meanwhile Dalrymple learns of Charlotte’s desperate plea to a wealthy couple for money and tries to foil her plan; this dastardly bastardry leads to a shakedown of one of Charlotte’s friends who then seeks her help by gatecrashing Granville and Emily’s engagement party. In the chaos that follows, Charlotte lands a right jab on the constable’s cheek which puts her in jail. She faces a sentence of incarceration in a mental asylum with a forced hysterectomy and Granville finds himself called upon as an expert witness with Charlotte’s life, health and future in his hands.

There’s a message about how women were patronised as infantile by the medical profession and how the problems they suffered from having limited choice and control over their lives and careers were swept into the medical basket to be treated as a physical and mental abnormality. Women like Charlotte who behaved outside the decreed societal stereotype appropriate for their class could be deemed mentally ill or defective and faced imprisonment and drastic surgery that could affect their health permanently and cut short their life span and quality. The romantic comedy format bravely tackles this issue of women’s oppression in a light-hearted though rather superficial  and forced way. The actors play fairly stock characters: Dancy is awkward as Granville and just manages to make the character credible but the others, Gyllenhaal and Everett in particular, acquit themselves. Gyllenhaal  plays a feisty and intelligent socialist feminist and Everett does his foppish gay aristocrat routine. Jones has a demure and obedient Victorian young lady stereotype to work with and makes the best of what she can with the limited role.

The direction is often superb with some wonderful scene set pieces – Pryce, Dancy and Everett donning goggles, as if about to travel to the moon in a home-made rocket, while preparing to use the massager on a portly matron are a hoot – and the plot cleverly juggles two narrative strands into one smooth and giddily paced whole. The script is so light that if one were to release it, it would float to the ceiling (with apologies to Kate Jackson of the old Charlie’s Angels series) and the ending is rather too tidy and predictable. Light farce follows in a finale consisting of a montage of silent scenes in which the massager’s fame spreads far and wide across the green and sceptred isles.

“Hysteria” turns out to be a fun giggle but no more. There’s a danger that in a film of its type, serious issues are reduced to bawdy comedy; “Hysteria” just manages to stay out of that Peeping-Tom / Carry-On zone by deftly presenting its protagonist with a moral dilemma of either being true to his principles or opting for false respectability.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths): a subtle criticism of modern imperialism and colonialism

Terry Jones and Rob Coldstream, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths)” (2006)

Drolly narrated by Terry Jones, he of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe, this documentary uses a mix of computer animation, live dramatic re-enactments (done with relish), interviews, stills and handheld camera film featuring Jones himself to tell the history of Roman-barbarian interactions. The history stuff, dependent on scholarly research, is done well with Jones putting his own humorous and witty spin on the narrative. As it turns out, the documentary is actually less about the Goths’ dealings with the Romans and more about the Romans’ dealings with the various barbarian tribes to their north and northeast and what is implied by Roman military actions against some of these groups.

The episode begins with Alaric the Goth’s sacking of Rome in 410 CE after his people’s harrying of the borders and then the territories of the Roman empire beyond the Alps, in Germania and Gaul. Omitted is the early history of the Goths when first they arose in Gotland, off the coast of southeastern Sweden in the Baltic sea, and challenging the Svear people in central Sweden for control of southern Sweden in the first 200 years of the Common Era; the two groups had the Mother of all Dust-ups, of which there could be only one set of winners. The Goths’ subsequent history in continental Europe and the fact that the Swedes’ own name for their country literally means “Kingdom of the Svear” leave us in no doubt as to who the heavyweight champs were. No, most of the episode is taken up with the complicated relations that the Romans and Germanic peoples had: the two sides fought a great deal, that’s true, but the Romans also used Germanic warriors like Arminius as mercenaries in their armies, and there must have been peace treaties signed between different Roman provincial governors and bands of Germanic peoples, and trade between them and the Roman provinces when they weren’t fighting. The Roman practice of hiring individual barbarian warriors and tribal chiefs as mercenaries and spies might have been copied from the Greek practice of hiring Scythian warriors and archers as their mercenaries so it wasn’t an unusual custom; for one thing, the mercenaries were one conduit by which the Romans assimilated barbarian groups into their culture and society and rule them as client states or provinces.

The first half of the episode is taken up with the personalities of Arminius (the Latinised form of Hermann), the chief of a Germanic tribe, and Publius Quinctilius Varus, appointed by the Roman emperor Augustus as governor of the Germanic territory. Arminius allowed himself to be assimilated into Roman society and even earned honours from the Romans themselves but plotted to unite the various Germanic tribes to fight and throw off Roman rule. In 9 CE, Arminius led a group of warriors from six Germanic tribes to lure the Roman army, consisting of three legions, three cavalry attachments and six units of auxiliary soldiers, into an ambush and killed the lot; Varus who commanded the army committed suicide and his head was taken by Arminius who sent it on to the king of the Marcomanni, an important Germanic tribe, who in turn sent it on to Rome. This decisive battle (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) determined the border of the Roman empire between Gaul and Germania along the Rhine river. Years later, Arminius fell out with the Marcomanni and various other Germanic tribal leaders and was assassinated by them.

Most of the second half of the episode is given over to the Roman conquest of Dacia in what is now Romania and in particular Transylvania. Here Jones follows an archaeologist who explains what is known of the Dacians and their culture. Although the Dacians were regarded as barbarians by the Romans, their society and culture were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. Jones investigates the causes of the Roman hostility towards the Dacians: the Dacian religion, based on divine worship of their king, and the Dacian territory, rich in gold and other minerals, prove to be their downfall. A border dispute some time after 100 CE gave the Romans the opportunity to conquer and annihilate the Dacians completely and take over their territory. Dacia remained Roman territory for just over 100 years.

The Goths make their actual entrance under Alaric just under 10 minutes before the end of the episode that’s named after them. By the time these particular barbarians are at the gates of Rome, the Goths have actually been well assimilated into Roman life and culture and become Christians. The reason they came knocking at Rome’s door and barged into the city is that they had been unsettled from their territories by the Huns riding all the way from Mongolia and were thus refugees. Alaric treated the Romans fairly well and continued on to Calabria where he desired to sail to northern Africa but the ships that were to take him and his followers were battered in storms, many men drowned and Alaric himself died in Cosenza.

The point of the episode is that Rome itself was far more barbaric in its behaviour towards its tributary peoples than they towards the colonising power; the coverage of the Roman conquest of Dacia in particular is an example of early genocide. The underlying message is that the Romans were the ancient equivalent of the British in the nineteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in coveting other people’s lands for their mineral and energy wealth and used the most piffling excuse (a border problem) to completely rout and destroy an entire nation who admired Greek and Roman culture. Not much has changed since the Roman empire fell, the episode implies: it is a subtle slap in the face of those supporting the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the years before 2006.




Mailer for Mayor: dull documentary of limited historical value

Dick Fontaine, “Mailer for Mayor” (1969)

This BBC documentary was included in UK journalist / film-maker Adam Curtis’s recent post “White Negro for Mayor” on his blog. With a minimal voice-over narrative, the film follows writer and intellectual Norman Mailer on his campaign to stand for mayor of New York City in 1969. Mailer discovers that he needs a huge campaign machine, an army of volunteers and (even in those days, over 40 years ago) shit-loads of money to finance his tireless campaigning. With an original theme (the 51st state), catchy logos and enthusiastic support from young people, fellow intellectuals like Gloria Steinem and an assortment of bohos, culture vultures and hipster types, Mailer tries to make some headway in the general consciousness of sceptical or apathetic New York City voters. Can he actually make an impact on a cynical electorate and become mayor?

The fly-on-the-wall style of presentation and the minimal narration which could have put all the details into a general context frankly made the film an ordeal to follow. Much of it is pernickety on details and viewers outside the United States (and many inside the US) not familiar with the day-to-day routine of political campaigning as it was done decades ago will be totally lost. The film is never clear on what Mailer’s platform was all about and I confess to having to look up Mailer’s Wikipedia entry to find out what it was: he was in favour of decentralising the city in a way such that every neighbourhood would have its own school system, police force, housing progams and philosophy that gave it purpose and direction. Minor issues that he stood for included non-fluoridation of the water supply and the freeing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton who was in prison at the time. While most of Mailer’s supporters were too young to vote, he did get some backing from surprising quarters: the libertarian economist / anarcho-capitalist and political activist Murray Rothbard gave his platform the thumbs-up, believing that Mailer’s decentralisation proposal would be the only answer to solving New York City’s many urban problems.

Not suprisingly, Mailer fails dismally in his campaign and the political right-wing forces he’s up against triumph yet again. If there is any value for contemporary audiences from the documentary, it is to show that life in 1960s NYC wasn’t the free-wheeling, love-is-all-you-need hippiedrome we imagine it was: for most people at the time, life was as strait-laced, conformist and dominated by socially and politically conservative ideologies as in the 1950s. The political machinations of Mailer’s more professional and seasoned opponents are as slick and cynical as ever they were in the days when Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and before then; the voters are also as disaffected and unimpressed by politicians and their hacks as their descendants are now. What has changed is the scale on which these things happen: larger amounts of money spent on spin and greasing palms, greater voter alienation, a greater sense that once again an opportunity to reach out to people, listen to what they’re really saying rather than going “I feel your pain” and actually doing something to right the wrongs of society is being wasted.

It should be said that Mailer was no angel: he married six times with five marriages ending in divorce and he is known to have been violent to his second wife at least and unfaithful to his fourth wife. His fifth marriage in November 1980 lasted just a day and was done to legitimise the birth of a daughter in 1971 while he was married to Missus No 4.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.