Coriolanus: an examination of a simple man and his place in a duplicitous and corrupt society

Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” (2011)

When I was 28 years of age, a mysterious Shakespeare-reading frenzy seized me and before I knew what I was doing, I had raced through The Big Four Tragedies, a number of Roman plays, a fair few histories and three twilight-career comedies. Of the four Roman plays I read, “Coriolanus” impressed me the most for its terse, severe language and imagery, and its larger-than-life hero whose fault is to be simple and honest to himself in a society that demands he be a duplicitous and morally corrupt career politician. Caius Martius Coriolanus starts off as a soldier, pure in spirit, wishing only to defend his country in war against the Volscian enemy and rising rapidly to the highest position and honour in his native Rome. Now Rome wants to make him a consul but to do this, Coriolanus must defer to the masses and win their approval. A natural elitist who despises the Great Unwashed because they are soft, lazy and capricious where he is hard, diligent and true to his narrow morality, Coriolanus is manipulated by two wily tribunes Brutus and Sicinius into losing his temper publicly and letting fly what he really thinks of the public. The tribunes brand Coriolanus a traitor, Rome agrees and Coriolanus is forced to go into exile.

He teams up with his Volscian enemy, led by Tullius Aufidius, and before long these barbarians are at the gates of Rome with Coriolanus leading the invasion charge. Rome sends two emissaries to beg and bargain with Coriolanus but he is unmoved. Finally his mum Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, the maid Valeria and Coriolanus junior make a personal appeal to our man; Volumnia delivers such an emotional speech that Coriolanus relents and calls off the invasion. Rome and the Volscians make peace but Coriolanus ends up tarnished as a double traitor to the countries he has served and there is only one avenue left for him … death.

In Ralph Fiennes’s film, the action moves from ancient Rome to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s break-up. Rome is presented as an unidentified Western state, vaguely British with a multicultural population; the Volscians resemble South Slavs in Dalmatia. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying Coriolanus’s hard-man personality and the child-like inner man whose honesty betrays him. A major theme of “Coriolanus” is the homoerotic bromance that exists between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler): one fully expects Aufidius to plant a big wet smacker on Coriolanus’s lips with his own in three significant scenes. Enemy soldiers equally matched who have met several times have more in common with each other than with their own families and people, it seems. Unfortunately once Coriolanus throws his lot in with the Volscians, the relationship between him and Aufidius becomes unbalanced, Coriolanus becomes a star within the Volscian army, and Aufidius understandably feels jealous at the attention his soulmate gets. For they are soulmates of a kind familiar to those who know Shakespeare well: the man of soul (Coriolanus), perfect in most ways except for one flaw that becomes his downfall, up against the man of practicality (Aufidius) who lacks that inner sensitivity and who survives at the expense of his mirror twin but is overshadowed and tarnished by the twin’s death.

The support cast varies from good to great: Butler’s Aufidius and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia pass muster while Vanessa Redgrave nearly steals the show as the harpy mother Volumnia. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother is another significant theme: Volumnia seems more in love with war and blood-letting than the son. Is it possible that Coriolanus was driven to be a soldier to please his mother? If Coriolanus had not had Volumnia as his mum, would he have chosen another career instead and become a more balanced, mature man? Is he the replacement for the husband Volumnia once had? Why does Volumnia live through her son and dominate him so much? What might their relationship say about military men and their mothers? Many apparently patriarchal and macho societies throughout the world are distinguished by deep relationships between sons and their mothers: Japan, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are such societies. It is known that ancient Spartan men were extremely close to their mothers who supposedly told their sons that if they went to war, they should either come back totally victorious or return dead on their shields; so Sparta is another candidate society albeit a past one. Fortunately Redgrave plays Volumnia in a way that demonstrates the woman’s deranged nature without making her look camp.

I have some misgivings about the film’s time and place for “Coriolanus”: the period of Yugoslavia’s break-up and the war that raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia generated so much misinformation, propaganda and lies about what really happened there that film-makers who want to make films in that setting are treading in a dangerous mine-field of assumptions and expectations that can easily blow apart. As seems to be the practice with modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, emphasis is placed on the news media channel Fidelis TV (ha!) as a character in itself, relaying urgent news (and spreading propaganda) about Coriolanus and his doings, and helping to damn Coriolanus in the eyes and ears of Romans. The two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are shown co-operating with two young revolutionary leaders which raises the issue of how much radical youth movements are actually manipulated by cynical politicians; with knowledge that the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy has been abetting so-called “progressive” or “liberal” groups in countries as varied as Serbia in the 1990s, Ukraine, Gruziya (Georgia), Iran during the 2009 Presidential elections, Egypt and Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012, I consider this issue a very pertinent one indeed.

Not all of Shakespeare’s original play made it into the film and I rather think the film does itself a disservice by omitting Aufidius’s final speech when he realises that he has lost his soul brother. Overall the film does a very good job recreating the martial spirit and ambience of the original play and treating some if not all its themes: the class divide, crowd psychology and how people can be manipulated, the issue of public reputation versus the private reality, gender roles and expectations, and the place of an individual in a changing society whose expectations of him / her shift permanently and for which s/he may be ill-equipped to meet.

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour: simple story of two lovers hides complicated message about memory and the fragility of existence

Alain Resnais, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959)

This famous film tells a very deceptively simple story: a French actress whom we’ll call She (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima for a few days to film an anti-war movie and meets a Japanese architect, He (Eiji Okada) in a bar at night. They fall in love and begin a short affair. The story really starts with their conversation in bed after sex: She tells He what she knows about the atomic-bomb devastation of Hiroshima in August 1945 and that she identifies with the city’s loss and sorrow, and he denies what she says. Though they have their separate lives with marriage partners and families, the two are strongly attracted to each other and He follows She obsessively through the city. She reveals to him her early life: as a teenager during the German occupation of France, she had fallen in love with a German soldier (Bernard Fresson) in her home town Nevers. After the Allied victory, the soldier is shot dead and She is disgraced and banished by her family to a basement cellar for a long time. Eventually She leaves Nevers for Paris.

The film revolves around when, not if, She returns to Paris to her own life and He goes back to his; in the meantime, the couple fight against the forgetting of memory and past love. She wants to return to Nevers to remember the soldier-lover; He wants her to stay in Hiroshima. There’s no indication on his part though that he will leave his wife and it’s just as likely that once She returns to Paris and her husband, that she won’t return to Nevers. Eventually She will forget He and He will forget She, or at most they will remember each other as one of several lovers each will have in an effort to remember previous lovers. Indeed She identifies He with her German lover and addresses the Japanese man as if he were the soldier; he readily accepts the identification but doesn’t reciprocate with identifying her as a past love he might have had. There’s the other possibility that She is emotionally fragile enough because of past history that she will give in to He’s demand to stay in Hiroshima but if she does so, both their marriages and careers are likely to be destroyed.

The plot is a dialogue between two cities, one revelling in victory but unwilling to let go of the past, the other humbled in defeat but ready to move ahead and forge a new beginning. There are many contrasts demonstrated between Nevers and Hiroshima: Nevers is a quiet, provincial town of old stone buildings and cobbled streets, faded and worn; Hiroshima is lit up well into the small hours of the morning, neon signs and billboards blaring new material goods and pleasures to be had. She’s affair with the soldier possibly represents a rebellion against old forms and conventions; for this blasphemy She suffers banishment and is unable to talk about it until she meets He, who can empathise because the old forms of the Hiroshima he once knew are broken.

One-third of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is taken up with a documentary-style montage of images of Hiroshima after its destruction in 1945 and the effects of radiation exposure on the vicitms, interspersed with images of the lovers in each other’s arms, overlaid by voice-over dialogue between She and He that isn’t necessarily connected with the parallel visual narratives. This section of the film is the most fascinating and innovative part. The film is highly self-referential: She is an actress making an anti-war movie (yet “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is hardly a movie about war and peace in their conventional meanings) and He is an architect who might have designed some of the buildings that will appear in her film. The rest of the film bounces between the present in Hiroshima and the past in Nevers smoothly as if the divide between the two temporal periods doesn’t exist and the events that happened in Nevers are happening at the same time as the lovers are meeting in Hiroshima. There are also references to other films in which lovers are torn between impossible demands: in one scene, She and He visit a night-club called Casablanca, a reference to the famous Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman film.

The two actors are to be commended for their portrayals of two characters, one emotionally scarred and vulnerable, the other apparently sensitive yet a bit creepy in his obsession with the foreign woman. The camera comes in close to their faces and focusses on their wide eyes, filled with fear, longing, desire and lust in turns. Riva in particular is convincing as She, torn between her desire for He and wanting to return to Nevers, unable to make up her mind between upholding the past and her memory of the German on the one hand and and on the other staying with He who would fade away like the German were she to leave Japan: a scene in which she returns to her apartment, opens the door, hesitates and then races up and down a staircase, returns to her apartment again … reflects her state of mind and also sums up her existential dilemma of being torn between the past and the present. Excellent cinematography work turns the town of Nevers and the city of Hiroshima into significant characters in their own right: scenes in Nevers are constantly contrasted with scenes in Hiroshima in a way that demonstrates Nevers as looking back to the past in spite of being victorious in war and Hiroshima as being brash and self-confident in striding to the future though it suffered defeat and tragedy on a tremendous scale.

The film shows itself to be more complicated than just a love story between two lost souls carrying lots of emotional baggage from towns that have suffered collective traumas of their own. The importance of memory, the present’s links to the past, the transitory nature of existence as demonstrated by Hiroshima’s unenviable history and the affair with the soldier, and the contrast between victors looking back and losers looking forward are demonstrated very well. There are subtle ironies in the film: during war-time, She was free with her soldier boyfriend but when peace comes, it spells death for the soldier and discrimination, imprisonment and ultimately exile for She. Hiroshima’s destruction provides a wealth of creative opportunities for He the architect. She and He’s paths cross at a particular point in time and although they seem to be together forever in the film, it actually covers the space of less than two days and when the film ends, the couple’s time together is already counting down to zero and they will (may?) depart forever.

At the same time, there’s something not quite real about She and He and the whole film itself is quite artificial and insubstantial in feel. The characters’ dialogue isn’t natural and Hiroshima and Nevers have a staged look about them. The film looks deliberately self-indulgent and pretentious, and it’s possible to interpret it as lacking in meaning. Nevertheless “Hiroshima Mon Amour” is a very moving film to watch, particularly in its first twenty minutes when the documentary montage sequence and the lovers’ conversation run in parallel.

The Cranes are Flying: expressive and soulful film of hope despite the tragedy of war

Mikhail Kalatozov, “The Cranes are Flying / Letyat zhuravli” (1957)

A soulful film of hope and optimism amid the cruelties of war, this story of a tragic romance between two young people, Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), during World War II is noted for the expressive acting depth of its main characters and Kalatozov’s skilful direction. The story itself is realistic soap-opera drama: Boris answers the call to war and leaves his young fiancee Veronika at home. He is killed in battle but ends up listed as missing. In the meantime, Veronika takes refuge with Boris’s family and Mark, a cousin of Boris, takes advantage of Veronika one night. The girl is shamed into marrying Mark and Boris’s immediate family accepts her but in a surly way. The family is evacuated to Siberia where Fyodor Ivanovich (Vasily Merkuryev), Veronika’s father-in-law, is in charge of a hospital and Veronika herself is drafted in as a nurse. A soldier patient gets upset about his girlfriend deserting him and Fyodor Ivanovich consoles the guy by telling him the young lady isn’t worth a kopeck and is as bad as the fascists for betraying him and Russia. Veronika overhears the conversation and flees, as though to commit suicide.

Fortunately for the rest of the film, Veronika doesn’t top herself but instead finds new hope through a young abandoned child and a chance meeting between Fyodor Ivanovich and a government official unravels a secret Mark has hidden from the family and Veronika; as a result Mark must leave. Eventually the family does learn of Boris’s fate and Veronika is heart-broken.

Samoilova deserved every best actress award on offer on the planet for her subtle and expressive performance as Veronika at the time but of course never got it: she might not say a great deal in the film but her uncommonly beautiful face reveals considerable emotional turmoil as she endures one indignity or tragedy after another. Her character is only meant to be a stereotype – Veronika represents Soviet woman and her experiences are intended to be representative of what many if not most Soviet women would experience during war – but Samoilova invests Veronika with a vitality that starts out as youthful and innocent and becomes more worldly-wise and less joyful if still defiant in parts. Other characters might get less to do but the men, in particular the actors playing Boris, Fyodor Ivanovich and the harmonica-playing soldier, though more stoic and restricted in emotional expression, are just as effective in conveying feeling and opinion in their body language and in the way they touch or react to Veronika. Veronika’s sister-in-law Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) may not be very important to the plot but effectively embodies contempt for Veronika in her belief that the girl has betrayed Boris.

The film is beautifully made, courtesy of impressive handheld camera work by Sergei Urusevsky: several staged scenes, shot from often unusual or peculiar angles, show emotional distance or sorrow to great effect (the scene in which Fyodor Ivanovich’s family reluctantly accepts Veronika after her marriage to Mark is a highlight as is also the scene in which everyone hears of Boris’s death); and there are two scenes in which the camera gloriously spins around to imitate giddy youthful love (Boris racing up a spiral staircase early in the film) or to simulate desperate attempts to hang onto life (Boris in his dying moments, looking up at the sky and the bare birch trees). Another great scene of Expressionist-style patchy edits is of Veronika racing a train and then a car while despairing over the conversation she has just overheard her father-in-law have with the soldier patient: the jagged shots quickly assume an abstract painterly quality, the music ratchets up in suspense, and just when you think the girl is going to throw herself off a bridge or under the car, she spies a toddler and saves the child. Plus there’s a great scene of switching viewpoints: Veronika chases after Fyodor Ivanovich and the camera then smoothly draws back and pulls away from her to focus on several Soviet soldiers in a bus being taken to a hospital.

For Western viewers, unusual and unintentional symbolism arrives in the V-formation of a flock of cranes flying across the sky at the beginning and at the end of the film: Kalatozov could not have known what this might mean as the sound represented by the letters “V” and “v” in the Latin alphabet actually appears as “B” and “b” in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian.

It may be a propaganda film with a banal soap opera plot – the ending is fairly wooden compared with what’s happened previously – but what a stunning and emotionally complex work “The Cranes …” turned out to be under the sure hands of Kalatozov and Urusevsky among others.

Orpheus: visually lovely meditation on triumph of love over death, the role of the artist and life in Vichy France

Jean Cocteau, “Orpheus / Orphée” (1950)

Intriguing re-telling of the famous ancient Greek legend set in post-WW2 Paris, this film combines surrealism, fantasy, situation comedy or soap opera depending on your point of view, mystery thriller and romance in its story of doomed passion, artistic inspiration, the cult of celebrity and inquiry into the nature of fascism. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet whose mere appearance in a cafe filled with bored university students listening to the latest beatnik jazz causes a riot during which a young man Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), a would-be challenger to Orpheus’s crown, is killed by two motorcyclists. A mysterious woman called the Princess (Maria Casarès) calls Orpheus as a witness and whisks the bemused poet off to her villa. He tries to follow her but she avoids him and he ends up being returned home by the Princess’s chauffeur Heurtebise (François Perier). Reunited with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), Orpheus tries to settle back into his quotidian life but becomes obsessed with death and with recording a mysterious radio code on a strange radio station in his car. In the meantime Heurtebise becomes infatuated with Eurydice but the missus, worried about her husband’s new obsession, tries to get help and is hit by two motorcyclists. She descends into Hades and the grieving Orpheus, led by Heurtebise, goes down there to get her back.

Everything pans out more or less according to the original legend but with an extra twist: the Princess is but one personification of Death and she has fallen in love with Orpheus to the extent of breaking some unknown rule of Hades. This transgression brings her before a panel of judges in the ruins of Hades in a blackly hilarious Kafkaesque scene that most likely satirises the bureaucracy of Vichy France. The judges allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the upper world but one condition of Eurydice’s return leads to the couple having to live more or less separate lives in a parody of what real-life couples often go through when they’ve been married for some time and realise they don’t get on well but not so much so that they feel like divorcing, so they live parallel lives under the one roof but barely look at or speak to each other. Needless to say, Orpheus breaks the taboo and not only does Eurydice shoot back to Hades but Orpheus too is shot (literally: Heurtebise produces the gun) there as well so that he and Death can fall into each other’s arms.

In “Orpheus”, the mundane becomes the extraordinary and fantastic as mirrors become portals to the underworld and humble dishwashing gloves enable people to literally plunge through the mirror and walk into a world of beautifully lit and shadowed ruins of buildings. The car radio relays Death’s messages to Orpheus in scenes that perhaps mock poetic inspiration and at the same time recall the methods that the French Resistance and Allied Forces used to disguise their radio communications during the war against Vichy France. Scenes often have a dream-like quality with the stand-out scene being the one in which Heurtebise leads Orpheus on his first trip to Hades: Heurtebise himself floats serenely through the underworld while Orpheus struggles to keep up and a boy selling glass keeps wandering and interrupting him – a beautiful and magical scene. The special effects which include backwards-running of film and the use of mercury for some mirror scenes may be very low-budget primitive by modern standards but are dazzling all the same. There seems to be a running theme about how film itself is a mirror on human psychology.

The acting varies from ordinary in Déa (to be fair to her, Eurydice wasn’t required to be much more than either simpering or dead) to extraordinary in Casarès and Perier: Casarès in particular is alluring and sinister yet turns out to be a deeply affecting character with whom we find ourselves falling in sympathy with as she sacrifices not only her happiness in love but also her freedom and that of Heurtebise in reuniting both Orpheus and Eurydice for the second time. The couple return to the upper world and domestic bliss (?) together while Death and Heurtebise, their respective loves unfulfilled, must face eternal and grim punishment.

The whole shebang could have been laughable and pretentious camp but in Cocteau’s hands the film becomes a visually lovely and dreamy meditation on self-sacrificing love and the role of the artist in the present-day world and how to navigate it as s/he becomes famous, shot through with a parallel narrative of what life must have been like in Nazi-ruled France with its sinister motorcycle police, the tribunals to flush out French Resistance fighters and the threat of torture and death to those who disobeyed bureaucracy and acted on their own initiative.

 

 

Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: excellent and well-presented documentary on the role of news media in abetting oppression

Sut Jhally and Bathsheba Ratzkoff, “Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land” (2003)

This is a highly informative documentary on the role that the US media plays in encouraging support for the Israeli government and its oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) and how this support influences US foreign policy in the Middle East. Through interviews with various academics, critics, journalists, religious leaders, peace activists and others, the program examines the methods that the Israeli government and its allies use to hide the truth about the harassment of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces and to portray Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land as necessary and urgent self-defence. In particular, the role of American journalists and the American media organisations that employ them in disguising the truth is examined.

The film’s style is simple and straightforward, built as it is around a wealth of newsreel reports punctuated by excerpts of interviews with guest commentators who include academics Noam Chomsky and Robert Jensen, British journalist Robert Fisk, peace activist Hanan Ashrawi and Tikkun Magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner among others. There’s a certain polish to the film’s presentation, especially in its use of animation and tables, though it is not at all sickly slick and the narration is very sparing, limited to relaying important information to viewers, and serves to introduce interviewees who expound at further length on the topics covered. The film reveals, among other things, that the US-Israeli relationship is of mutual benefit at the Palestinians’ expense: the US relies on Israel to use most of the aid it receives from the US into buying American weaponry and other military technology and to test these on unwilling Palestinian guinea pigs, and to play the local sheriff in the Middle East to protect US political and economic interests in that region.

The film’s structure centres around a list of strategies that the governments of Israel and the United States, their agencies and the US news media use to deceive the American public into supporting Israel. Particularly pernicious as a strategy is the US media’s deliberate ignorance of individuals, groups and organisations, often Israeli and/or Jewish as well as Palestinian and/or Muslim, working to relieve the Palestinian people’s suffering or calling attention to the abuses inflicted on them. This ignorance would suggest that the media in the United States (and also in many other countries including Australia) either willingly co-operates in constructing a pro-Israeli narrative about the intransigence and barbaric behaviour of Palestinian people especially if they are Muslim; or has been browbeaten, even threatened, into such co-operation by pro-Israeli lobby groups and institutions. In the US, the main lobby organisation is AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and in Australia its equivalent is AIJAC (Australia Israel Jewish Affaris Council) which is known to have intimidated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service into reporting news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways favourable to Israeli interests.

The other strategies discussed include the reporting of Palestinian violence in a context-less vacuum (so it appears to happen spontaneously without cause and gives the impression that Palestinians by nature are savage and Israel must always be on the alert); defining what is newsworthy (so Israeli victims of violence get more attention; this drives home the notion of Jews as eternal victims of persecution); Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territory being made invisible; the idea of the United States as an impartial and neutral referee; and the idea that any offers of peace to the Palestinians are always rejected by them (because the context in which such offers are made and the fine print within are never revealed in reports). Other ways in which Western audiences are co-opted into supporting Israel go unmentioned but deserve attention: in particular, Israel’s use of the Shoah (Nazi-Jewish Holocaust) to beat European governments into coughing up money, none of which actually goes towards Shoah survivors who might be living in penury in Israel.

“Peace, Propaganda …” is a well-presented documentary, quite detailed in parts, and easy to follow. I recommend the film as a primer for those not familiar with the methods and strategies the Israeli government and its supporters uses to intimidate and silence politicians and media organisations around the world who have misgivings about the way Israel treats Palestinians and about the fascist, racist path that country is following in order to pursue such a policy. Media students would do well to watch the film which calls into question the nature of the relationships between the news media and governments, and which also highlights the need for the news media to tell the truth over the pressure to appear “unbiased” or “balanced” in its reporting. Ah, “fair and balanced” reporting: that doubtless is another strategy the apologists for the Israel government like to use …

 

The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic): how a romantic fantasy of a glorious past disguised a thirst for power at any cost

Adam Curtis, “The Living Dead (Episode 3: The Attic)” (1995)

Having seen the mishmash that was “The Iron Lady”, I figured it was high time I saw something a bit more factual about the period when Margaret Thatcher reigned over Britain as quasi-monarch from 1979 to 1990. Happily that maker of whimsical documentaries Adam Curtis comes to the rescue with this installment in his “The Living Dead” trilogy which posits an interesting parallel between Thatcher’s dream of restoring British imperial glory to a demoralised country on the one hand, and past Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to shore up the crumbling empire during World War II. The essay that Curtis weaves holds strong throughout the episode’s 1-hour running-time; if anything, Curtis could have made his case stronger still by emphasising the destructive effects of both Churchill and Thatcher’s dreams and the ways in which they and their governments used their vision to keep the public under control.

Less eccentric than other AC documentaries I have seen, “The Attic” follows a conventional chronological narrative detailing MT’s rise to the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s in the wake of the oil crisis and election as Prime Minister in 1979 with her vision of returning Britain to the imperial glory the country had once enjoyed (supposedly). This vision included attacking and dismantling where possible the bogeys afflicting British society and economy, namely, trade unions seen to be overrun by left-wing, possibly Communist, radicals and other socialistic influences eating away at the nation’s moral fibre. Thatcher embraced the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek which emphasise less government control and regulation of the economy and that economic freedom underpins political freedom. In her vision for a New Britain, MT invoked the memory of a previous British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had led the country during World War II, a major event still fresh in the minds of many people in the 1970s.

As Prime Minister, MT got off to a bad start: the economy failed to respond to her nostrums, trade unions became even more restless and strike activity was frequent, unemployment rates continued to climb, and resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland became more violent. Just when it looked as though MT’s reign as Prime Minister was to be short-lived, an unexpected life-line was thrown: Argentina, at the time under military rule and its leaders wishing to deflect public attention away from the country’s ongoing economic crisis and human rights violations, invaded the Falkland Islands in early 1982. Britain’s successful defence of the islands gave MT the space she needed to implement her economic policy and allowed her to win the 1983 general election in a landslide. From then on, the Conservative Party more or less dominated the political landscape in Britain until 1997 but the influence of so-called “Thatcherism” in the country’s political and economic life has never really gone away.

I think “The Attic” should have focussed much more on the insidious and destructive aspects of Thatcher’s vision and the Churchillian vision that inspired her and her considerable fanbase throughout the world. I presume that Thatcher’s vision of Churchill as a great leader conveniently leaves out the fact that in the late 1930s when the British government considered investing in radar technology for defence purposes, Churchill opposed the proposal: needless to say, radar technology played a major defence role during the Battle of Britain in 1941. Churchill’s idea of wartime leadership consisted of beating Germany into a pulp and throwing that country back into a pre-industrial age; hence his enthusiasm for the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, resisted by the US military high command (in particular by Dwight D Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe) and now recognised as a major war crime by historians. It can be argued that Germany’s determination to fight to the death at the cost of millions of lives during World War II was as much due to Churchill’s refusal to negotiate or have anything to do with anti-Hitler groups in that country, as to the German leader’s paranoia and mania. Churchill would later approve the Morgenthau Plan which called for turning Germany into an agricultural backwater, stripped entirely of its industrial base, and which led to the deaths of 1 – 2 million Germans (some sources say as many as 10 million) from starvation in 1945 – 1950. And there is also that episode in which Churchill agreed to hand over 90,000 Cossack men and their families living in Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union; most of these people, who had left Russia in 1918 and were technically not Soviet citizens, perished in the gulags. It is difficult to believe that Churchill had no idea what would happen to them after the “hand-back”.

Even in the domestic sphere Churchill’s “vision” amounted to very little: it seems to have had as its goal power at all costs and to that end, Churchill happily wandered the entire economic spectrum from free market economic liberalism to virtual democratic socialism. During the war, he allowed Britain to become a social welfare state by approving plans for a national insurance scheme and for housing and health services. As Prime Minister in the early 1950s, he presided over the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya in 1951, an ongoing revolt in Malaya and the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the CIA. Once again, it could be argued that British handling of or participation in these crises was poor (the military option was preferred) and in the case of Iran, the coup which Britain backed stymied any democratic and progressive tendencies in that country for decades. Interestingly, as Prime Minister, Churchill and his Labour Minister Walter Monckton adopted a policy of appeasement towards trade unions and this perhaps encouraged the union movement to assume an attitude of entitlement that decades later Thatcher tried to fight.

A brief look at Thatcher’s friends and networks should give us some pause for thought: during the Falklands War the Chilean government under Pinochet, itself notorious for human rights abuses and imposing its own version of Friedman / Hayek economic change on its people, supplied information about Argentine military forces and their movements to the British. (This at the same time that both Chile and Argentina were sharing information about torture methods and helping to arrest one another’s “dissidents” under Operation Condor!) Pinochet himself later became a friend of MT to the extent that she opposed any move by the British government under Tony Blair to extradite him to Spain on war crimes charges when he visited Britain for medical treatment in the late 1990s. Hayek himself visited Chile a few times in the 1970s – 1980s and accepted honorary chairmanship of a free-market economic think-tank in that country. The fact that in Chile and Britain, and several other countries, economic freedom as perceived by Friedman and his followers at the University of Chicago had to be imposed on people and political freedom sacrificed in the process – not to mention that the “reformers’ benefitted financially from claiming privatised government assets for themselves – suggests that this form of “capitalism” is more gravity-defying flooding-up rather than “natural” trickle-down as I was taught at school and university.

Yes, when we look at Churchill and Thatcher’s visions and compare them, what do they really amount to? – they amount to retaining power at any cost without principle. The cynicism and selective thinking involved are breath-taking to say the least. The result in both cases is an impoverishment of British culture and society in some way: the Churchillian “social welfare” society was taken for granted with people and institutions alike not learning how to negotiate for rights and privileges, and that such rights and privileges need to be defended and expanded upon skilfully with diplomacy and negotiation; now that this society is being dismantled by Thatcher’s successors, people erupt with violence, become passive or try to beat one another over an ever-shrinking pie. Pity that Curtis’s otherwise fine documentary with its narrow focus on the spin-doctoring during Thatcher’s reign missed that point.

Sources used: Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill” http://mises.org/daily/2973 and various Wikipedia articles

 

Silmido: excellent film about a series of incidents in South Korean history that has a universal resonance

Kang Woosuk, “Silmido” (2003)

Apparently based on actual incidents, this epic film ought to have been just a straightforward “Dirty Dozen” action film with a sketchy plot, loads of violence and boot-camp brutality, displays of macho camaraderie and a schmaltzy message about dying for your mates and country; “Silmido” is all of that on one level yet turns out to be more. Perhaps its Korean setting and the very contemporary nature of the politics invoked – the Korean War technically hasn’t finished – help shove the film into a realm audiences inside and outside the country can relate to but I’m not sure that explains the feeling I have that “Silmido” would affect a lot of people who have no knowledge of the country’s history in a very personal way.

The plot is easy to follow: in the late 1960s, after some North Korean agents have been captured and executed by South Korean military forces after confessing that they were on a mission to kill President Park Chunghee, the South Koreans themselves toy with the idea of sending men on a similar mission to kill North Korean leader Kim Ilsung. Under orders from the government, the army sends over 30 hardened criminals on death row and other outcasts to Silmido island to undergo a brutal training regime that will transform them into elite assassin force Unit 684. For much of the film, viewers are treated to harrowing if well-staged scenes of unrelenting Spartan training and often sadistic torture; the proceedings can be hard to watch sometimes and the film’s pace never lets up. When the men have been disciplined and honed into an efficient fighting force, the government orders change and the army is now faced with a fanatical killing machine it does not know what to do with.

The plot is mostly predictable: men who can’t handle the training drop out and there’s a token death; the army leaders and soldiers who train the would-be assassins are suitably granite-faced and apply the requisite beatings and excessive machine-gun fire punishments. There’s room for slapstick humour in one scene where a man runs into a river before his minder even has a chance to brand him with a hot poker! The music soundtrack is stirring and heroic to excess and there is plenty of Korean-style OTT melodrama; compared to other east Asians, Koreans have a reputation for being highly emotional and intense people and “Silmido” milks the emotional potential inherent in scenes between individual characters who have personal crosses to bear and old scores to settle.

Where the film really lifts its game is in what goes on between the army and the government represented by stock character stereotypes outside Silmido island: the general political situation changes, South Korea decides it’s better to co-exist with and even do deals with Kim Ilsung, and senior bureaucrats and politicians waive away the creation of Unit 684 as though the 31 remaining men in the unit are just so many flies to be swatted away. The hoplites’ loyalty to their country and fighting zeal count for nothing but their very testoterone-charged fanaticism, the bonds of loyalty among themselves and to their superiors, and their readiness to face death so that they can truly feel alive now make them a serious threat to South Korea’s security. At this point in the film, non-Korean viewers realise there are two ways to go: the plot could just let the men go off to North Korea with the army and government cynically figuring that the North Koreans can handle them their own way; or the men could self-destruct. As Koreans know already, the men do self-destruct but the ways in which they do it turn out quite unpredictably. Their demise is at once heroic and pathetic and the film’s coda is quietly powerful and depressing in a way that only skilful and clever Korean film-making can make it.

The incidents of “Silmido” are very particular to Korean history, so much so that I don’t expect Koreans born after the period of military rule (which ended more or less about the late 1980s or early 1990s) to know those events, but the film’s themes of political expediency, bureaucratic indifference, the cynical exploitation of loyalty, camaraderie and patriotism, a government’s inability to consider the consequences of creating a killing machine with only one short-term purpose in mind and the psychological effects that intense military training might have on people are surely issues that will resonate with viewers beyond Korea. Above all there is something exhilarating about men who, in training to face certain death, discover purpose and new life, and you can’t help but feel that in spite of their brutal training and psychological transformation, they experience a kind of freedom and become supermen, far beyond the confines of the society that originally produced them. Somewhere in the heavens above, Friedrich Nietzsche is smiling.

 

Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre: documentary makes case for war crime but provides no context for attack

Sigfrido Ranucci and Maurizio Torrealta, “Fallujah, the Hidden Massacre” (2005)

This 27-minute film plays like an extended news or current affairs report: it originally aired on Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana state government TV network on 8 November, 2005. It asserts that the weapons used during Operation Phantom Fury on the city of Fallujah in central Iraq in November 2004 were chemical weapons such as white phosphorus and other substances similar in nature to napalm which had been used during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.With a mix of newsreels, interviews with various parties including former US soldiers now turned activists, Iraqi civilians and Italian journalists, the film builds a case for war crimes against the people of Fallujah by US military forces.

The presentation is bare-bones straightforward with a shrill Arab music soundtrack that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the voice-over narration. Various issues that viewers will pick up include the murder of children by US forces (because children as young as 10 years of age were fighting the soldiers), the targetting and killing of journalists not embedded with US and Coalition forces, US marines shooting and killing wounded people and the deliberate neglect in reporting civilian casualties as a result of the pounding of the city. The film gradually homes in on reports of people suffering unusual injuries and of bodies of people and animals who suffer no outward injuries but have horrific internal wounds. Film footage of corpses with faces simply scorched and blackened or melted away appears and it seems that weapons that produce intense heat and burning have been used against them.

A major part of the film includes interviews with Jeff Engleheart and Garret Reppenhagen who say that the use of white phosphorus, which penetrates through layers of clothing and other protection to burn skin and which, if inhaled, will burn lungs and other internal organs, on Fallujah residents was intentional. However these activists and others who appear in the film did not participate in the Fallujah attacks. Other interviewees include two Italian women journalists who claim that US forces tried to prevent them from revealing what happened in Fallujah and British ex-Labour Party member Alice Mahon who criticised the UK government under Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the Iraq war.

Where the film suffers is in providing a historical context as to why the United States should have pounded Fallujah in the ferocious way it did. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of information available at the time: the unhappy relationship between Fallujah and the US that led to the attacks in August and November 2004 on two separate occasions can be traced back to an incident in April 2003 in which city residents protested outside a school that had been taken over by US forces, demanding that the school be handed back to them so children could attend lessons. Soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing several and wounding many others. After a second protest during which US troops again fired on civilians, the city’s mood was sour and hostile. Into this situation in March 2004, a convoy guarded by four private military soldiers from Blackwater USA (later Xe Services, now Academi) arrived and was ambushed by Iraqis who lynched the four soldiers and mutilated their bodies. According to Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, there is evidence that the four soldiers were set up by Blackwater USA as one of them had criticised his supervisor; normally a convoy such as theirs travelling into a hostile city must have eight soldiers guarding it, four in front and four at the back. The lynchings made worldwide headlines and prompted the US armed forces to launch an attack on Fallujah in August 2004 and the second attack in November 2004 (source: Wikipedia, various articles).

Since the attacks in 2004, doctors in Fallujah have reported that rates of cancer, leukaemia and birth defects in newborn babies have risen greatly and city officials have apparently advised female Fallujah residents not to have children. The sex ratios of newborn babies since 2004 have also become very skewed: normally in most places each year the number of boy babies born slightly exceeds the number of girls babies born (usually about 103 – 106 boys for every 100 girls) but in Fallujah, the post-2004 ratios had fallen to about 85 – 86 boys for every 100 girls. There are reports that the birth defects observed are consistent with exposure to depleted uranium (DU) radiation. As far as I know, only one scientific study on this subject has been carried out and back-up studies are needed to verify the results but it’s likely that any future studies will be affected by harassment from US-led forces.

If it can be proved that white phosphorus and/or other dangerous chemicals have been used on Fallujah and that the ongoing sufferings of the Fallujah residents can be attributed to the use of these weapons and DU ordnance, the US government and military at the time must be held responsible for war crimes and crimes against peace. In November 2011, a war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, found former US and UK leaders George W Bush and Tony Blair respectively guilty of crimes against peace against the Iraqi people; the tribunal judges intend to add Bush and Blair’s names to a war crimes register and pass on their findings to the signatory nations of the Rome Statute which established the International Court of Crimes (source: Wake Up World, www.wakeup-world.com).

 

 

 

Starship Troopers: a hilarious send-up of US-style fascism and conduct of war

Paul Verhoeven, “Starship Troopers” (1997)

Loosely adapted from the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, this film can be read as a caricature on several fronts: a send-up of the American cultural obsession with war on whatever US politicians declare war on; a satire on emergent US-styled fascism with its fetish for military technology, media sound-bites, slogans and appeals to patriotism; and a laugh at Hollywood action and war genre movies, Hollywood movie conventions and Hollywood’s own love affair with the military. Cunningly disguised as a brain-dead B-grade sci-fi “Alien” rip-off with a squeaky-clean cast of wooden though handsome actors, heavy slapstick symbolism and a meandering stitched-together plot that wanders through scenes of excessive gore, “Starship Troopers” cleverly combines action, romance and even high school hi-jinx through the eyes of its two main characters Johnny Rico (Caspar van Dien) and Carmen (Denise Richards) as they sally through their cartoon adventures in space and on an alien planet in service to the Federation, dedicating their lives to fighting bloodthirsty hordes of giant Arachnids and their arthropod allies.

The film divides into three parts: the first part is familiar all-American high school romance drama as Rico is torn between Carmen and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Carmen is torn between Rico and Balcarow (Patrick Muldoon), and Rico is in friendly competition with Carl (Neil Patrick Harris); the second part sees Rico in boot camp training under various sociopathic instructors (Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside knowingly playing their parts straight-faced for laughs) to enter an elite mobile infantry unit while Carmen and Balcarow undertake pilot training and become close; and the third part throws our old high school crowd into the thick of fighting against the Arachnid armies, scathingly referred to as “bugs”. Interspersed into the film at intervals are propaganda shorts and news reels shaped as advertisements appealing for more youth to join the Federation armies and fight the “bugs”. Constant repetition of slogans like “I’m doing my part!” and “Would you like to know more?” – in a context where people don’t have a choice to say “No, I DON’T want to know more!” – cleverly and subtly inveigles both characters and viewers into supporting an ongoing war conducted by a future society that cynically throws hundreds of thousands of young people into a war like so many disposable cheap robots with inadequate gunpower. At one point in the film, a character breaks the fourth wall (that is, knowingly faces viewers) while hyping up soldiers to charge forth into battle against the bugs.

Many serious issues are addressed in the film in a light-hearted way: the preparation of young people through contact sports like football for military life; the glorification of violence through televised executions and the deliberate gore pornography; a culture brainwashing its young people to choose a military career and forcing them to die if they wish to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship; the incredulity of armchair experts and commentators that the bugs might have feelings and emotions and deserve to be treated with respect; and the government’s exploitation of fear, both human and bug, for military purposes and to control citizens and civilians (those who eschew the military life and so can’t be citizens but must be treated as hoi polloi consumers) alike. The futility of war and the cynicism of a society that uses war to control people are expressed in scenes in which soldiers are thrown straight into action after a few months of brutal boot-camp training armed with rifles that waste kah-zillions of bullets to no effect against the bugs even though better weapons like shoulder-held nuclear-powered rocket-launchers are available. After all, if you really want to get rid of the bugs rather than waste the humans which I suspect is the fascist society’s way of coping with over-population on Earth, why not just use a fleet of combat fighter jets to spray entire valleys and cave systems with chemicals that ignite on contact with living things and fry-y-y everything? It’s not as if the Federation cares about the bug planet’s environment and ecosystems.

The film itself is made in a style reminiscent of classic Hollywood action or drama films with lovingly filmed open spaces and swelling heroic orchestral music. The main characters are young, beautiful and buff with square jaws and clear eyes, and they’re clean-cut all-American Aryans though they play characters from Buenos Aires in Argentina (where Adolf Hitler is rumoured to have found sanctuary after WW2 instead of committing suicide): obviously this is a future BA that’s long succumbed to the seductions of whatever passes for future American or British culture – any differences between two sets of lowest common cultural denominators being hardly moot – and the English language. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Carlos Gardel are spinning in their graves. Hollywood conventions are sent up in hilarious fashion: the film lovingly feasts viewers’ eyes on scenes of gore and gratuitous bloodshed but coyly blacks out scenes that might suggest sexual intercourse. The film apparently borrows many elements from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda documentary “Triumph of the Will”, a film I have yet to see in full. The grey uniforms and black leather coats worn in “Starship Troopers” look as though they were borrowed straight from a war museum housing Nazi German memorabilia. Special effects and scenes of space flight are often astonishingly well-done and even beautiful for a purported B-grade sci-fi flick; there are also of course schlocky scenes in which soldiers revel in pounding the bugs and getting sprayed with lime-green or day-glo orange bug blood as though they were merely playing paintball.

The film does drag during the long third section of the movie set on the bug planet as the plot bounces from one comedy skit to another. Viewers are cleverly set up for the climactic moment when the bugs obtain information about humans by drinking someone’s brain through a proboscis straw – at least some characters here know their manners! A refreshing change from most schmaltzy endings typical of Hollywood films is that once the dust has settled and the humans begin the job of obtaining information from a captured smart bug through torture, Rico and Carmen grimly continue their chosen vocations rather than sink into each other’s arms and this conclusion in itself is a comment on how fascist societies that constantly mine fear, suspicion and war to control people end up dehumanising them.

Surprisingly the film has become more relevant since the plane attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, with the bugs standing in for Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans. As long as the United States and its allies rampage all over the planet trying to kill more “bugs”, leaving destruction, pollution and DU radiation in their wake, we will need more eye candy satire like “Starship Troopers”.

 

WikiSecrets: questionable motives and agenda in documentary that smears whistle-blower

Marcela Gaviria, “WikiSecrets” (2011)

Took in this documentary on SBS1 last night on the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier arrested in May 2010 f0r allegedly passing confidential US national defence information to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The documentary mixes interviews with various talking heads including Wikileaks main man Julian Assange, close associates of Manning himself and the odd interviewee or two who probably are more deserving of time in the slammer than Manning.  Manning himself is not interviewed. The documentary covers the soldier’s background in a general way before detailing his involvement in the US army as an intelligence analyst and how he was able to download masses of classified information and US diplomatic cables and pass them onto to others. Correspondent Martin Smith acts as narrator as well as interviewer and together with voice-over and interviews puts together a story in which a troubled young man, at odds with his society and in particular his employer, gets some kind of revenge on the bullies who have tormented him over the years by leaking secrets that will embarrass them and the government that condones what they have done to him even if it means risking his country’s security.

Lasting an hour, the documentary has an earnest style and is put together simply with some live-action recreations of what Manning might have done mixed in with interviews and some film clips. This simple style gives the documentary an air of sincerity and objectivity that disguise its aims. Issues such as the importance of national security over transparency, accountability and the public interest are presented simplistically in a way that suggests American people’s interests and the need for openness in a democracy are subordinate priorities to the needs of the US government, whatever they are (which the documentary won’t tell us, obviously). The overall view is that Manning has done wrong and should be prosecuted for jeopardising US national interests. But as Assange himself more or less says to Smith, the best way to protect secrets is not to have them in the first place. What he also could have thrown at Smith (who seems antagonistic towards Assange compared to his gentle treatment of other interviewees) is that if the US government needs to keep secrets, then what for? If the secrets are to protect the public, shouldn’t the public know what they’re being protected against?

The documentary suggests that Manning’s homosexuality played a large part in his alienation from the US military and its culture, in particular its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which prevents gay men and women from being open about their sexuality. This “blame the victim” stand conveniently lets the hierarchy within the US military and the US Department of Defense off the hook for not changing the culture of the armed forces to be more inclusive and accepting of people who are otherwise capable of carrying out military duties. Manning is portrayed as a loose cannon at war with inner demons which he may have had but this skewed opinion does not necessarily have any bearing on why he decided to download particular data in vast quantities and feed information to Wikileaks. Most likely in his work he saw evidence of illegal activity and other acts that compromise democracy and freedoms as set out in the US Bill of Rights and that his sense of right and wrong led him to act as he did. Usually when people are bullied or discriminated against in ways Manning might have been, and counselling has had limited success, they turn to drink, drugs or suicide; in some very rare cases, they may carry out acts of sabotage or violence against the people who have bullied them.

Manning’s present incarceration and abuse are treated cursorily in the film; Smith doesn’t mention the name of Manning’s lawyer let alone speak to him. The documentary fails to say that during his time in solitary confinement, Manning was humiliated by being forced to appear naked during inspections, was often deprived of sleep or had his prescription glasses taken away from him

There is no mention in the documentary of what Manning might have seen, heard or experienced in Iraq that led him to do what he did. Apparently to Gaviria and Smith it’s as if the sufferings of Iraqi civilians and the hardships of US and other soldiers and their families count for very little against the embarrassment Manning might have caused his government. There is no mention of people who might have died because of Manning’s actions. The film even fails to make much of a case against Assange for not redacting the names of informants and others on US diplomatic cases and other classified documents. People may have died as a result of Assange’s decision but no names are brought to his (and our) attention.

Ultimately viewers are no closer to knowing what Manning actually did that was wrong other than to follow his conscience. Manning may have committed a crime or crimes but the documentary doesn’t reveal what they are. Viewers learn very little about Wikileaks itself and what it actually does; most of what the documentary reveals about the organisation is petty differences between Assange and his deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg who left Wikileaks to set up OpenLeaks. Assange’s responses to Smith’s questioning are brief compared to some other interviewees’ responses which suggest some creative editing has been used to make the Wikileaks founder look bad.

What also makes “WikiSecrets” look bad is its failure to compare Manning’s actions with that of the person who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the Wall Street Journal as a way of punishing her husband Joseph Wilson for reporting that Niger was not exporting uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. Manning’s “crimes” start to look more like the whistle-blower actions they are. The person who leaked Plame’s identity is guilty of a crime for the same reason “WikiSecrets” attempts to paint Assange in a bad way over his initial refusal to redact the names of informants: Plame’s exposure potentially put the lives and careers of diplomats, businesspeople, workers and others plus their families, not just informants, at risk. One has to question the motives and agenda behind the making of “WikiSecrets” in this light.