The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.

This Changes Everything: simplistic globe-trotting essay based on faulty premises

Avi Lewis, “This Changes Everything” (2015)

Billed as a film about climate change, this documentary essay based on Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s eponymous book actually follows up a premise expressed in Klein’s previous work like “The Shock Doctrine” that current global environmental, political and economic crises are the end manifestations of an ideology that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. This ideology stipulates that humans can and should master nature using their conscious intellectual and rational faculties. Welded together with bits and pieces selected from economic, political and social theories and philosophies in the Western intellectual public domain of the period, this ideology is premised on continuous and infinite economic growth, self-interest and the notion that economic markets should be free of government intervention. Nations that adopted this ideological model more or less then went on to conquer the world in search of new lands and resources for their industries; in the process they subjugated the peoples they found in those new lands, destroyed their cultures, languages and beliefs (and the very peoples themselves) and ravaged the territories and resources they found. The Western invasion of the world is still ongoing, albeit perhaps with new actors (some of them former colonies of the old actors) using new or more refined tactics, technologies and tools of propaganda, but it has now hit a crisis point: the planet’s systems are no longer able to sustain the continuing onslaught and they are now breaking down and reacting in unusual and bizarre ways. “Climate change”, manifested in extremes of temperature causing prolonged drought and hurricanes or typhoons of extreme ferocity, is but a symptom of the general disease.

What Klein (who narrates the documentary) and Lewis try to do is alert viewers that climate change and other global crises are the end results of an ideology and the culture it engendered gone berserk, and the fact that all that was required for this ideology and its culture was a change in thinking about humans’ relationship to the world. Rather than bemoan this change in thinking, we should be inspired by this historical example to rethink the ideology and what resulted from it, to change our thinking again about our relationship with nature, embrace a new paradigm about our place in the world, and from that create a new civilisation based on new values of sustainability, cooperation and collective action.

To that end, the film jumps around various parts of the planet, starting with Fort McMurray in Alberta, the epicentre of Canada’s tar sands mining industry, and its effects on the local Cree community, its ability to subsist off its native lands and the degradation the industry is causing to local ecosystems. The film then hops to Montana where a rancher couple and the local aboriginal peoples must cope with a burst pipeline that floods and pollutes the river with oil (from the tar sands mines in northern Alberta, incidentally). From there we have to fly to Greece to see activists and protesters battle their government and foreign mining companies, to Andhra Pradesh (India) where again local people are up in arms against a coal-fired power plant proposal in their neighbourhood, and to China where people are fighting air pollution and the government there is investing huge sums in solar energy generation to steer households and industry away from depending on coal power for electricity needs.

Klein’s narration (and narrative) is the only thing that pulls all these stories together; streamlined and simplified though it is already, the film would fall apart without Klein’s input. While the narrative is very powerful, because it is based in part on historical fact, it is so simplified that even viewers not familiar with the development of Western science, economic theory and politics since the 1600s can find gaping holes in its conclusions. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies will not automatically lead or encourage people to adopt sustainability or become cooperative and less selfish; these new technologies can simply replace the old technologies, much as petroleum replaced coal and steam in the early 1900s. The world will carry on as before but with a renewed greed for new resources and lands to exploit.

We also need to ask whether in the 16th and 17th centuries, when French philosopher Jacques Descartes first propounded his view that humans (but not animals) could have souls – and therefore it was the right of humans (specifically Western Christian humans) to dominate the natural world – such a concept really was so revolutionary or was merely a voiced reflection of what most people in positions of power and influence at the time believed. By Descartes’ time, the Western conquest and colonisation of the Americas was already well under way, millions of American aboriginals had already been enslaved and robbed of their cultures, languages and beliefs, but the ideology, beliefs and values associated with modern-day corporate capitalism had not yet developed. Could Klein’s premise in fact be based on a false assumption that ideology is the problem? This is a serious question to consider because if she is wrong, then adopting an ideology of sustainability, of placing the group ahead of the individual, and of collective decision-making and action above individual decision-making and action, will not necessarily help us and could actually lead to new forms of oppression and environmental exploitation and degradation.

The fact is that ideas and concepts that were originally benevolent in intent can always be cherry-picked and twisted to suit personal agendas. Concepts of individual liberty, rights and responsibilities developed during the Enlightenment have been degraded to support greed and self-indulgence, as exemplified by the Marquis de Sade’s use of Enlightenment ideas to justify his sexual abuses of prostitutes and women who worked for him. Who can say that concepts of sustainability, preserving nature for the benefit of future generations and collective decision-making and action over individual decision-making and action won’t be used to excuse greed, self-interest and psychopathic behaviour?

The Seafarers: a preachy recruitment film for trade union membership with unusual historical relevance

Stanley Kubrick, “The Seafarers” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s first film made in colour turns out to be a 30-minute documentary promoting a trade union for crews of cargo vessels. “The Seafarers” was commissioned by Seafarers International Union (SIU), a North American union representing mariners in North and South America. As an extended infomercial, the film extols the benefits of union membership for would-be sailors, including medical benefits, scholarships and fighting for decent pay and working conditions, and stresses the union’s democratic nature. In 30 minutes the film covers everything the SIU offers to sailors who join the union in a straightforward and succinct way. Cleverly appealing to sailors’ liking for creature comforts, the narrative begins by focusing on the SIU headquarters’ cafeteria and shooting close-ups of food in bain-maries before moving to the union’s recreation room and the department that pays out member sailors’ pay cheques. The film then goes on to explain how sailors apply for jobs on cargo ships and from then on punches out a list of benefits, rights and privileges sailors enjoy through SIU membership. From that, the film waxes expansively about how the SIU provides security and stability, not just for sailors but also for their families, and in this taps deeply into treasured American values about the sanctity of the family as a bedrock for society.

The pace of the film is leisurely and the narration provided by CBS news reporter Don Hollenbeck is matter-of-fact in that dull and deadly earnest style favoured by narrators of documentaries made in the mid-20th century. There is not much room in the film for Kubrick to show individual flair apart from a scene in the cafeteria where the camera pans leisurely from left to right over the food warming in the bain-maries.

As a promotional film, “The Seafarers” is quite persuasive but its historical relevance may be limited: oddly, no historical background is given and viewers will be left wondering how and when the SIU was formed, and what historical circumstances led to its birth. What actually does the SIU’s constitution promote, what are the values of the SIU, and how well does it uphold its principles and maintain its democratic spirit – these are things viewers might want to know. How has it grown over the years, what vision does it hold for the future – the film does not address these issues.

Viewers are very likely to find this documentary quite preachy and repetitive to some extent. Does it fit into Kubrick’s overall oeuvre of work? It may well do; the bulk of Kubrick’s films deal with crises of Western masculinity and how individual men coped and dealt with attacks on their masculinity from an America that more often than not repressed individual expression, enforced conformity and sent men to fight in wars around the planet to maintain control over other countries and their wealth. “The Seafarers” suggests that men will find their full expression of manhood in being both individuals capable of responsibility and self-control, and participants and team-players exercising their democratic rights and privileges in an organisation that serves their individual and collective interests. Of course, there’s nothing about what men should do if their individual rights and responsibilities clash with their collective rights and responsibilities, and it’s in that clash that the crisis erupts … so in a sense, “The Seafarers” does have a place in Kubrick’s work.

ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban: a must-see demolition job of prejudiced interviewing

ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban (17 Spetember 2015)

One amazing demolition job that I’ve seen recently is this ABC News / Lateline interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Here Dr Shaaban consistently rebuts the prejudiced viewpoint implied in the questions asked of her and then goes on a sustained offensive against interviewer Tony Jones who ends up looking helpless against her subversion of his statements and the bias in his questioning. The interview can be seen and heard at this link, and the transcript of the interview can be read at the same link.

The first third of the interview focuses on Australia’s involvement in Syria’s war against ISIS and the nature of Western participation generally in that war. Dr Shaaban states that the West should help Syria not only in combating ISIS and terrorism in its territory but also in fighting terrorism overall, wherever in the world it occurs, and to co-operate with countries like Syria, Russia and Iran. She says that the US and its allies have been half-hearted in fighting ISIS and eradicating its baleful influence in the Middle East.

The middle third of the interview concerns Russia’s support for Syria in the form of supplying jets and other military hardware. The narrative implied in Jones’ questioning of Dr Shaaban is that Russia is taking the side of President Assad and soon will actively intervene in the civil war by sending in soldiers and airforce jets. Dr Shaaban points out that Russia and Syria have always had good relations and that the Russians are honouring contracts to supply military equipment and hardware which Syria paid for years ago. Syria only expects Russia to provide the support both countries have already agreed on. Dr Shaaban then starts pounding her view that Syria is being targeted for regime change by the West, and that its institutions, history and culture are being systematically destroyed and erased by the West, in the much the same that Iraq and Libya’s institutions and culture were destroyed by a coalition of countries led by the US and by NATO respectively.

Later in the interview, Jones turns his attention to President Assad and suggests that he and his government are war criminals for allowing the torture, starvation and murder of thousands of people detained by Syrian security agencies, on the basis of a report written by lawyers of the British law firm Carter Ruck for its client the government of Qatar (which has an interest in seeing President Assad deposed). Although Jones says the evidence in the report is “credible”, the fact is that many if not most of the photographs cannot be verified as authentic: all 55,000 ph0tographs, most of them with unclear date stamps and locations, were apparently taken by the one person who is only known by a codename, and the entire report is based on that mystery person’s evidence.  That just one person’s evidence can be accepted as gospel defies the principles of proper forensic investigation. Dr Shaaban turns the tables on Jones by calling out the report as fabricated and saying that the Qatari government paid for it. She then recommences her attack and reiterates that Syria is capable of choosing its own leaders and determining its own direction, and refuses to submit to Western-initiated regime change.

Jones quickly retreats from the ear-bashing with the excuse that the time allocated to the interview has run out. This is not before Dr Shaaban has the satisfaction of realising that Jones may be out of his depth in his questioning, as demonstrated by the amused expression she wears as soon as he mentions the Carter Ruck report which as she later says she is familiar with.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website states that Dr Shaaban denies that the Assad government has committed crimes against humanity, when she has done no such thing: she has only said that the evidence of war crimes Jones referred to was fabricated. The transcript of the interview also twists (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) Dr Shaaban’s words by stating that the Carter Ruck report was paid for by a “cattery company”, not a Qatari company.

Unfortunately viewers will come away knowing no more about the situation in Syria than they would known before seeing and hearing the interview: Dr Shaaban does not go into the details of the Carter Ruck report but instead retreats to her tirade of insisting that Syria is and should be in charge of its own direction in the world. This is understandable, given that Jones has an insufferable smirk on his face the whole time while he poses questions that appear bland and impartial but whose implied meaning is biased against Syria. Dr Shaaban’s strategy is then to go on the attack and to maintain that stand, but this may result in her looking like a propagandist for the Syrian government. So while she smashes Jones, and he is forced to retreat, when the dust later settles viewers may end up with a blinkered view of Dr Shaaban.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.

Metropolis (dir. by Fritz Lang, reconstructed + restored): near-full restoration carries a populist message of fear and conservative belief

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis (reconstructed + restored)” (1928)

I’ve had the opportunity to see “Metropolis” (which I reviewed some years ago) again in its reconstructed and restored version which will be as close to its original 150-minute running time as it will ever be. There are only a few minutes still missing from the original film and they contain material essential to the plot: they explain how the film’s heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to escape the clutches of mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) after his experiments using her physical appearance to clothe his robot with some kind of hologram that reproduces Maria’s looks and emotions. The reconstructed film as is, is still epic and bombastic in scale, perhaps even more so with more religious scenes; and it moves at a very brisk, almost rushed pace.

Watching the film again in its near-fullness after having seen the 90-minute version and another previous restored version is quite a revelation: the (almost) full film is now shown to be the populist, even proto-fascist film it had been all along and which I had suspected, knowing that script-writer Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party a few years after its making. The film expresses many ideas and beliefs derived from the German Romanticist movement of an earlier century, and this in itself explains the mawkish sentimentality of the plot and the film’s conclusion. In particular, the notion that emotion and passion always prevail over the intellect and reason, and that people who use their intelligence only end up evil and tyrannical, underlines the film’s plot. (This is related to a pre-Enlightenment view that humans are essentially evil and are incapable of improving and governing themselves, and only respond to strict and severe discipline, order and harsh punishment doled out by autocratic governments.) The film is proto-fascist in undermining and portraying the working-class characters as robotic, simple-minded, irrational and easily led; in depicting the upper-class layer as soft, infantile and debauched; and in asserting that only those whose lives are governed by the heart, with all the emotions and stereotypes associated with it – that is, love for one’s native land and soil, awe and reverence for one’s leaders (who are also one’s betters) along with absolute faith in their abilities and decisions, purity of soul – are best fitted to lead the slave-like workers and the soft and corruptible wealthy urban classes.

The film also has some slight anti-Jewish tendencies in the way it portrays its mad scientist character Rotwang. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class in many European countries had a high proportion of members who were Jewish, prosperous, well-educated, highly cultured and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They readily embraced change and favoured greater equality among people of different classes, religions and ethnic groups. Many Jews were professionals working in medicine, journalism and science. They were seen as rootless and money-hungry by others however and faced discrimination from the societies they lived in no matter what their class or status. Rotwang has some characteristics of the Jewish stereotype: hungering for power over all the Metropolis inhabitants whether rich or poor, resentful of the scientist ruler Joh Fredersen in taking away the woman he (Rotwang) loves, and pursuing a pure Christian woman to corrupt her and steal her essence to animate a robot which he uses to manipulate the workers to revolt and destroy the city and its governing classes. In Europe in the 1920s, the idea that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism generally, the hedonistic material life-styles of the rich, and increased sexual freedom of women (along with the fear that they were neglecting their children) was strong.

A strong Christian, especially Roman Catholic, theme is present throughout the film: the character of Maria is heavily based on Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Eve (or Lilith). The city of Metropolis is closely associated with the Tower of Babel in the story Maria tells the workers’ children and with the corrupt city of Babylon in the Bible.

Even in its current reconstruction, the film’s conclusion still appears mawkish and sentimental after all the intense activity that has gone before. Yes, the conclusion in which techno-plutocracy is reconciled with the workers it depends on through a mediator is the logical conclusion and the main characters themselves represent stereotypes; but the ending looks so pat and so unrealistic that it still irks the senses. The film’s ending suggests that if only the tyrant scientist ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) will be a bit kinder, more of a benevolent dictator, and the workers a bit less concerned about their woeful pay cheques and their terrible working conditions, and more mindful of their children’s well-being, if head and hands come closer together, then love and understanding will somehow blossom through the meeting of all their hearts which peacemakers Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria will facilitate. There is nothing to suggest in the characters of Freder and Maria themselves that they actually are capable of acting as effective mediators; based on what I have seen in the film, the two are likely to serve as a de facto royal couple ruling Metropolis. Indeed, no-one actually votes for Freder or Maria to serve as mediators, their roles being clearly predestined due to Freder’s social status and Maria’s supposed inborn purity, which does put the reconciliation between Joh Fredersen and his workers onto a bad footing already. The workers might get more time off to be with their children but the culture and social and political systems and institutions that allowed the city to exist and to function, and the assumptions and values underlying them, essentially do not change. Freder’s dad is still in charge and his bureaucrats are still carrying out his orders.

For all its futuristic pretensions, the film is best read as embodying the beliefs and fears of its time. Viewers should beware though that its message is ultimately a pessimistic and misanthropic one.

Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh): a canny live-action Disney reworking carries its own messages amongst the schmaltz

Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” (2015)

Being a Disney production, this live-action version of the tale as Disney tells it can only go so far in its reinterpretation for a new audience. Director Kenneth Branagh is canny enough to make a fairy-tale that appeals as much to adults as to children while subtly shifting the focus slightly so that the attention focuses on the rivalry between Cinderella (Lily James) and her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and the different sets of values they represent. In this way, Branagh tries to say something about how youth, innocence, spontaneity, authenticity and having regard for one’s fellow travellers in life, be they high-born or low-born, will triumph over cynicism, calculation, hierarchy and upholding traditions and customs that may once have been relevant but have now lost their meaning and are observed simply for their own sake. Branagh sets his story in a lavish faux 18th-century wonderland where artifice and nature become one and the same, and Disney magic  is made fresh yet familiar.

Branagh sticks closely to the Disney story but at least he gives his characters motives and he surrounds Lily James and Richard Madden (who places Prince Charming) with seasoned actors – all of them British including James and Madden, save for the Australian Blanchett – who play their roles quite subtly. Blanchett may never single-handedly save the Australian film industry by staying home and sponsoring young directors, script-writers and actors but if she’s going to pursue more Hollywood projects in competition with other ageing actresses (and I for one would advise her against that since work for actresses aged 40+ years in Hollywood tends to be rather scarce), she may as well have a ball: she clearly relishes her role as the sadistic stepmother, flamboyant and elegant in dress, scheming and vindictive in nature. Yet audiences can sympathise with her plight: in an age when women of her socioeconomic status were expected not to work but to depend on their fathers or husbands for money and material wellbeing, Blanchett’s stepmother, twice widowed, is clearly desperate to marry well and to see her daughters, silly and spoiled as they are, married off well too. If love can blossom as well, that’s a bonus; but alas, the stepmother discovers her second husband does not love her much at all. This is about as far as Disney will go to demonstrate how in many ways upper-class women had fewer options and freedoms than their lower-class sisters did in early modern Western society. An irony exists then, when the stepmother banishes Cinderella to the servants’ quarters after the death of the girl’s father forces the family to scrimp and save by letting the hired help go: by having to do hard work, Cinderella becomes a capable young woman, able to empathise with other lowly people, to spend more time with her mouse friends and to have more freedom (to ride a horse into the countryside where she meets Prince Charming on a hunting trip) than her step-sisters who are forced by their mother to learn piano, singing, drawing and other idle pastimes expected of young ladies of their class (and not doing very well at any of these activities).

James and Madden bring freshness and some substance to their respective roles but that’s all that can really be said about them. James’ experience in acting is sorely tested in her last scene with Blanchett and her last line of dialogue to the other woman sounds unconvincing. For a film preaching conservative Christian charity, this part really goes down a clunker. The fate of the stepmother and her daughters afterwards becomes so ambiguous as to suggest (horror of horrors!) that they might have been banished, which goes against the grain of Cinderella’s maturing and her capacity for compassion, but in an original twist, Prince Charming’s chief advisor with whom the stepmother was getting a bit chummy also goes into exile so there’s the suggestion that they have hooked up together and hopefully will live happily ever after. (Branagh might have brought some loose ends over from his Hamlet acting / directing effort from way back in the mid-1990s.) There are moments in the film that hint that Cinderella might not be as kind as she should be, that she might be capable of anger and revenge against those who have wronged her. Madden’s Prince Charming is allowed to develop some character in a small subplot in which he and his father (Derek Jacobi) argue over the sort of woman he should marry: the king is all for an arranged marriage with a princess as custom dictates but the prince desires to marry someone who is innately good and natural. The role of the king is no stretch for Jacobi who only has to remember bits and pieces of past Shakespearean roles but he’s better off slumming his pensioner days in any fluff piece by Branagh than with some other British directors.

The film is packed with CGI flourishes which are to be expected and its landscapes and architecture are deliberately overdone and artificial. There’s no such thing as too much excess, especially excess of the smooth and saccharine kind, and the biggest problem in a film of this kind is for the actors not to compete with this excess but to act in a way that is either minimal or natural without being swallowed up by the tinsel. Happily Branagh knows when to pull back on the lavishness to allow his cast moments to be themselves. Appropriately for a film in which power passes from an older generation (and the values it represents) to a younger, the setting is some time in the 18th century: an age where absolutist monarchy was at its height but would soon be felled by revolutionary activity inspired by the Enlightenment. The narrative is slow to get off the ground, and quite a lot of time could be shaved off the first half of the film, but then starts to move very rapidly once the main characters are established.

I’m sure everyone associated with this film has done better work or will do better work, and I’m certain Branagh didn’t sweat much at all over it, but as it is, “Cinderella” is Disney-perfect in a way that satisfies its core audience of little girls and their big sisters and mums, caters to the public’s desire for pre-9/11 innocence and nostalgia, and reinforces traditional Christian values of kindness, courage and stoicism in adversity, forgiveness and  hope for a better world: values that are sorely needed in an age when political, economic and cultural chaos are becoming more apparent.

The fact that Disney relies on a British director and a British / Australian cast to carry off one of its flagship Disney fairy-tale staples in a live-action film probably does not say very much that is positive for the current state of American directing and acting.

BBC versus President Bashar al Assad of Syria: an example of grace and restraint under pressure and prejudice

BBC News Interview with President Bashar al Assad (9 February 2015)

For an example of grace under pressure, I think few people can acquit themselves as diplomatically and skilfully as the President of Syria, Bashar al Assad, did while being grilled by a relentlessly prejudiced interviewer. BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen perhaps thought that by deploying an attack-dog approach and pounding Assad with deliberately loaded questions about his conduct of the civil war in Syria from 2011 onwards, he would force the president onto the defensive and have the pleasure of seeing his interviewee contradict himself, become flustered and eventually cut off the interview in mid-stream. Bowen would then be able to crow about how he faced down an otherwise implacable dictator and made his façade crack to reveal the man’s weaknesses and duplicitous nature. To his credit though, the softly spoken Assad deftly parried the interviewer’s questions about Syria’s supposed use of barrel bombs or chlorine gas against civilians without raising his voice in anger; instead it’s Bowen who becomes irritated and who rudely interrupts the president with a line of questioning that betrays the BBC narrative of always blaming Syria for various atrocities such as the August 2013 chemical gas attacks against Syrian civilians in Ghouta. (For an analysis of the attacks and where the rockets carrying sarin gas that exploded in that part of Damascus most likely came from, the blog Who Attacked Ghouta? is the best source of information.) Bowen does not come out of the session very well for his conduct of the interview and Assad more or less seems quite relaxed.

Right from the first question, viewers who are neither for nor against the Syrian government nor the BBC can see the slanted nature of the interview questions pushed at Assad. Remarkably Bowen was allowed to ask Assad any question he wanted and straight away he started banging on about Assad’s capabilities in directing his government’s response to the Free Syrian Army and other jihadi groups (including ISIS) in the country, with the constant insinuation that the Syrian army was deliberately killing or torturing Syrian civilians indiscriminately. One question in which Bowen quotes a defector from the Syrian Army saying that he could not bear to see his family being killed by “our Syrian hands”, and flat out twists that man’s words to imply that the Syrian Army was killing his relatives, is shocking in its brazenness.

Viewers quickly see that interviewer and interviewee are operating on two very different yet parallel mental planes, with Assad sticking to what he knows is the truth – that the so-called “moderate Syrian rebels” have morphed into the extremist organisation ISIS, that the Syrian military did not drop barrel bombs or released sarin gas among civilians – and Bowen ploughing ahead with questions based on an acceptance of assumptions about Syrian government policies. Whether Bowen genuinely believes in assumptions about the Syrian government deliberately harassing its people or does not and cynically uses those assumptions to reinforce by repetition stereotypes about the nature of Assad’s government and persuade the British public to support a US-led war on Syria to eject Assad, I do not really know: during the interview, Bowen did look and speak as if he wholeheartedly accepts the propaganda his employer dishes out.

In some of the later questions during the interview, Assad cleverly counters the line of interrogation by pointing out inconsistencies in what Bowen claims to be occurring in some parts of Damascus and northern Syria: that the Syrian government is preventing food and medical supplies from reaching civilians in rebel-held areas while at the same time the rebels in those areas are able to obtain weapons somehow to fight the government! Assad patiently points out that there is a huge propaganda project that has been targeting his government and Syria since 2010 yet Bowen seems completely oblivious to what Assad says and fails to challenge his statement.

That Assad granted an interview with the BBC might say something about his belief that the BBC would allow him to present his point of view to the global public – a belief that has been sorely dashed by the behaviour and aggressive questioning by Bowen. In a region where political and social chaos has reigned since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, and is drawing in fighters from around the world to enlist with and fight for an extremist Islamic regime whose ideology eerily resembles that of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf oil states in a brutally one-dimensional form, the BBC’s apparent snub against the last remaining secular Arab socialist country in the Middle East (and tacit support for the more dysfunctional and psychotic regimes nearby) is very sinister indeed.

The interview can be seen at this Youtube link and a transcript of it can be viewed at the Syrian Arab News Agency website.

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.