The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.

The Post: a plea for freedom of speech and of the press, and for women’s progress in a film driven by dialogue and character study performances

Stephen Spielberg, “The Post” (2017)

A taut and minimalist political drama, “The Post” is driven by good dialogue and equally good if not outstanding character study performances by its three leading actors: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk. The film is set in the early 1970s and is based on the struggle by whistle-blower military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and the newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post (hereafter referred to as NYT and WaPo respectively) to publish the famous Pentagon Papers – classified government documents depicting the extent of covert US government involvement in the Vietnam War which included elevating Ngo Dinh Diem to the South Vietnamese Presidency and later assassinating him in a coup, and bombing Cambodia and Laos, and demonstrating that the US had no hope of winning the war against a determined Vietnamese population fighting for its independence – and the extraordinary measures the Nixon administration took to suppress their publication. The film focuses more narrowly on the efforts of WaPo owner Katherine Graham (Streep), WaPo executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) to publish the documents in spite of serious threats made against them including Bradlee losing his job and Kay Graham losing face among her Washington social set.

Initially the film is a bit all over the place, dashing from a Vietnamese jungle scene in which American soldiers are shot at and open fire in return, and the incident recorded by a war correspondent on the ground, emphasising the importance of good journalism in conveying accurate news about events to the public at home so people can decide whether the US should continue fighting a war where no-one seems to be winning and too many are dying; to Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) taking the documents and secretly copying them with the help of friends; to Graham and Bradlee going about their daily routines in running the newspaper. The film seems to take some time to settle into a clear linear narrative structure (or maybe I’m the one who needs time to see that structure) but once the plot emerges, it proceeds briskly, powered by lots of conversation and passionate performances, and the zigzagging from one plot strand to another and back becomes less distracting and is more easily understood. Spielberg applies some very deft editing to the ends and beginnings of scenes to maintain pace and tension, and bring some humour to relieve some tension when things seem a bit too hairy. His style is very restrained, allowing the actors to inhabit their characters. Background shots are very significant in establishing the look and style of the film.

Perhaps the film focuses too much on Kay Graham as a feminist icon and moulds her into a stereotypical socialite who inherits her father’s company and has to learn the hard way – being thrown into the deep end of the proverbial swimming pool and having to swim – of how to be an effective CEO among swarms of men more or less hostile to women in positions of power. In real life, by 1971 Graham had been running the WaPo for seven or eight years, having hired Bradlee in 1965, and was already as tough as nails in dealing with a sexist business world (though perhaps inwardly she was still shit-scared at times). The film’s message that Kay Graham was a lone feminist pioneer in being the first woman to head a major newspaper – and moreover, one that became famous for its investigative reporting under her reign – is underlined in heavy-handed fashion in scenes involving Bradlee’s wife Toni (Sarah Paulson) who initially is nothing more than a housewife but is later revealed as a talented amateur painter, and one particularly tacky scene in which Graham walks past a throng of fawning women in a crowd. These scenes do little to advance the plot.

As is Streep’s custom, she nails Graham’s look, gestures and manner of speaking to perfection. Hanks and other actors probably act more themselves though Hanks’ moment to shine comes when he contemplates a photo and wonders (in silence) whether his past friendships with significant American political figures have compromised his journalistic ethics.

The film makes a plea urging viewers to support accurate investigative journalism and whistle-blowing activism as vital elements in maintaining democracy and speaking truth to power, and to support gender equality as one link in enabling talented, committed people of integrity to become journalists or newspaper publishers who can bring governments and politicians to account. The film’s release comes at a time when freedom of speech and the press is under assault from governments, intelligence agencies, corporations and think-tanks pushing agendas and ideologies in which they have vested interests, as never before; it also comes at a time when identity politics based on gender, ethnic, religious and life-style interests has trumped class-based politics and threatens to divide and weaken the public, driving it into squabbling factions that can be dominated by The Powers That (Should Not) Be, like never before. (It should be said also that freedom of the press is also threatened by increasing ownership of news media outlets by billionaire individuals – like current Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos – who may hew to agendas and ideologies inimical to the public interest and press freedom.) The film’s criticism of the Nixon government can also be read as implied criticism of the current Trump government, and there is some concession that even the past Democrat administrations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (1961 – 1968) lied to the American people and continued to prosecute a war in which not only did hundreds of US soldiers die but US soldiers also committed war crimes.

There is much good that can be said for “The Post” but also much bad that can be said too.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

The King’s Choice: best seen as a character study of people having to make unenviable choices and decisions

Erik Poppe, “Kongens Nei / The King’s Choice” (2016)

As a straight history lesson or even as a conventional war-time drama, this film doesn’t succeed: audiences outside Norway will find the narrative very fragmented and be mystified as to what actually happens between the main body of the plot and its closing scene. One also senses that director Poppe couldn’t resist in indulging in some cheap propaganda pot-shots at Denmark, the former colonial master, in shoring up Norwegian insecurities about having sold out to the Germans through the fascist Vidkun Quisling government during World War II. The action scenes are superfluous to the main body of the film and the two people at the centre of them are no more than heroic feel-good stereotypes. “Kongens Nei” works best as a fictional character study centred on the figure of King Haakon VII who through circumstances not of his making is forced to make an unenviable choice as head of state: willingly agree to surrender to Germany and avoid continuing bloodshed, or refuse and share (however indirectly) the blame for war. If we take this narrow focus, then the film becomes a lesson about moral responsibility and how it shapes one’s legacy to one’s family (and nation), but perhaps at the cost of accepting the film’s initial portrayal of the king as somewhat spineless, giving in to compromise and following the herd when he should have done otherwise. The real king may have been no such figure.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, the film does a decent job detailing the immense pressure Norway and its government are under from the attacking Nazi German forces who are hell-bent on seizing the country’s iron ore resources to feed their eventual war against the Soviet union. Holding the story together are the central characters of the King himself (Jesper Christensen), the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who acts as the King’s conscience and the ill-fated German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) who arranges to meet with the King to persuade him to sign an act of surrender even as Berlin manoeuvres and pushes the envoy aside. The three actors are excellent in their roles: Christensen all but absorbs the viewer’s attention as a morally and physically frail and ageing monarch who might not have been a great father or even a very good leader in the past. How he rises – or maybe does not rise – to his nation’s greatest crisis is the crux of the film. Bräuer’s own personal journey to this point in the film parallels the King’s moral dilemma. Both men try to do the right thing by their own standards even as dark forces surround and encroach on them and their families: Bräuer insists on carrying out his duty as an envoy and the King tries to do what he believes is the right thing by the Norwegian people, to the extent of walking into what might be a potential trap. The irony is that what he and Bräuer end up doing actually makes very little difference to Norway’s eventual fate.

I feel that where the film really falls down is its failure to show how Norway’s resistance to German invasion and aggression was ultimately hopeless, and how the Norwegian royal family was forced to leave the country altogether in spite of the decisions the King and Crown Prince had made, however heroic or not these were.

Red Sorghum: a celebration of life, its vitality and rebirth, and of the resilience and courage needed to bring back hope

Zhang Yimou, “Hong gao liang / Red Sorghum” (1987)

“Red Sorghum” marks the debut of Zhang Yimou as an important director in Chinese film and of actor Gong Li who would go on to make several films with Zhang (and become his lover as well). Set in northern China in the late 1930s, just ahead of and during the Japanese invasion of the country, the film has a fairy-tale quality while it also revels in the lusty and earthy Chinese peasant culture. Gong Li plays teenage bride Jiu’er sent by her poor parents to an elderly man suffering from leprosy who owns a winery. The girl is taken in a sedan, carried by several men, to the winery. The men sing bawdy songs to discomfit the girl but as they cross a field of sorghum, the wedding party is accosted by a bandit. One of the men (Jiang Wen) saves Jiu’er from being assaulted by killing the bandit and the wedding party manages to reach the winery with no more trouble. Later when Jiu’er returns to her parents temporarily and then takes leave of them permanently to go back to her husband, her rescuer jumps out of the sorghum field and drags her deep into the forest of sorghum where he apparently rapes her.

Jiu’er’s elderly husband is found dead with no heir so Jiu’er takes ownership of the winery. She inspires the workers to help her build up the winery into a successful enterprise. Jiu’er’s rescuer (he is never named) tries to claim her as his wife but she throws him out of her bedroom and the workers dump him into an empty vat. Later when the workers are celebrating the making of the first batch of sorghum wine since Jiu’er took over the running of the winery, the rescuer tries to spoil the party by urinating into the wine … but his action actually improves the taste of the wine. The improved wine becomes a major factor in the winery’s success over the next nine years.

The Imperial Japanese army invades the area and forces everyone living there to clear and destroy the sorghum fields so a road can be built. After the Japanese torture and kill a former winery worker Luohan (Teng Rujun), Jiu’er encourages her workers to avenge his death. They set up booby traps for the Japanese military convoy but not everything goes according to plan and Jiu’er and a woman servant end up being killed by the Japanese. The traps go off but end up killing nearly everyone and only Jiu’er’s rescuer and their young son survive.

The film is most notable for its cinematography and the lavish use of the colour red to symbolise vitality (whether in the peasants themselves or the hooch they brew), bloodshed and ultimately hope and defiance. The actual story-telling seems fragmented, skips over an entire period in which Jiu’er makes her business prosper, and gives no motivation or reason for Luohan leaving Jiu’er’s employ when he does or why he suddenly turns up near the winery nine years later, only to disappear again until he is caught by the Japanese. The relationship between Jiu’er and her rescuer may not be sufficiently defined enough for Western viewers who have to deduce from the looks she gives the rescuer that she is both attracted to and repelled by him.

Probably the weakest part of the film is at its end when all seems hopeless and lost, and nothing is said, yet we know from the voiceover narration in previous sections of the film that the survivors did carry on. Why at this point in the film does the unseen narrator remain silent? Why does he not take the opportunity to praise and commend Jiu’er for holding together and inspiring a small desert community after her elderly husband’s death?

While the brutal violence may come as a shock to many viewers, the film ultimately is a celebration of life in all its aspects and its rebirth, and of the patience, determination and resilience needed to turn desperation and despair into optimism and hope.

 

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel): breathless rush admits no disbelief about inspiration for Bible story

Elliott Kew “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel)” (2017)

The Bible story of the construction of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in presuming itself the equal of God was once well-known to generations of children in Western society and still resonates among people in Western countries even today. This “Treasures Decoded” episode breathlessly takes viewers into Iraq, to the archaeological site of an enormous temple building known as Etemenanki built during the sixth century BCE by the King Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Babylonian Empire. To that end, he apparently conquered the Jewish states of Israel and Judah, and carted off those states’ best and brightest craftspeople and workers to work on the building.

The episode goes into some detail as to what Nebuchadnezzar II’s grand construction was made of, what it would have had to look like given that it must have been 90 metres tall and made of mud bricks, and the stresses it might have suffered due to its height and construction materials. It should be no surprise that such a tall mud-brick construction had to be a pyramid-like ziggurat with steps going up its sides in addition to the long staircase the Tower of Babel was reputed to have had. Contrary to the Biblical story, this particular construction lasted a very long time, in fact  well into the fourth century BCE, though by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire (which replaced the Babylonian Empire in 550 BCE) the temple was in a very sorry state. Alexander had the temple pulled down, planning to rebuild it. Unfortunately he did not reign for very long, dying of malaria and over-exertion in his early 30s, and the temple was never rebuilt. The mud bricks used in its construction were instead recycled into other buildings and all that remains of the temple building is its foundation and some mud bricks.

The brisk, almost frantic pace of the episode leaves no space for viewers to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar II’s grandiose project was anything other than the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. I did have the impression that much of the evidence presented in the episode was too good and too slick to be accurate. Consulting Wikipedia and some other sources, I discovered that Etemenanki had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II and a previous ruler before him.

While learning about Etemenanki and why it was constructed the way it was, was interesting enough, I would have thought its place in Babylonian society, its role and function in projecting Babylonian power, and the awe it inspired in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Jewish captives would have been even more intriguing to know. The episode relied a bit too much on comparing the building with the Tower of Babel story, and not enough on its own compelling features and the possible megalomania that inspired it. So many documentaries these days make increasing references to stories in the Bible as touchstones for investigating archaeological sites that are impressive in their own right, and I fear this trend may have the effect of overwriting real Middle Eastern history with a fictional narrative working against the interests of the real people who live in the real Middle East.

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

Memoirs of a Geisha: overblown rags-to-riches soap opera romance with a shallow and conservative message

Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)

Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.

In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.

Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.

As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.

Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.